We explain what the Kanban method is, how it works and what its benefits are. In addition, we tell you about its origin and its history.
With the Kanban method, inventory is replenished as it is used.
What is Kanban?
Kanban is the Japanese name (written 看板) for an information system that operates based on cards that harmoniously identify and control the production processes of an organization. It is considered a subsystem of the Just in time method (“Just in time”), also known as the “Toyota method”, which consists of the arrival of inputs and manufactured products at the time and in the quantities in which they are needed, no need to be stored.
The Kanban method operates in a similar way: the product or inputs are accompanied by an identification card that, once the products are used or consumed, is sent to the producer as a purchase order, in order to stimulate inventory replenishment. In this way, a continuous flow is produced that reduces the need for storage and makes production directly dependent on demand, which prevents excess production.
This same principle, generally applied to factories, is used for the management of intellectual work, in what is known as Kanban boards or Kanban Boards. The latter operate on the basis of making visible the pending, in-process and completed work, using identification cards for each work or task, and arranging them on a board that has three columns, each one for the respective pending status (to do), in process. (doing or work) or finished (done).
This method is used in software development, business operational management and many other work areas, always under the slogan of not overloading workers and generating a stable flow of work.
See also: Business management
Origin and history of the Kanban
Toyota implemented the Kanban method, which was replicated by its American competitors.
The Japanese word kanban means “visual sign” or “card”, and it was a production management model that emerged in Toyota factories around 1940, as an evolution of the Just in time method that already governed the company.
The idea behind its creation was to establish a transparent and efficient work model that would allow those involved to know at all times which processes were ready and which were not. Toyota’s Japanese industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno is credited with creating this method, a method that was later replicated by his American competitors.
However, the first to apply this oriental method to information technology and software development was the American David J. Anderson, around 2004, who took as an example the experiences of other businessmen such as Eliyahu Goldratt, Edward Deming and Peter Drucker. In this way, he managed to improve the flow of his company’s productivity to such an extent that he later dedicated himself to promoting the Kanban method through books such as Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change of 2010.
How does the Kanban method work?
The central idea of the Kanban method is to generate a transparent and uninterrupted flow of production, for which it uses an evolutionary and non-disruptive perspective of work. For this it is possible to use physical boards (such as acrylic boards) or specialized Kanban software tools.
The idea is to easily visualize the times and flows of the different processes and thus be able to make decisions that maximize their efficiency or reduce “bottlenecks”, just as the Toyota company did in the middle of the 20th century, eliminating the need for Store raw materials and finished goods.
In short, the Kanban system proposes that a certain task be identified with an adhesive card (a post it, for example), which must move through the different stages of its process to accompany it and make it visible. This displacement occurs in the hands of the team that carries it out, so that the board becomes a meeting and dialogue point between the work teams, and from these meetings the options for improving the system arise.
For the method to be successful, however, attention must be paid to its four main principles, which are detailed below.
The principles of kanban
- It always starts with what is already done. In other words, we should start with what we are already doing, not try to start from scratch to organize the process. Kanban works on procedures that are already underway, since it operates based on its evolution and its immediate future development.
- Changes are proposed in a gradual and evolutionary way. Radical changes may be attractive, but they come with higher failure rates. The Kanban proposes the identification and undertaking of small but significant changes, carried out continuously: the idea is to gradually lead the system towards a new standard.
- Current roles, processes and charges are respected. Changes always bring resistance, and the best way to apply them is by preserving the current hierarchy and structure, to move gradually towards improving the system, and not towards its violent revolution.
- Leadership is exercised at all levels. The Kanban method does not delegate leadership to management or operate vertically, but requires the consensus of those involved, who must undertake and sustain the changes with conviction. Otherwise, the old practices will be maintained by inertia or opposition.
The visual approach of the Kanban methodology allows for easier task tracking.
The key benefits of the Kanban method can be summarized as:
- Allows for greater organization and collaboration. The visual approach of the Kanban methodology allows a simpler, faster and more pragmatic monitoring of tasks, which translates into greater possibilities for collaboration between different teams and more flexible mental structures.
- Promotes performance and transparency. The flexibility and pragmatism of the Kanban method places performance and transparency first, that is, it gives priority to efficiency and communication, two key traits in the success of any type of organization. By allowing the progress of the processes to be observed openly, dialogue is encouraged and space is opened for small changes.
- It allows a better distribution of work. The visibility and aesthetic simplicity of the Kanban model implies a lower investment of time and effort in work presentation models, implementing a simple and direct scheme that reduces waiting time and facilitates the reallocation of resources.
The six core practices of Kanban
As proposed by David J. Anderson and his followers, the Kanban method can be implemented correctly if six fundamental tasks, called “practices” are taken into consideration:
- Visualize the workflow. To understand the needs of the workflow, it is vital to acquire a general perspective of how it takes place, and for this a correct visualization of the process is required, that is, a good representation of the different dynamics involved. For this, it is key to have as many columns on the board as there are stages, for example, so that the cards or labels take their place according to their current stages.
- Limit Work-in-Progress. The Kanban system is a pull-type system (“pull” in English), which requires the completion of pending work before being able to assume new stages or needs. In other words, workers should be encouraged to complete their tasks in order to move forward and take on new ones, avoiding at all costs the accumulation of jobs “in process”.
- Direct and manage the flow. This is the heart of the Kanban method: control of the workflow, to highlight its key stages, and to discover and solve the funnels or “bottlenecks”. To do this, it is convenient to identify and eliminate intermediate waiting stages, reduce transfer time and make the workflow a smooth, predictable, harmonious process. In this way, the completion times of each task can be predicted with certainty.
- Explicit the use policies. The use policies are the rules of the work process, which must be fully and commonly understood by all those involved. Some clear, explicit and simply formulated rules of the game are a great ally to solve problems, which promotes the autonomy and independence of the worker. These “rules” can be thought of as an algorithm to follow, an observation protocol, or simply the patterns to know and recognize when a task is done and therefore must move on to the next column.
- Use feedback loops. A feedback loop is an analysis mechanism in which the response of a process offers information regarding how the process itself took place and thus contributes to decision making that leads to its own improvement. In other words, it is a feedback between product and process, in which the first provides valuable information on how the second takes place. The metrics, the reports, the continuous evaluation of the workflow is key to making the right decisions.
- Evolve collaboratively and experimentally. Since Kanban is an evolutionary improvement process, its results occur in the medium or long term, and take place to the extent that the community gets involved with the small changes that improve performance. Each change is measured, evaluated and thought through scientifically, something that is not difficult once you have a clearly illustrated process diagram, and thus you can move towards the global and continuous improvement of the organization.
Differences between Kanban and Scrum
Both Kanban and Scrum are project organization methodologies that emphasize continuous movement and focus on small, simple, one-off tasks. Both have an Agile and Learn approach, but they approach their processes in very different ways from each other.
Thus, while Kanban emphasizes workflow visualization and continuous flow, Scrum proposes the implementation of timelines for each assignment and delivery cycle (sprints) that generally range from one to four weeks. Kanban is a stable model, which is committed to predictability and experimental change; Scrum, on the other hand, is a highly adaptive and structured model, although with fixed roles defined.
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