Tips on how to get #Kanban right for an operations business

| May 24, 2018

When running an operations business (particularly in lean manufacturing) you will often see many different types of tools and techniques for companies to improve their productivity and eliminate any identified bottlenecks.  Large companies may even have a dedicated business improvement function with green, black or even master black belts appointed to do activities such as value stream mapping.  This is a luxury that not all business can handle and some need to look for a simpler but effective way to do this. 

Kanban is a visual workload pulling system that may be able to help this type of business. If you search the internet you will find more information on Kanban boards that may be exactly what you are looking for to support your operational needs. We have also listed some information below about what it is and how to use it.

What is Kanban?

As with a lot of these concepts, Kanban was developed in Japan in a lean manufacturing environment within the automotive industry – in Toyota to be exact.  The principle was developed in the late 1940’s in order to support factories in mass production of defence equipment in order to assist with the war efforts.  How it operates is that the voice of the customer plays an important fact in sending a signal through the full supply chain of their requirements.  It sounds simple however this pull system involves a lot of discipline, visual management, potential factory layout changes and key stakeholder buy in for this to be successful.

There are six important rules that Toyota have quoted as part of this initiative:

  • For each of the process within the supply chain will issue requests to the operation or person that supplies them as it consumes all their supplies.
  • Each of the process’s will only make the exact number and sequence of what has been requested/
  • There are no materials or items transported unless a request is made.
  • There must be a good, capable process with a high CPK value that produces conforming, defect free parts.
  • It is important to note that limiting any number of requests that are still pending will make the relevant process more sensitive and will bring out any inefficiencies.

Team engagement

As with any new initiative to work efficiently, you will need the full buy in and backing of not only the leadership team but the shop floor team.  If you are trying to use this in a factory that has been operating a specific way for many years or decades then trying to bring around change like this could prove to be a challenge.  As such, we would fully recommend that you involve them in this full process from start to finish.  The management team will need to be educated on the concept and briefed on its effectiveness and needs before they are to ensure that all the shop floor employees and supporting functions are expected to adhere to this.

To be successful, this will require the dedication and change of mind-set of all people from customer, shop floor employees, operations leadership, logistics and manufacturing engineering support groups.  If you have made the brave decision to go ahead and implement then we highly recommend that the briefing of these people not only consists of the sales pitch (the benefits of Kanban) but they are aware that this new way of working must be complied to by all as if any one operation or process doesn’t follow suit then the full initiative breaks down.

Kanban Visual Management

Most lean manufacturing facilities run some type of production system management that has clear visual management on key process indicators.  This would normally include the typical Delivery, Safety, Quality, Cost and Productivity.  Depending on the cellular layout in the factory will determine sometimes what type of visual management is implemented.  When creating the Kanban visual management system, it is important that you firstly ensure that the area is not already overwhelmed with charts and graphs.  Having too much of this in one area could be considered “wallpaper” and it loses its effectiveness.  The boards can generally be purchased from external companies and then internally these can be adapted to suit your needs.  Generally cards are used on these boards representing customer demand and product.  The compliance to moving these cards on the right locations is key to ensure you have the latest up to date information and that you can identify bottlenecks immediately.

If you identify a bottleneck on the board, first of all verify that the information is correct (as the problem could be that the card has not been moved on) and if it is you must take immediate countermeasures in order to resolve.  This could be a machine breakdown issue, specific quality problem, capacity issue with employees or something else.  We highly recommend that you include a 3 C chart or similar on your Kanban information board that would give a detailed description of the problem, countermeasure to resolve at pace, who is accountable and by when.  At a glance you would then see on your board the action required and who is fixing it at a glance – this makes accountability really easy to see and escalate quickly if not resolved in an efficient manner.

Electronic Kanban

As we move through the years clearly technology has made a large difference to how efficient we are in a lean manufacturing environment.  This includes IT systems that can incorporate Kanban on the shop floor and support areas.  An example of how this can work is around the barcode system.  In order to error proof mistakes in workflow visualisation, some shop floor that use routers / batch cards will have barcodes connected to them.  This will be a bar code for the overall router identification but also for each of the operations defined.  It is then the intent for the operator or inspector to scan each of the operations when completed giving the system the immediate information to show what steps along the way the product is at (you can also use this method to measure things like tact time).

Some companies even have operator unique bar code cards so that they are required to also insert the details of their user identification to show it was them that actually completed the task (this can give the added bonus of assisting with traceability if there were quality issues down the road).  As you can imagine, this added workflow management system will require a mature IT system and infrastructure within the facility.  This is clearly a lot of investment that not everyone can afford.  This is not essential and a basic Kanban system with compliance from all will be effective.

Success Stories

You will find that the use of Kanban can be implemented in all sorts of lean manufacturing environments, but this initiative is particularly popular in both the automotive and aerospace manufacturing industries.  Companies like Toyota still use this religiously to this very day and in aerospace Rolls-Royce has a particular appetite for this system understanding its benefits to productivity and performance.  You only need to google the word “Kanban” to see case studies of how these types of different companies have engaged their workforce in this different way of operating and really seeing the benefits of it.


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