Kanban is a lean manufacturing framework first developed by Toyota in the late 1940s. The Kanban framework is a means of visualizing work as it moves through identifying potential bottlenecks. It does that through a process called just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing to optimize engineering processes, speed up manufacturing products, and improve the go-to-market strategy.
Understanding the Kanban framework
Like many lean manufacturing processes, the kanban framework was first developed by Toyota in the late 1940s.
Through a process called just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, Toyota began to optimize its engineering processes based on a model supermarkets were using to control inventory levels. Using this model, supermarkets stock just enough product to meet consumer demand. As inventory levels respond to consumption patterns, the supermarket avoids holding excess stock and the inefficiencies that result.
Removing these process inefficiencies – or project bottlenecks – is central to the kanban framework. To identify these bottlenecks and increase transparency and collaboration, the entire project is illustrated on a kanban board.
Kanban boards visually depict:
- Tasks that are completed
- Tasks that are currently being performed.
- Future tasks.
This simple approach to defining projects means that external stakeholders or new team members can quickly get up to speed. Many businesses utilize physical kanban boards while those in software development use virtual boards. This facilities better collaboration and increases accessibility from multiple locations.
Four core principles of the kanban framework
Kanban principles are based on:
- An emphasis on small and gradual changes to the existing workflow.
- Limiting existing tasks. Here, the team must not take on too much work such that the project is negatively affected.
- Respect for existing roles and responsibilities. The kanban framework improves efficiency in established systems. It does not require that businesses change their operations or culture.
- Leadership. Traditional project management practices stipulate that a project manager must sign off on every task, no matter how menial. However, the kanban framework affords whoever is working on a task the freedom to make their own decisions. This creates a culture of iterative improvement and creates the next generation of leaders.
Implementing the Kanban framework
To apply kanban principles to almost any scenario, kanban management consultant David J. Anderson identified six core practices:
- Visualize the workflow. This begins by creating a kanban board with columns for the three types of tasks mentioned in the introduction. For each type, kanban cards representing specific work items should be assigned. Cards should be moved from column to column as work on them progresses.
- Limit tasks that are currently being performed by setting constraints. This helps avoid multitasking and subsequent process inefficiencies.
- Manage flow, or the movement of work items through each step of the process. Many businesses make the mistake of micro-managing staff to keep them constantly busy. But the kanban framework simply focuses on moving the work through the process as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- Make management policies explicit. Members of the project team must understand what they are trying to achieve.
- Collect feedback. Kanban boards should have a column assigned for daily feedback – whether that be from staff or customers. This creates agile feedback loops that encourage knowledge transfer between key stakeholders.
- Collaborative improvement. With a deeper understanding of the project and potential bottlenecks, organizations using the kanban framework have a collective understanding of problems that need addressing. Working toward the same goal, they also share a collective vision of future success.
- The kanban framework is an illustrative approach to project or product development with a focus on removing bottlenecks.
- The kanban framework analyses project tasks according to whether they are completed, currently being performed, or assigned to a future date. This enables project team members to visualize the workflow and minimize multitasking to prevent bottlenecks.
- The kanban framework is suitable for most industries and does not require that a business change its culture or management practices. The framework also empowers those carrying out the tasks to make important strategic decisions.