Kanban: visualising work in progress

“I like your Kanban” I said

“My what?” was the shocked reply. Had I said a rude word?

On the wall of the office was a cork notice board on which was pinned postcard sized coloured index cards under headings. It was a visual representation of the progress of work through the business – known as kanban in manufacturing.  

I’d just met someone who had invented it for their business. They were working well beyond the influence of manufacturing and independently found this solution.  They explained that they needed to see where each project was as it helped them feel less stressed about their job. It allowed them to plan time and resources for the work. They said that it reminded them of the order slips for a chef in a kitchen.

Toyota claim to have invented the Kanban (visual-card or signboard) as part of the Toyota Production System which was based on just in time and the continuous supply of materials used by 1940s supermarket stock control systems. These used used boards to represent where stock was held across sites and suppliers so that stock could be found when it was needed in a store.

I know some people find it more comfortable to work knowing what is coming next. In a recent project, one team have made a headline project time line of key work and events associated with the projects on their office wall.  It helps them see the steps towards a much anticipated outcome.

For others, this would be too much of a distraction: they simply want the instructions for the next steps, not the whole map. In these cases, I’ve used a similar time line showing just the current work. Each stage was on a large sheet of paper with a stack of completed stages to one side and the stages to come on the other side. There was one last page revealed when we moved the final stage into the middle: suggestions for what to do with the big plan as part of the end of project celebration – a blank wall would have not felt right for them.

I have used kanban when the supply of equipment on time has been critical to progress on a project. We tracked each machine through each assembly step/supplier and put a dot on the card if it hadn’t moved when we updated the board at the end of the day. If the machine moved the next day we removed the dot and moved the card as normal. We checked for cards with 3 dots (we knew we had that amount of time as a buffer for the final installation and to allow resources to be managed) and investigated the delay. We were able to see a bottleneck before the suppliers realised they had a problem. That early warning allowed them to fix the issues before they caused a problem for the project. 

How do you help your team see what is next , where progress is stalling and the direction work is heading?


About 3triangles
Helping organisations make change happen in 3 key areas: strategic change, deliver tactical impacts, efficient and effective processes. All blog content (c) 2009 - 2012 Carol Long and Three Triangles Performance Ltd

One Response to Kanban: visualising work in progress

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Kanban: visualising work in progress « Change: Programmes, Projects, Processes -- Topsy.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: