From supermarkets to software: History of Kanban
Who could have guessed that supermarket restocking techniques could affect project management several decades into the future? New stock was ordered as previous inventory ran out, instead of regularly timed shipments from a supplier.
Applying “Just-in-time” inventory system to the factory floor increased production levels, improved efficiency and removed waste. Kanban – meaning visual signal in Japanese – cards were used to clearly communicate when actions are required. From Kanban’s history in manufacturing, Kanban has spread worldwide and is used across all industries for many different applications.
Origins of Kanban: 1940s Japan
In the early 1940s in Japan, Toyota automotive was fighting to stay competitive with its American rivals and needed to increase the efficiency of its production. A key issue was the large and costly level of stocked inventory – raw materials and unfinished items – anything languishing in inventory rather than going to the next production process or final customer was a waste.
Toyota industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno looked to supermarkets for inspiration. Supermarkets only restock their products once customers have bought nearly all available items. The demand rate for any item directly affects the supply rate – some items are restocked at high frequencies and others hardly ever.
Ohno theorised that Toyota’s production chain could be managed in the same way. The rate of one production process would be used to determine demand for the previous process, all the way through the chain. Cards were used to trigger actions – for example, a card in an empty raw materials container indicates that these raw materials should be replenished. These visual signals gave Kanban its name.
In 1978, Taiichii Ohno published the book “Toyota Production System – Beyond Large-Scale Production” laying out the principles of Lean Manufacturing and Kanban. From here, both the approaches grow in popularity in the manufacturing sector, in Japan at first and later abroad.
Kanban for knowledge workers
So how did Kanban make the leap from factory floor to knowledge work across the world? The next step in Kanban’s history is down to David J Anderson. In 2004, Anderson developed a pull system for a Microsoft XIT Sustaining Engineering Group. During development, he finds that this pull system functions as a virtual Kanban system and called it the Kanban Method.
Over the next few years, Anderson and colleagues worked on refining their virtual Kanban implementation by adding new features. This is when the classic hallmarks of the Kanban Method took shape – the Kanban board, Kanban cadences, WIP limits, Classes of Service and Swimlanes. By June 2007, the method looked much like it does today.
From its implementation for a single Microsoft group, the effectiveness of Anderson’s Kanban Method starts generating enthusiasm. The method begins to be presented at management conferences, implemented across more project portfolios and other companies.
WE UNCOVER THE EFFICIENCY OF YOUR WORKFLOW
Optimize your performance with Kanban analyticsSee a dashboard with your data
Kanban, Scrum and Agile
Soon, the Kanban Method started to catch the attention of Agile and Scrum teams. The method was a natural fit for them with its focus on making incremental changes and increasing delivery speed. Some project managers at Yahoo were trying to implement Scrum but facing resistance from their teams – they turned to Kanban to smooth the transition.
From this point onwards, Kanban has exploded in popularity. The same “Just-in-time” system that worked so well for restocking inventory is equally useful for work in progress, pulling through tasks in accordance to team capacity. These days, it’s hard to find Scrum teams without a Kanban board.
While the knowledge work teams have been the most enthusiastic adopter in Kanban’s history, many other sectors have benefited from Kanban practices. Any project with continuous delivery of tasks can use the Kanban Method to improve transparency within the team, become more efficient and increase productivity.
How long have you been using the Kanban Method? What changes have you noticed? Has it improved your productivity? Tell us about your experience in the comments!
Meet the Author
Sonya Siderova is a passionate product manager and a driving force behind Nave, a Kanban analytics suite that helps teams become more efficient through data-driven decision making. When she's not catering to her two little ones, you might find Sonya absorbed in a good heavyweight boxing match or behind a screen crafting a new blog post.
Agile businesses across the globe are using Nave to analyze and improve their workflow performance. Try our versati… https://t.co/sAtLGiaFiaFollow
In Kanban, throughput is one of the key measures of team performance. Learn how to track your capacity to deliver o… https://t.co/UkHWZ35iYnFollow
We've introduced manual data uploads at Nave through CSV and JSON files to give you the flexibility to analyze your… https://t.co/HDSgR2S3I2Follow
High flow efficiency is vital to sustaining a scalable, productive business. Learn how you can calculate, analyze a… https://t.co/t13OzxfopvFollow
Manage your work more efficiently with our Kanban analytics suite. Try it out for free on your favorite tool and st… https://t.co/44FvBin5qYFollow
You need pragmatic and evidence-based guidance that works. The KMM codifies a decade of Kanban coaching experience… https://t.co/DLTpSgt8CwFollow
Nave’s powerful data-visualization toolkit helps you optimize your flow and take your team to a whole new level. Tr… https://t.co/wM6BFIkKyXFollow
Learn about what failure demand is, the approaches to analyzing it in your system and the strategies of turning fai… https://t.co/XxU6rBPbpwFollow
The Cumulative Flow Diagram for Trello gives you an instant insight into the exact amount of work in each state of… https://t.co/R1ZHNKVVIqFollow
Are you looking to improve your team performance, but find yourself held back? Throughput measures your team’s capa… https://t.co/uZpeNBrAFJFollow
Nave’s range of Kanban analytics helps you spot productivity trends at a glance. Select your platform and improve y… https://t.co/3nkibf75YjFollow
Service level agreements define the responsibilities of a service provider to their customers. Defining SLAs are im… https://t.co/txniyg97OCFollow
The Cycle Time Scatterplot for Azure DevOps is using the lead times of all tasks completed within a specific time f… https://t.co/h4gqSmvVq0Follow
This is a story about how the use of the Kanban Maturity Model changed the dynamics in a long-standing customer eng… https://t.co/NaFUi7k6uQFollow