What is Kanban?

Zahi Darwazeh


Kanban is a concept to manage workflow in a system and improve its efficiency. The name ‘Kanban’ is meant ‘signboard’ in Japanese.

The concept of Kanban was first introduced by Toyota in Japan to achieve Just-In-Time (JIT) manufacturing. Under JIT, a company aims at keeping inventory at a minimal level. This is done by producing only that many goods which are required to meet the present demand. Kanban helps in achieving this by giving a clear idea of all the processes in a workflow. This is done through visual signs, also known as Kanban cards. Based on this, the quantity and timeline of production are decided, so that inventory matches demand.

After the success of Kanban in the automotive industry, it is now used in various other industries. These include Information Technology, software development, R&D, and others.


The Kanban system

A Kanban system can be built by setting up a ‘Kanban board’ with three basic columns – “To do”, “Doing” and “Done”. This provides updates on the entire workflow used to deliver a final goal (product or service). It highlights the bottlenecks within the processes and helps in improvement in the same.


How does the Kanban system work?

Kanban is based on the following four fundamental principles:

  1. Start with the existing processes: Kanban is applied to existing processes to improve them. Thus, it does not include the implementation of an entirely new process. Start with the processes which are followed presently. Doing this will highlight the issues which need to be addressed.
  2. Make small incremental changes: Kanban is based on the idea of gradual change. Once the issues of existing processes are highlighted, make small, required changes. Avoid making any big change at any one time. Such a change could lead to resistance from employees due to fear of uncertainty.
  3. Respect the current process, roles & responsibilities: Kanban preserves the existing processes and roles by recognizing their values. It uses existing methods while making small incremental changes.
  4. Encourage act of leadership: Kanban promotes continuous improvement in activities. This is aimed to achieve maximum output. It teaches to encourage leadership at all levels in the organization.

We have understood the foundational principles of Kanban. Now let us see the core practices for the application of Kanban:

  1. Visualize the workflow: This is the first step while implementing Kanban. Here, the processes required to deliver the final product or service are visualized. This can be done either on a physical board or an electronic board. Thereafter work done under these processes is visualized through signs or cards. These cards could be of different colors and sizes to denote different work items.
  2. Limit work-in-progress: Kanban focuses on finishing the ongoing work first, before taking up new work. This indicates available capacity in the system so that new work can be started only when feasible. It also helps in identifying problem areas at any stage before new work is started. Also, the number of active items in progress at any one time remains manageable. All this helps in faster delivery.
  3. Focus on flow: Implementation of the first two steps gives an idea of various stages of a workflow, work under each stage, and limits of work in progress. Based on this, one gets an idea of the bottlenecks in the processes which can be addressed. This improves the workflow and reduces the delivery time of the final product.
  4. Define the process policies clearly: Explain all the process guidelines to employees clearly. An example of this could be a checklist needed to complete a work. This will help in a common understanding among all employees on how to do a particular work.
  5. Feedback loops: Take continuous feedbacks at various stages of the workflow. This results in a quick correction in case of any mistake at any stage. Based on feedbacks, loopholes could be addressed and processes could be improved.
  6. Collaborative improvement (using a scientific method): Kanban is a continuous improvement process. Use scientific methods to continuously evaluate all processes together with the team. Based on this evaluation, make small changes that can be easily adopted by team members.


Why you should implement Kanban

Kanban involves visualization of all the steps in a workflow, through signs or boards. Visual representation improves understanding of the workflow in a lesser amount of time. It also highlights the problem areas and defines upper limits for work-in-process. All these results in continuous improvements in processes and delivery of final products or services.