For manufacturing businesses to attain success, they need to implement effective ways of maximizing productivity and cutting waste out of their operations. Manufacturers have coined various techniques in order to achieve these goals. Lean manufacturing and just-in-time processes are among the most common production techniques found in most modern manufacturing environments. Perhaps one of the most useful techniques is the concept of Kanban.

In this post, we’re going to dive deep into the Kanban methodology and how manufacturers are using Kanban to optimize their workflows and improve efficiency across their operations.

An introduction to Kanban

The Kanban system, originally from Japan, is a lean manufacturing technique adapted from the Toyota Production System and applied across other manufacturing industries. The Japanese term kanban translates to “board” or “sign” and complements the lean philosophy, allowing manufacturers to maintain efficient production operations.

Within a manufacturing facility, a Kanban system refers to the signs or boards hung up above the factory floor, providing visual insight into the status of production. In many modern production plants, the physical Kanban boards have been replaced by digital displays that offer additional functionality and value.

Manufacturers use the Kanban system to provide insight into the production process by leveraging visual cues to track the different stages of production.

Read on to learn more about the Kanban system and how manufacturers employ it in their lean and just-in-time practices.

How Kanban systems are used in manufacturing

When broken down to basics, Kanban systems utilize boards divided into separate columns. These columns represent the different stages of production, allowing the relevant supervisors and personnel to see how work proceeds on the shop floor.

As an example, a given manufacturer can divide the board into three columns showing “Work yet to be done,” “Work in progress” and “Completed work.” So, as products proceed down the production line, their related cards are shifted from one column to the other. This shows floor managers the state of production at any given time.

Such a production system allows manufacturers to identify and analyze bottlenecks more efficiently, enabling them to find practical solutions.

Additionally, the method eliminates waste from the production system because it fosters a pull system within an organization. This means that the production process consists of a collaborative effort between operators where the downstream worker “pulls” the product into the next stage of production.

The pull system inherently reduces waste because products are constantly moving downstream as opposed to waiting in the queue for the subsequent operator to begin working on their stage of production. This ensures that manufacturers aren’t laden with extra stock and unclaimed works-in-progress.

For all this to work, manufacturers need to let a few principles guide their actions.

These include:

  • proceeding with the current production process

  • maintaining the status quo regarding individual roles and responsibilities

  • striving for incremental continuous improvement

  • fostering a leadership culture at all rungs of the organization

Benefits of Using a Kanban Board

There are multiple benefits to gaining visibility into work processes and information flows.

Keeps Everyone in Sync

Since real-time information is available at all times, Kanban reduces unnecessary communication around progress checking and documentation. It can serve as a central information hub for the team.

Short Cycle Times

By visualizing who is responsible for which task and who needs help, a team can overlap their skillsets to complete their tasks even faster. By maximizing the use of different skills in a team, the cycle time can be significantly shortened (from the moment work begins to when it is completed).

Identifying Bottlenecks

A Kanban board can identify which tasks are taking longer than usual, or which tasks are holding other tasks back from moving forward. Through visualization, finding bottlenecks in processes can happen at an earlier stage, shaving down the cycle time even further.

Easy to Set-up

Since the Kanban board is simply a visual representation of the kinds of tasks and processes that are already happening within a team, it is fairly easy to adopt this method. It is simply a new way of organizing the information a team already has.

Tips for implementing Kanban in your organization

For effective implementation, manufacturers need to adopt some critical principles of Kanban to ensure continuous improvement of the production process. These principles include:

Visualize your workflow: Kanban boards allow manufacturers to visualize the production process. In addition, digital tools offer a non-physical alternative to Kanban boards that offer similar usability.

These boards allow manufacturers to see what the exact manufacturing process looks like as well as the status for each item being produced. The earlier-discussed columns are an ideal way to do this. It’s important for Kanban boards must be visible to all workers irrespective of their rank within the company. Consequently, this provides transparency into the process.

Limit works-in-progress: Given the waste-reducing benefits, manufacturers should strive to switch to a pull system operation, with demand driving production. Managers and supervisors shouldn’t push their teams to take on more than they can reasonably handle.

This can easily cause bottlenecks since workers aren’t being allowed to finish tasks on a single card before it can be moved to the subsequent column.

Emphasize flow: Since this lean manufacturing principle operates on creating an efficient process, it’s crucial to create a smooth workflow. Consequently, manufacturers should focus on creating better ways of moving tasks through the various columns more easily.

The focus here is centered around the tasks themselves and less on the personnel. Therefore, work can move through more efficiently when the process itself is more refined.

Clearly define and share work policies: Employees won’t know what’s expected of them if they haven’t been informed. Similarly, they might not understand the different signs on the Kanban boards if the information hasn’t been explained.

Therefore, manufacturers need to define what they intend to implement. Not only that, but they also need to pass this information on to the employees, clearly explaining the reasons behind the new way of doing business.

This keeps everyone in the loop, fostering transparency and collaboration.

Leverage feedback loops: Top management and supervisors should frequently engage with other employees on the shop floor to gain feedback on implemented production practices.

Regular team meetings provide first-hand information from the shop floor. Additionally, management should seriously consider taking on this feedback and implementing changes as required.

This increases employee participation because they see that their feedback is taken into account during the decision-making process.

Seek continuous improvement: Manufacturing processes can always be made better. With invaluable input and collaboration from the workers, managers can craft better ways of doing things on the shop floor.

This collaborative effort ensures that everyone pulls in the same direction, allowing for continuous improvement in manufacturing practices.

Moving forward with digital Kanban systems

With the prevailing fast-paced manufacturing environment, traditional Kanban boards might not lend themselves well to modern lean production practices. As a result, it makes sense to turn to the digital equivalent.

Digital Kanban systems provide the following plus points:

  • Remote access to the system, allowing more extended collaboration between diverse teams

  • Real-time collaboration to improve feedback for timely execution

  • Rich media attachments to provide more information about the production process

  • More precise tracking when it comes to distributed teams

  • Easier workflow data collection and measurement

  • Detailed flow analytics for better insights into processes

  • Integration with other digital tools like customer relationship management (CRM) systems

If you're interested in exploring what a digital Kanban system might look like for your business, Tulip has helped dozens of manufacturers implement this lean tool within their business. Reach out to one of our team members today to see how Tulip can help your business!

Digitize your lean principles with Tulip's Kanban System app

Visualize and improve the flow of information across your shop floor with Tulip's digital Kanban system app.

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