Thanks to the efforts of great minds like Taiichi Ohno, Toyota is really the company that first explored the concept of kaizen and utilized kanban, a word that literally means â€œvisual card,â€ and (at Toyota) signifies visually mapping out a lean production system.
Literally speaking, kanban is a board with interchangeable cards or sticky notes that each represents a single task. Kanban allows stakeholders in every part of the process to visualize their workflow, and as production moves forward, tasks can be moved or adjusted. It optimizes the process by measuring what is referred to as “cycle time” on tasks, while measuring and imposing limits on each phase of production as the work moves forward. Kanban also eliminates inefficiency by managing the expectations and time commitments that are in flux at any given stage of the workflow.
Kanban is an enormously useful tool because it is a visual display of the big picture, indicating at a glance the WIP (work in progress) with a beginning, middle, and end of production, as well as the adjustments that will inevitably be needed along the way. I view implementing kanban ”be it a board with sticky notes or a virtual project management appâ€”as a vital tool because it identifies need and streamlines the flow forward, minimizing impact on the time and effort needed to get the work done.
With kanban, people can focus on not only the quantity of work they are producing each day, but also the quality. This simple big-picture tool sharpens the emphasis on doing things well, doing things efficiently. As part of that effort, you have to build in a certain amount of slack time, and kanban lets you see at a glimpse where that time is most attainableâ€”perhaps the first 30 minutes of each day or for a few hours on Fridays. You don’t want to have a business where everyone is every single minute on a project or task that is due, because then people won’t have time to focus on improving their systems. Building in down time is just as necessary as meeting daily, weekly, and quarterly goals and deadlines.
Kanban is key to kaizen: Once you reach that state where people know instinctively what they’re supposed to be doing, then you get to the stage where people are focusing on continuously improving their own functionality as well as the system overall. Even if everyone doesn’t buy inâ€”let’s say for the sake of argument that only two people doâ€”that might be enough. With kanban, some people will step up and some won’t, and those who do step up will make a huge difference. Those who don’t will cycle out naturally. Inefficiencies are simply exposed by kanban, affording workers the opportunity to either self-correct or leave and find a better fit elsewhere. When you create an environment where these things become possible, where change occurs naturally and is not forced or manipulated, it’s like planting a seed in fertile soil. When you do that, and the right conditions coincideâ€”plenty of rain, sunshine and shadeâ€”growth occurs as it should, on its own.