How to Use Kanban to Improve Business Productivity

© | Bakhtiar Zein

The focus of this article is to provide a complete guide to the topic of Kanban and how to use it to improve business productivity. We will explore 1) what is Kanban, 2) how to use Kanban to improve business productivity, 3) types of Kanban, 4) case study, and 5) conclusion.


What is Kanban?

Kanban is a technique that ensures efficient management of the software development process. This procedure may be compared to a pipeline where feature requests are entered from one end, and enhanced software comes as output from the other end.

Inside the pipeline, a formal or informal process goes on, and there might be bottlenecks in the flow of that process. When this happens, the throughput of the whole pipeline becomes restricted to the bottleneck’s throughput.

A Kanban system comprises a huge board on the wall having sticky notes or cards kept in numbered columns. The cards stand for work items that flow along the development procedure indicated by the columns. The numbers imply limits on cards each column is allowed to have.

Who can use Kanban?

Software development teams and IT project managers widely make use of Kanban boards. These are also used by a number of other project teams and business managers to conduct smart work and streamline the business procedure. In short, Kanban boards can be used by those people who need the following:

  • Visualization of the work that is in progress;
  • Instant comprehension of impediments responsible for delay and taking actions for their removal;
  • Improvement of communication amongst team members;
  • Team empowerment for self-management of workflows and visual processes;
  • Inspiration for team collaboration.

Why we need Kanban?

Now the point is why Kanban is required at all. Well, there are indeed reasons to apply Kanban and let us see what these are:

  • Flow visualization in a perfect manner: The Kanban board offers a lucid view of the work that is currently going on. Visualization of the flow ensures fast tracking and planning. In fact, by visualizing the work, you can understand the manner in which it is proceeding so that if changes are required, proper and timely decision can be taken.
  • Capability of altering priorities on the fly: In case of Kanban, if you need to implement an urgent request, or have a very significant user story, you can simply place it on the top of the queue. Whenever a free slot is there, it will be taken up.
  • Capability of releasing anytime: In XP or Scrum, the release is not possible in the midst of iteration. However, in Kanban, the anytime release is feasible. So, you are able to release whenever there is a ready user story.
  • Showing WIPs: For every state within the workflow, work in progress has a limit. WIP is defined as verage amount of unfinished items (bugs, user stories, change requests, etc.) in the development system. Within the local WIP limit, whenever capacity is available, fresh work is drawn into the fresh information discovery activity.
  • Experimentation and Collaboration: Kanban leads to continuous, small, evolutionary and incremental changes that stick. This gives a boost to self-governance and motivation of teams.


Process for implementation of Kanban

Kanban can be successfully implemented in any business process. By following these steps, Kanban can be implemented to improve business productivity.

Step 1: Visualize the work

First of all, break down the workflow from the moment of getting started to the point the job is finished into clear-cut steps. For each of the steps, draw a column. Once this is done, obtain some stickies. Note down all the tasks, using a separate sticky note for each. For various kinds of work, use various colors. Place the sticky notes on the whiteboard. Gradually shift each task from left to right till it is over and goes out of the workflow.

Step 2: Put a limit on WIP

It is a fact that if you juggle innumerable balls with your hands, you begin dropping the balls. Kanban revolves around maintenance of flow and elimination of waste. Begin by imposing limits on the columns where tasks are being done. If you put WIP limits, it will pave the way for enforcement of a high, seamless flow of work and ensure elimination of various types of wastes.

Step 3: Pull, instead of pushing

Friction amongst teams is a common matter, particularly when one is showing better performance and is able to push or generate more work than another can manage. To solve this, businesses might opt for the pull system, where the successive team pulls work only at a time when it is ready for the same. The pull system can be implemented through the addition of a limited capacity buffer in between different teams.

Step 4: Improve through monitoring and adaptation

A Cumulative Flow Chart is the best tool for measurement of Kanban performance. Daily mark the number of tasks that are in each column or at some place down the workflow. This will lead to the production of a chart that looks like a mountain, giving insight into the procedure, by showing past performance and enabling prediction of future results.

Kanban Board

A Kanban board is a tool for visualization of work and workflow that allows optimization of the flow of work. In case of physical Kanban boards, issues, progress, and status is communicated through sticky notes over a whiteboard.

Considerations before implementing Kanban

Kanbans are, in fact, lean information tools that control material flow in organizations. To implement Kanban, you need to consider certain things:

  • Kanbans are visual communication tools from the point of use to the preceding operation, that is, from the client to the supplier.
  • Suppliers can also consider them as purchase orders.
  • Kanbans can be regarded as work orders with respect to the manufacturing area.
  • They are crucial in eliminating paperwork.

Kanbans are not suitable for the following:

  • Single piece or batch (or lot) production (for instance, it would not be advisable to go for Kanban if the output is five pieces in a year);
  • Systems where suppliers are required to carry inventory along with the related carrying costs (lean implies a win-win situation; inventory schemes including consignments do not lead to a win-win situation);
  • Safety stock;
  • Tools for long-range planning (alteration in part number use as a result of engineering alterations, new product introductions or customer variations in usage of product are things that are better handled by conventional methods).

It is advisable to launch the Kanban project with around six to eight items, which highlight only a particular area of the facility. When you are launching the initiative for a particular department or part of the organization, ensure that the organization is aware of the launch. When the already existing items are experiencing a smooth flow and the organization has increased support for Kanban, more areas and items can be added.

There are certain guidelines for implementing Kanban. For proper implementation, you need to keep in mind the following:

  • The prerequisites for Kanban implementation are setup reduction and uniform production. If you do not have setup reduction in position, order sizes cannot be brought down. Uniform production or requirements should begin the Kanban learning curve although there are methods to cope up in an environment where there are erratic demands.
  • It would be a great idea to paint all reusable containers including carts and totes, a visible and fresh color. If this is done, the Kanban initiative becomes optimally visible to everybody within the organization at the time of launching. Moreover, your team will have the opportunity to conveniently identify a signal or container that is not in order.
  • For implementing Kanban, you need to certify the external suppliers. The point in certifying suppliers is that the deliveries of those suppliers who are certified need not go through inspection owing to their record of outstanding quality. Supplier part Kanbans that are put on hold or rejected can be extremely disruptive.
  • Make use of Kanban supermarkets. These supermarkets happen to be intermediate storage places at the customer level between the customers and the suppliers catering to them. Supermarkets come to use when there are a number of internal customers for an internal or external supplier. They act as barriers preventing the supplier from obtaining manifold signals from every internal customer of the organization for that particular supplier. In fact, the external or internal supplier gets replenishment signals from solely the supermarket pertaining to the customer.

Kanban Rules

For proper implementation of Kanban, certain rules need to be followed. Only by following those rules will the organizations realize maximum output.

  • If all the members pertaining to the value chain are not completely involved, it is not advisable to go for a physical product or an information product. This includes taking into account the customers, as well as the external suppliers. It is a fact that unless you have top-notch suppliers, you cannot become a top-notch manufacturer.
  • Endeavor to attain quality at the very source. Refrain from sending defective physical products or information to the customers. Go for immediate correction of defects. Otherwise, there will be a shutdown of the customer’s line.
  • To implement Kanban, you need to have the support of reliable equipment. So, apply Kanbans in internal areas where you already have TPM or Total Productive Management.
  • Try to apply Kanbans on part numbers and products where monthly delivery requirements are stable along with steady lead times and short setup. In parts that have great variations in monthly customer requisites, efforts towards reducing raw material lead time and setup reduction should be concentrated.
  • All external, as well as internal suppliers, need to possess or should be given assistance to develop programs for setup reduction. Only when manufacturing capacity and in turn lead time is not influenced by setup times, can the potential of Kanbans be fully unleashed.
  • The customer is the point of use, and the delivery of all materials by the suppliers must be done to the customers. If certification is pending for suppliers and inspection is required, customers should be trained to do the inspection. Alternatively, a certified supplier should replace the yet to be certified one.
  • Kanbans are not permanent and might call for experimentation. Initially, you must be prepared to make adjustments to alterations in sales levels or other enhancement initiatives to bring down the requisite number of Kanban cards or containers.


In most Kanban systems utilized in organizations, a number of different types of cards come into play. Here are the major types.

  • Withdrawal Kanban: They are also known as move cards or conveyance kanbans and are utilized for signaling whenever a component is to be shifted from one production part to another. The card is connected to a stipulated number of parts that are taken to the working place where they are required. When the parts are utilized, the return of the card takes place as a signal for sending the same part with the same number back.
  • Production Kanban: This consists of an exhaustive list of all the things the part needs so that it is completed. This incorporates the requisite materials and parts along with the information that a withdrawal Kanban includes. A production Kanban enables the production system to begin with the production and also explain the things that should be produced.
  • Express Kanban: This type of Kanbans come to the scene when there is an unanticipated shortage of parts. They signal that an increasing number of a particular part is needed. The aim is to ensure that there is no slowing down of the manufacturing process. Express Kanbans are often called as signal Kanbans. They are mainly used for triggering purchases.
  • Emergency Kanban: These are the Kanbans that are used for the replacement of defective parts or for signaling an abrupt change in the quantity of the product that is required to be produced. Contrary to express Kanbans, organizations make use of emergency Kanbans when a part fails to work in a similar manner in which it is expected to, or when there are certain alterations in the production conditions. Express Kanbans, on the contrary, are utilized for making the original production conditions seamlessly running.
  • Through Kanban: These are, in fact, a combination of production and withdrawal Kanbans. These are used in a situation when both the work centers pertaining to these Kanbans are situated adjacent to each other. This in turn, speeds up the production process. For example, in case the area of storage for the components is exactly beside the area wherein the assembling of the product is taking place, it saves time to have one Kanban pull the parts and operate them across the production procedure.
  • Supplier Kanban: This type of Kanban moves right away to a supplier, which is, in fact, an organization from where the manufacturer purchases material. The Kanban system of the supplier is entered as a representation of that of the manufacturer.


Here is a very good case study of how Kanban has been applied in the case of a marketing team, with the prime aim to enhance the transparency of the process. This particular team, which is an external and internal group organizing educational events, was popular for carrying out their tasks successfully. However, the team identified a significant absence of transparency, which prevents the team members from getting an idea of the “big picture”.

The consensus that all of them required enhanced process visualization was a good position to start off as well as an excellent incentive that would work out.

The person, who was the creator of this idea quickly got to work and prepared a Kanban introduction of one and a half hour for the non-agile team. He obtained the approval of the supervisor and started designing a Kanban board. All the team members came together, and a Kanban system was designed from scratch:

  • The item types were decided. Initially there were two, for offline and online events, but it was rapidly identified that having two items created no difference; hence they stuck to only a single event.
  • The team then charted out its workflow. The team members organized the workflow as inbox (the arrival of new events), briefing (small meet up with stakeholders), preparation (getting the real work done in sub-columns of do, doing and done) , running and finally, done (consisting of feedback and debriefing for certain events)
  • The lockers of the team were chosen for the creation of the Kanban boards, each locker representing a column. The plan was to go to the establishment of WIP limits and policies. However, once all the ongoing events were visualized by the team on the Kanban board, the team precisely got what was required. So, for the time being, they stopped there.

After around two days, the team understood the requirement for adding swimlanes with respect to tasks that were not related to any event, as well as for other types of items. The board had potential and the requirement to grow. The creator also found the need for improvement of the delivery time of the team, though executing this in reality might be difficult due to the deadline attached to each event, regarding which nothing more could be done. This was again a thing that required working out.

The overall result of this experiment was that, irrespective of the line of work you are in, Kanban comes up with wonderful ways of making enhancements, a step at a time. Here, only the workflow visualization part was utilized by the team. By holding review meetings and adding WIP limits, more improvement could be done.


The Kanban method, in fact, incorporates a scientific approach which when implemented, leads to incremental, continuous and evolutionary changes within the organizations, which ultimately leads to more productivity and enhancement of the bottom line. Regardless of the type of Kanban used, it should be understood that the Kanban system is a route to achieving a purpose and measure the capability towards the same. On the whole, Kanban is not a procedure, but something that finds application in an existing working method to understand different aspects such as workflow, WIP, continuous improvement, and cadence.

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