Recognize Improvement Opportunities

Process Improvement

If your Kanban system is not leading you to improvements, a higher quality of products, business and life in general, then it should be abandoned. In words of Masaaki Imai, known as the Father of Kaizen, Kanban should lead to Everyday improvement, everybody improvement and everywhere improvement. It’s an evolutionary process that takes each iteration as a new improvement opportunity.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

When David Anderson considered what principles to integrate to IT Kanban, he looked to industry leaders and change makers throughout the years. One of those people was Eliyahu M Goldratt, known for his Theory of Constraints. Change and improvement can be daunting, but one of Kanban’s strengths is that you don’t need to change right away, you start from exactly where you are - change nothing, and simply observe. From observation, you can move on to working with the 5 Focusing Steps.

What are the Five Focusing Steps?

“5 Focusing Steps” may sound like an ancient technique taught by a Zen master to village boys to transform them from weaklings to brilliant heroes. In many ways, the 5 Focusing Steps of the Theory of Constraints can indeed do the same for your organisation!

Step 1: Identifying the constraint

It requires you to make no changes to your process, but to observe it. Walk the office or production floor and recognize the biggest constraint. If it helps, swap the word constraint for “bottleneck” - it’s at the neck of a bottle, where the flow of liquid gets slowed down dramatically.

Step 2: Exploiting the constraint

Since bottlenecks are a process’ slow down point, they don’t match the capacity of other process stages. Knowing, that the speed at which the bottleneck completes work, is the speed of the whole system’s work completion, you need to decide how to best supply the slow stage with materials. In needs to be done at a rate that doesn’t overwhelm, so as to limit errors, but at the same time, to-do items should be queued up, so that the team is never standing idly.

Step 3: Subordinating everything,

both the flow of work and the policies guiding it, so that the whole process is synchronized with the bottleneck.

Step 4: Elevating the constraint

After the workflow has been subordinated to the correctly identified constraint, it should improve. If it does not, it may mean you have adjusted the process to a wrong bottleneck - and need to try again. But if you’ve subordinated everything to the right constraint, and things didn’t really improve, then it can mean the problem is elsewhere. You may need to invest in better tools / hardware to improve flow through the constraint, or hire more people to work at the bottleneck level.

Step 5: Observing where another constraint occurs,

and monitoring the process. Typically, another bottleneck will be identified, and you’ll simply need to repeat steps 2 to 5 to resolve it. The 5 focusing steps model will make it possible to improve the throughput of the system with each iteration.

Eliminating waste

Elimination of waste, or “Muda” in Japanese, is the next model for improvement in Kanban. While Kanban works by visualizing your value stream, this model looks at current activities of the value stream and identifies those that don’t add direct value to the process. This can be a challenging activity, as in some companies, especially large ones, there are process steps that have been around for so long, that people never question their purpose.

Example Considering a production facility, where one process step is employee clocking in and clocking out. For the company, this may be crucial for tracking costs and paying employees, but the customer doesn’t really care about this aspect of work. The customer is only interested in receiving the right product on time, hence deems this activity unnecessary.

In Lean activities that bring no actual value are seen as waste, and as a leader, you need to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary waste. Identifying and reducing activities that are not directly related to producing a quality product, will bring about improvements.

Reducing variation

It’s quite possible that you think that Kanban is all about improving speed and throughput, and that it will do anything to achieve this, but you would be wrong. The next two models draw from work of W. Edwards Deming, a management consultant and American engineer in the 1950s. Deming was so successful that he was flown to Japan where local industries incorporated a lot of his thinking into their practices.

The first principle is understanding variation. While it may sound great to improve speed throughout the process flow, it needs to be done without creating too much variation. Predictability and a measured and sustained approach should be imperative over the speed of the process. Deming argued that customer trust is gained when a service is reliable and predictable. You should use statistical process control for studying variation, and act on the data it provides.

Example In a production company, typically delivering 2 big items and 4 small items a week, the floor manager should set the WIP limit in a way that forbids starting work on a 3rd big product until both the 2 large and 4 small items are finished. Reason being, were the team to keep working on large items before delivering the small ones, and an order for the small ones came, production of the 3rd big item would have to stop mid-way, which causes a new set of problems of its own, like blocked production line, half-done processes that may not have been allowed to pause for technological reasons and so on. Variation decreases productivity and impacts process predictability, both of which are hurting your business.

How to use the Deming Cycle?

Aligned with variation reducing thinking is Deming’s second model: the Plan Do Check Act cycle. It also happens to fit in perfectly with Kanban’s continuous improvement.

The Deming Cycle

Step 1: Plan

Leadership decides what needs to be done to bring about improvement, and then communicates it to the team. Deming stresses that everyone should be involved in the improvement process.

Step 2: Do

Here you execute the plan. Perfectly in line with implementing explicit policies and procedures, advised by Kanban practitioners. Take the tangible steps that were discussed while planning, and execute them as part of this stage.

Step 3: Check

Actions get evaluated and leadership decides if they’ve moved closer to their goals. It ties into Kanban’s flow managing and measuring. Data gathered here will drive the following stage.

Step 4: Act

Not to be confused with “execute”, as that is under the Do stage. Acting refers to evaluating whether the changes made were fruitful, and if not - it means they can be dropped, changed or enhanced. In that case it means starting the planning stage again.

The Deming Cycle has had great influence on the practice of Process Improvement Kata at Toyota, where leadership trains employees to understand and resolve their challenges, and then move towards their next target. All of these models: TCO, Lean and Eliminating Waste and the Deming Cycle show that achieving continuous improvement is all about the small steps.

Foster an improvement culture through decentralised leadership

While a big portion of the aforementioned methods needs to be applied by leaders, top-down, it’s important to note that you should also breed a culture of progress among the team. Part of that is learning to share and delegate responsibilities to others. People can’t change, nor do they care to, the processes that they don’t control nor have a full view of. Because Kanban makes the process visible to everyone, team members can get a say in how work is being done, and how they think doing it would be better.