Hi, welcome to this lesson where we will look at the basics of Kanban.

What content is covered in the lesson?

We’ll talk about in the next few minutes:

  • the definition of another technical term that is important for understanding this lesson,
  • the history of its origin,
  • the basic idea of Taiichi Ohno,
  • the goals of Kanban,
  • the Kanban Board,
  • cross-team collaboration,
  • the Pull Principle,
  • the spread of Kanban,
  • and thus the areas of application,
  • requirements for using the method,
  • rules to make it all work,
  • the motivation this triggers among employees,
  • and important insights when integrated into planning organizations.

Beforehand, again the definition of a technical term in this lesson:

What is Just-in-Time?

Just-in-Time, or also often abbreviated as JIT, describes the reduction or even liquidation of inventories. Instead, depending on the scaling, required goods or services are only held in stock to a limited extent, delivered at a higher frequency with lower quantities, or even delivered directly when needed.

Now to the topic – Kanban:

Since when does Kanban exist?

The agile project method Kanban has been developed, as already mentioned in one of the previous lessons, starting in 1947 at Toyota to make collaboration in manufacturing more efficient.

What was Taiichi Ohno’s idea for Kanban?

The basic idea of Taiichi Ohno was:

“Surely it should be possible to organize the flow of materials in production according to the supermarket principle, that is, a consumer takes a product of a certain specification and quantity from the shelf; the gap is noticed and replenished.”

What is the goal of Kanban?

The primary goal of the method today is to limit the number of parallel operations, thus achieving shorter throughput times. Problems within the project organization, such as bottlenecks, are thus made visible. Originally, Kanban was even only used to optimize material control in order to eliminate material overcapacities in the manufacturing process and to reduce material bottlenecks in the manufacturing process – but it was subsequently extended to the entire manufacturing and project organization.

Other goals were and are:

  • the reduction of inventories
  • this is accompanied by a reduction in the amount of capital tied up
  • the increase of flexibility for changed demand quantities
  • and at the same time not only maintain but also increase delivery readiness
  • not only to maintain reject rates, but also to reduce them
  • not only to keep rework, but to reduce it
  • to reduce the transport effort

and at the same time greatly reduce the planning effort.

Fig.: Kanban Board
What is a Kanban board?

The central working tool in Kanban is the Kanban Board, on which all pending, ongoing and completed tasks are mapped. The Kanban Board “must” be accessible to every team member and “should” be accessible to people who have an interest in the progress of the work and the project.

In this example, for better clarity, we see a very trimmed down Kanban Board with only a few tasks grouped per customer requirement.

What are Swimlanes?

A Kanban Board contains columns (called swim lanes) that describe phases in the project progress for the selected team. In the swim lane, task cards are arranged here one below the other, which contain at least the task description, the target date and the persons in charge of the task for a better overview. These cards are then carried through the defined project progress to the finish – but can also be moved back to the start (left) or moved to a cancel status (far right). This makes it possible to see at a glance if too many tasks have accumulated in a project phase and can therefore no longer be processed quickly towards the goal due to limited resources (e.g. required specialist personnel). These bottlenecks are particularly noticeable when the grouping function in the Kanban Board is deactivated.

Can tasks be transferred from one Kanban board to another Kanban board?

A Kanban Board does not necessarily have to cover the complete material or work flow. A swim lane can also map the handoff to another team. As long as a task is in this swim lane, the task is carried in the other team on their Kanban Board through their project phases. If the task is completed there in the “Done” swim lane, then the card is automatically displayed in the return swim lane for further processing. In this way, cross-team and cross-departmental collaboration can be mapped easily and efficiently.

Higher-level roles that only want to have an insight into the overall process can create their own board with self-defined overall project phases and collectively map the tasks of the subordinate boards there. For this purpose, several swim lanes from one or more project teams are combined into one swim lane. The manager always has a good overview of which teams are busy and how busy they are, where bottlenecks occur in the team and between teams, and which selected tasks are currently being processed or have already been completed.

Fig.: Push vs. Pull Principle
What is a pull principle?

Kanban works according to the pull principle, where project team members pick up a task and then carry it independently through the project phases until the end of their own area of responsibility. In contrast to the waterfall model or central production control, the project or production is no longer planned completely in advance, but requirements are determined in the process itself and satisfied by spontaneous and flexible control. It is this flexibility that makes it possible to react to fluctuations and new requirements in the process and thus accelerate the project and production flow. And because time = money, there is also a cost advantage associated with it. In the 1970s, companies in the USA and also Germany then adopted Toyota’s method. Basically, Kanban is the forerunner of just-in-time manufacturing, where warehousing is not only reduced and made more flexible, but completely outsourced to the supplier.

What is Kanban suitable for?

Kanban is ideally suited for the production of complex and standardized products with a large number of variants, necessary flexibility in the manufacturing process and long supplier chains. On the other hand, this method is less suitable for individual products or special orders.

What are the requirements for Kanban?

Hitoshi Takeda, Lean thought leader and creator of the synchronous production system (also called SPS) defined the following requirements for the “industrial” use of Kanban in 1990:

  1. The production program must be clocked and standardized
  2. Lot sizes must be reduced so that just-in-time processes can take effect
  3. The final production stage must be smoothed so that there are as few fluctuations as possible in the upstream stages. In general, it should be mentioned here that Kanban is controlled from the last production stage, and all upstream processes work towards this in a kind of tree structure.
  4. Logistics must be shortened and standardized, as just-in-time processes increase the logistical effort (that means higher transport frequency with lower volume, which must be optimized for this).
  5. Continuous production is designed to optimize utilization of the manufacturing infrastructure while still allowing buffers for rework and special orders. Rework is illustrated in the Kanban Board with a reset to one of the previous swim lanes, special orders are cards in the Kanban Board that are inserted in addition to the serial orders and do not necessarily have to start from the first swim lane. The buffer is achieved by not using 100% of the capacity from series production.
  6. Since the Kanban system is implemented with cards, a unique address or designation is required for each storage location. These addresses in turn describe a swim lane in the Kanban Board of a control team (e.g. in production control) and thus also a production progress.
  7. Consistent container management should protect the goods and at the same time quickly provide information about the quantity and type of goods contained (i.e.: color allocation and adapted container sizes)

For the use of Kanban in the project management and in the software development these “industrial conditions” are not applicable 1:1, give however already a reference to the fact that also with projects and in the software development expirations standardized, transparently arranged, to the organization form adapted and clearly regulated to be should.

What are the rules for Kanban?

In order for Kanban to work and reach its full potential, there are the following “rules”:

  1. The processor may only request as much material or labor as needed
  2. The processor shall not prematurely request material or work in stock
  3. The source of supply shall not produce or work in stock, but shall make the work available immediately upon completion
  4. The source of supply is responsible for a perfect quality of its work results and has to take appropriate measures to ensure the quality
  5. There is a Kanban Coordinator who ensures the optimal utilization of all production and work stages
  6. The Kanban Coordinator ensures that the lowest possible number of Kanban cards is in circulation and, optimally, that no Kanban cards exist without current processing
  7. To ensure that these rules can be followed in real operations, all Kanban team members must be trained and qualified for their roles

For the use of Kanban in the project management and in the software development these “rules” are applicable in contrast to the industrial conditions 1:1 and for the optimal use of the Kanban potential indispensable.

How does Kanban motivate?

For the motivation of employees, Kanban was also a big step forward, because in the course of flexibilization more responsibility is transferred to each individual employee. The new role in control loops and the accompanying qualification measures have raised the status of each individual employee.

Does Kanban work as an island?

A very important insight is that Kanban can only work if all upstream and accompanying processes also work according to the Kanban principle and thus in an agile manner. Only then can the impulse of flexible demand be served by equally agile supply chains. If the upstream supply chains and accompanying processes work with rigid planning, then the interruption of the flow of materials, work and information is inevitable. It is the same in Kanban projects.

What happens when Kanban is introduced as an island?

To put it bluntly: if, in extreme cases, only one team in the company works agilely with the Kanban method, but the upstream, accompanying and downstream teams do not, then this form of organization cannot be successful, but becomes the proverbial pipe burst. The strategy: “let’s start in one area” does not work. As long as even one team refuses to collaborate and does not work agilely into the Kanban boards, it will always be a disruptive factor for agile working in the overall company, slowing down adjacent and downstream teams. If Kanban, then everywhere. If agile, it’s everywhere. Interfaces between agile and planned organization lead to delivery and information blockages from the very beginning and bring any agile organization form to a standstill.

How can Kanban be practiced in a mixed environment?

The only way to keep a hybrid between teams and departments alive, more poorly than not, and still get a work product is if

  • a planning and reporting organization for agile units waives compliance with planning,
  • the Kanban boards are accepted as the only reporting tool for agile units,
  • a planning and reporting organization makes decisions immediately, without time delay and discussion about reasonableness, and provides working bases on demand – thus serving any agile requirement in a prioritized way.

And that is then more wishful thinking than achievable reality …

With this I would like to finish with the basics of Kanban. I hope that in this lesson you have understood the basic idea behind Kanban so that we can use and expand on that in the lessons after the basics.

Now let’s summarize what we have covered in this lesson:

  • we have learned a new technical term,
  • as well as where and how Kanban originated,
  • we have learned the basic idea of Taiichi Ohno,
  • we now know the goals of Kanban,
  • know how the Kanban Board looks like and how it basically works,
  • that it is also ideally suited for cross-team collaboration,
  • we have talked about the pull principle versus the push principle,
  • have looked at the spread and associated areas of application of Kanban,
  • we now know what conditions must be in place for this form of organization to work,
  • as well as the rules that ensure this functioning,
  • we have recognized the positive effect Kanban has on employee motivation,
  • but equally did not turn a blind eye to the major challenges of implementation in planning organizations, but openly cut to the chase.

In the lesson after next, we will cover Scrum, another agile method. But before that, we have another little surprise for you: The following lesson contains a short quiz in which you can check for yourself which content from this lesson has stuck with you. I wish you a lot of fun with it, see you again in the lesson after next!

*Source data: 16, 23, 24

Leave a Reply