What is Kanban?

Kanban is Japanese for “visual signal” or “card.” Toyota line-workers used a kanban (i.e., an actual card) to signal steps in their manufacturing process. The system’s highly visual nature allowed teams to communicate more easily on what work needed to be done and when. It also standardized cues and refined processes, which helped to reduce waste and maximize value.  The type and quantity of units are written on a tag-like card and sent from workers of one process to workers of the preceding process.  When all parts in a lot have been used, the card becomes the mechanism for reorder.  The Kanban system manages the just-in-time (JIT) production method.

How Kanban Works

1. Visualize Work

By creating a visual model of your work and workflow, you can observe the flow of work moving through your Kanban system. Making the work visible—along with blockers, bottlenecks and queues—instantly leads to increased communication and collaboration.

2. Limit Work in Process

By limiting how much unfinished work is in process, you can reduce the time it takes an item to travel through the Kanban system. You can also avoid problems caused by task switching and reduce the need to constantly reprioritize items.

3. Focus on Flow

By using work-in-process (WIP) limits and developing team-driven policies, you can optimize your Kanban system to improve the smooth flow of work, collect metrics to analyze flow, and even get leading indicators of future problems by analyzing the flow of work.

4. Continuous Improvement

Once your Kanban system is in place, it becomes the cornerstone for a culture of continuous improvement. Teams measure their effectiveness by tracking flow, quality, throughput, lead times and more. Experiments and analysis can change the system to improve the team’s effectiveness.