I have been providing services based on kanban for several years now. Surprisingly, when asked if they are interested in kanban, many people respond that it doesn’t concern them. Why do I say, “surprisingly?” Because it is hard to imagine a situation where using kanban would not provide very important and durable improvements. So, to whom is kanban useful?
We can answer that question by first examining organizational level. We can then by looking at various domains to which kanban is pertinent.
But starting, here is a brief reminder of what kanban is all about. Simply put, it is a method for managing the flow of work. In other words, it is a way to ensure that from the moment you start work on any item until the moment you terminate work on that item and deliver the results, the work proceeds smoothly, predictably and rapidly. Compared to many situations where kanban is not used, kanban typically provides a 300% to 800% increase in effectiveness with which you manage that work. That means:
- much faster delivery times
- much happier customers
- much less pressure when performing work
Kanban at different organizational levels
We can consider the use of kanban at four levels: the personal level, the team level, the business unit level (or company level) and at the industry level.
Kanban is one of the most effective means for helping individuals to organize their priorities and to accomplish all the various tasks they must perform. This is true for work both in the business sphere as well as in the personal sphere.
Kanban helps you at a personal level by:
- making work visible
- providing a simple means for deciding what to do next
- helping you to finish the work you have started before starting new tasks, thus avoiding a ton of work in progress, but very little completed
The result is a much less stressful approach to doing your work, while getting it done much more quickly and reliably. You don’t forget things. You are not under constant pressure to do things at the last minute (or even after the last minute).
People are frequently introduced to kanban as a means for organizing work at the team level. Such teams are generally the units in which we work in our professional life. They could also include non-professional teams that have a significant flow of work, either in one-off projects or in more regular.
All kanban practices and principles are fully operational at the team level. Whether we are concerned with making sure that everyone in the team knows what work is to be done and the status of that work; or with having a shared and explicit set of policies that govern that work; or the need to agilely adapt to changing conditions and making regular improvements in how work is managed—in all these cases, kanban provides simple and sure solutions.
No matter what the organizing principle of teams in a business, a single team does not work in a vacuum. A design team might get input from a product manager and deliver output to an operational unit. A marketing team gets input from customers and from financial management and delivers output to sales and operations. And so forth.
So kanban can be scaled up to the business unit (or company) level, providing a means for coordinating the flow of inputs and outputs from team to team. It can do so by providing visibility of the flow of work at the level of portfolios of work.
Ultimately, kanban can work at the level of an industry sector. We site the example of a company such as Toyota. As Toyota increasingly benefited from using kanban as a means for managing its internal operations, the challenge of having a smooth flow of deliveries from its suppliers, when and where needed, started to become an area where the company invested considerable resources. As a result, Toyota started to vaunt the benefits of using kanban to its suppliers. As suppliers started to use kanban, the flow of inputs to Toyota became more reliable, resulting in additional efficiency gains within Toyota.
Thus, as kanban becomes generalized within the supply chain of a business sector, all the companies using kanban within that sector benefit.
Kanban in different sectors of work
Although my background is in service management and various sectors of IT, I soon realized that many of the issues that people address in service management were only looking at the tip of the iceberg of the problems they faced. Often, 95% of the problem in a company concerns how it manages the flow of its work, and only 5% concerns the traditional subjects covered in service management.
So, kanban is not specific to service management issues. It is an approach to the generic issue of managing work. It is of benefit to virtually any type of work.
Kanban first become popular as a method in the manufacturing sector. It combined the benefits of mass production with agile changes to specifications. At the same time, it improves quality by eliminating the propagation of defects and reduces the wastes of rework and needless intermediate inventories.
The inspiration for using kanban in manufacturing came from the practice of managing the stock in a retail store. Who has not seen the practice of placing a card among the various items offered for sale on a rack or a shelf, stating that it was time to replenish from the store room the items that are displayed to customers? Such cards are, in fact, kanban cards. They are the visual sign that an action should be taken to ensure the smooth flow of goods.
Kanban is used throughout supply chains. Its principal benefit is that just the right amount of goods or materials are available at the right place and when they are needed. What’s more, kanban helps eliminate several forms of waste due to the needless accumulation of stock. This accumulated inventory is the result of traditional “push” methods of moving through the supply chain, rather than using the “pull” method of kanban.
Although kanban first became popular in manufacturing, it has proven to be a boon to non-manufacturing work, too. Much of this work we call “knowledge work”, because it takes data and information as input and creates more useful information and knowledge as output.
Knowledge work includes such activities as product management, information technology, marketing and sales, finance, legal, human resources and many others.
The key issue that distinguishes knowledge work from manufacturing is the variability in the inputs, outputs and timing of knowledge work. In manufacturing, there is a high level of control over those factors. In knowledge work, however, we do not always have much control over when requests for work arrive, whether those requests are in a standard format with a known procedure for fulfillment, or whether they vary in size and complexity. And yet, kanban helps us to deliver results reliably and predictably, in spite of that variability.
So, to whom is kanban useful? It is probably useful to almost anyone doing almost any type of work. The exceptions will be for those of us who never make mistakes, who have perfectly mastered all aspects of risk in work, who always deliver on time, no matter what is asked and when. But if you are not such a paragon, then kanban will probably be of use to you.
Do you want to find out more about kanban? Our kanban eLearning course is the ideal place to start. You will get expert knowledge distilled into short video presentations. The lessons are combined with quizzes and exercises, all of which you can perform at your own rhythm and you have a few minutes available.