Kanban Is Part of Lean Methodology

Kanban Is Part of Lean Methodology

How does Kanban fit into Lean methodology? If Kanban means Visual Sign in Japanese, then how does this relate to the very English word Lean? Kanban, the complete system of managing work and work in progress, originated as part of the Toyota Production System. Taiichi Ohno was an industrial engineer who worked at Toyota and created their pull system, which optimized flow and used visual signalling cards called Kanban.

The pull system was a fundamental part of the Toyota Production System, which had its roots and thinking in the Toyoda family, the founders of Toyota. So, the Kanban pull system of work is part of a larger way of doing work or business: the Toyota Production System, which focuses on improving value and elimination of waste. It’s the system Toyota used in their manufacturing and business operations. In 1980 the Toyota Production System, or Toyota Way, was renamed by researchers at MIT to Lean.

An East meets West collaboration

The story of Lean and Kanban is a wonderful tale of enemies that became friends, and of how conflict can result in intense collaboration to the benefit of all. We all know about World War II, and what happened between Japan and the USA. What we are less aware of, is the intensive collaboration that followed. In the 1050s these two neighbouring countries started a partnership that originated with the Japanese from Toyota going to visit Ford in the United States, to learn from them in order to improve their own system.
In the late 1970s the shoe was on the other foot, when the Americans visited their neighbours and coined what they learned into a new management, manufacturing system dubbed Lean. In 2007 it was reported that as many as 70% of all manufacturing companies in the US were using Lean principles. The history of Lean teaches us not to waste great business opportunities through bad relations.

Lean is an umbrella system for Kanban

If you are looking to implement Kanban, then having a good understanding of Lean philosophies will allow you to achieve even greater results. Though rooted in business and engineering science, Lean is above and beyond a way of thinking, a way of approaching work and life.
Lean consists of many principles, various tools and techniques but in general, the focus is on:

  • Complete dedication to providing the utmost value to your customer
  • Trust, that people are more important than machines; companies improve though focus on investing in people’s growth
  • Improving value across entire organizations, and not just in individual teams
  • Tirelessly looking at ways of eliminating waste - Muda, of any kind
  • Process standardization, cleaning and maintenance through the 5s method
  • Learning, learning, learning some more. Lean does not subscribe to the thinking behind “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Lean is all about continuous improvement: Kaizen.
  • Flow optimization and ensuring that employees want to work; an organization’s strength comes from optimized suppliers, employees, customer relationships and processes.

To fully enjoy Kanban one should embrace the ideas behind Lean, as they say “It’s not just a diet (Kanban), it’s a way of life (Lean)”. And given Kanban’s applicability to everyday life as well as business processes, that saying could easily be changed to “It’s not just work, it’s a way of life.”