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What is Kanban?

Processes, Workflow and Inventory are automatically managed as part of the standard procedures. This is best done by the people who produce the goods, purchase the goods and use the goods.

Table of Contents

Kanban Manages Workflow and Inventory

I explain by example. We have a market garden.

All of the seeds are stored in a cabinet drawers in pouches. Between the eighth and ninth pouch of Grosse Lisse tomato seed is a brightly coloured laminated re-order card.

When the leading hand arrives to collect his seed to pot tomatoes in the glasshouse, he takes the ninth and eighth pouch. He notices the laminated re-order card is exposed, so places it in the labelled re-order tray on the table beside the seed cabinet.

Keri the orders person, starts her day with a clean of her desk and immediate environment, then goes around the re-order trays gathering cards. These cards define her main task. The card tells her what to order, the number to be ordered, who from and where the stock is stored (cabinet, shelf and tray number).

As she places the orders Keri writes the date of expected delivery on the laminated card using a sharpie pen and delivers the cards to Pete the receiving person. She places each card on a calendar board in the date of expected delivery.

When the order is delivered, Pete places the new stock in the seed cabinet location nominated and places the card between the eighth and ninth pouch as per the number sticker above that tray (in this case eight). If a card is still in yesterday’s slot on the calendar board, Pete contacts the supplier that morning – hi, I have a missing order, can you give me an ETA please? Should the order be a problem, Pete returns the card to Keri explaining the situation with a note written on the back of the card.

Wherever the card is, is the action and responsibility.

If the business is larger and more complicated, a roving person (often called a “water-spider” from the old railway gangs or a “gopher”) collects and delivers cards and moves stock as directed by the cards.

Over the season the demand for tomatoes will change. To handle this a Beds Board shows the quantity sold for each week of the past 3 years along with the DTM (Days To Maturity) for that planting (this also changes as the season progresses as shown on a chart near the beds board).

The board provides a guide for how much seed is to be planted, when and where. The stock reserve number may change from eight to say 20 to cover high season demand. In this case a new Re-Order card is printed and the reserve number above the tray is changed. This is a water-spider duty.

Two magnetic buttons are placed on the Beds Board to show that the batch of tomatoes (where, when and how many) was planted and when they are expected to be harvested, and moved to show the status (re-potting then transplanting).

The harvesting team is guided by a Customers Board showing orders for this week and how many need to be harvested, packaged and delivered to whom. A glance at the Beds Board tells you that there are tomatoes ready and where.

Done properly, anyone can clearly see information for their role and indeed the whole operation – both upstream and downstream.

The other advantage is that it is easy to swap duties for people who know the meaning of the cards. The SOP documentation displays how to do each task, this is displayed at or near each workstation along with the tools for the task.

In a small manufacturer there are 4 people whose role covers some 10 workstations, each assembling a different product. When a batch order is delivered to the workstation, it is placed in a clip which activates a light visible over the shop floor.

Upon completing their current task, one of the 4 will see the light then move to the illuminated workstation, and process the batch. Removing the order from the clip extinguishes the light so the other 3 do not need to prowl looking for work. When the batch is complete, the order card is placed in a nearby tray to direct further action.

The staff are directed by the card and board system via SOP not a manager – much more efficient. Anyone who can read the SOP can perform the relevant task allowing the manager freedom to perform higher duties.

The History of Kanban

After WWII, Toyota was in dire straits. Japan’s demand for luxury items like cars was greatly reduced and their efficiency less than 10% of their US competitors.

This led to a streamlining of efficiency to using the now famous Just In Time systems. Taiichi Ōno started working for Toyota at this time and boosted the efficiency of his machine section over that of the other sections. Management took notice and spread his systems throughout the company under his direction.

The Kanban system attracted the attention of software developers as a scheduling tool for development and research. The board component came from the need for a summary of the development components yet to be done, underway, blocked awaiting another component, and completed.

This expansion was noticed and the technique adopted by manufacturing as an improvement.

Lean methods predate Kanban and are also widespread. Kanban has been included in the Lean system resulting in tuning of many associated disciplines.


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