Hello readers!

Welcome to our first guest blog of our new website. Based in Milan, Marco moves sticky notes everyday and still struggles to find his best kaizen path while playing with his son. Over to Marco –

As Taiichi Ôno said: “if there is no standard, there can be no 改善” (kaizen) or continuous improvement.

For this purpose, he basically invented the kanban signaling system, together with the overall Toyota Production System.

In most recent years, the Kanban method evolved from it, for use in knowledge work management.

Which is the main difference between Toyota kanban and the Kanban method? In Toyota, kanban cards are attached to physical (semifinished) products to keep track of them. Knowledge work, instead, is not visible and the activities are happening mostly in people’s minds and their conversations and interactions.

The first step to improving something practically invisible is to make it visible, to show its workflow, to visualize the value stream that the work items flow in.

In manufacturing, the workflow is visible in the shop floor, looking at the different working stations, and the status of each piece is described by its position, while kanban cards are used to describe the capacity and workload of each station.

Knowledge work is much less visible than hardware pieces in manufacturing. For this reason, a Kanban board is a tool that helps to visualize the workflow, the value-adding process of a system, and the work that flows in it.

In a generic Kanban board, columns are used to represent the different value-adding steps an activity must cross to reach its completion. The work items (and their associated activities) are represented as cards placed under the specific column where such activities are currently taking place.

Figure 1 – An example of a generic Kanban board

Figure 1 shows a generic example of a simple Kanban board: visualizing the activities that are in progress and those that are possibly planned to be done, helps clarifying the status of the system and the progress of the work.

When a work item reaches its completion in a specific step, it’ll be moved into the next one, reflecting the fact that the activities associated with such a step have been completed. Technically, being a pull system, if a later step has capacity to take care of work items completed in its previous step, it will pull those.

The main goal of a Kanban board is to faithfully represent the actual and current workflow, with all the existing and ongoing work items and the possible future options of new work items to be done (Backlog column, in Figure 1).

In fact, if a Kanban board properly and correctly represents the current workflow, it will also help highlighting issues in it: bottlenecks, activities starvation, blockers and so on.

What does a Kanban board contain?

It depends on the specific workflow and users’ needs. For sure, there will be a way to identify the different steps of the workflow and a way to identify each single work item (a title/name, a description, …). Then there should be the person(s) or team(s) in charge of a work item, the eventual priority and possible list of subtasks. There could be valuable metrics, comments, historical data and even blockers, where work items cannot proceed in the workflow due to external dependencies or problems that require further information or actions, usually coming from outside. And blockers can even be represented on physical Kanban board, in a way that can force the people in charge to really take care of them.

Figure 2 – Lead Time and bananas

But, anyway, you must decide how to create your Kanban board and how and what to describe within your work items. What you want to visualize is up to you.

There is no prescribed process: take a decision. That decision will be your initial policy. Update and improve it on an ad hoc basis, depending on how well they work for you. In general, the granularity level of the work items on your Kanban board depends on what you are trying to track on the board and at the card level – what is important to you and your stakeholders. You can even have policies such as “Anything that takes less than half a day need not be recorded”. It obviously depends on how often this happens.

This article briefly covered the first practice of Kanban, that is visualizing the workflow. Please refer to the bibliography section below for further and more detailed information. If you like this, there might be further articles, presenting all other Kanban practices.

Thanks Marco – if you have questions on anything in the above, or want to discuss how we could help you deploy some of these tools to improve your processes, get in touch.