History Behind Kanban:-

In recent years kanban has come into the limelight. But, its history goes way back, even before the internet. You would be surprised to known kanban was first implemented by Toyota. It was known for its manufacturing excellence, quality products and High production rate.

When you look at the car manufacturing industries, you see automation everywhere. From manufacturing a bolt to the assembly line, most of the processes are automated. You see seamless automation everywhere with thousands of cars made every day.


This wasn’t possible even just a few decades ago, and every task had to be done manually. At this time the invention of the assembly led to exponential growth in the automobile sector.

At one place where American auto manufacturers were on the rise, japan had to face its unique set of challenges. With the damage from WWII and problems like Low Skilled labour, Lack of Resources and Scarcity of Land made it more difficult for the Japanese.

Even after all these issues, the Japanese auto industries were on the rise. The credit for this goes to japans manufacturing excellence; Their manufacturing was so efficient it overtook American car companies in sales in just a few decades.

Toyota came up with a method to counter all the problems known as TPS (Toyota production system), i.e. JIT(Just in time) production system. The idea behind all of this was to produce when needed eliminating the problem of inventory staking.

Kanban was a small part of the JIT system, but it had some significant advantages which led to its success in many industries in later years.

What is Kanban?

Kanban literally means “Billboard”, and the idea behind kanban was to improve communication between the factory workers for a smooth workflow. Visual signs are the core of the Kanban system. We see visual signs everywhere from traffic signs to instruction of food packets.

When compared to written text, images are easily processed by our brain. So kanban utilises it to its fullest.

But what does kanban really mean, understanding the meaning of the word and grasping the concept are two different things.

To understand the concept behind Kanban system, we will have to go through a bunch of questions. 

What problems does Kanabn Solve?

Have you ever felt that the tasks assigned to your team aren’t completed on time? But, you are unable to pinpoint the issue. Even for the tasks completed on deadline, there is chaos everywhere. It happens with most of the teams out there.

When you take a close look, you will start to see two core issues.

  • Lack of Communication.
  • Bottlenecks in the system.

Most aspects of kanban try to addresses these issues.

So, the answer to lack of communication is kanban cards.

Kanban Cards:

Every task assigned is written on a colour coded card. It also includes a detailed description and the guidelines for the task. Now the cards are arranged on an electronic board or a whiteboard.

The whiteboard has three sections (It can vary according to the tasks) viz To Do, In Progress, Done.

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Kanban cards are arranged on the basis of priority with higher priority cards on the top, and as we go down the list priority decreases.

The second issue is system bottlenecks. What does this mean?

Pilling up of the work is a perfect example of bottlenecks in your system. It slows down the entire team and can lead to missing of deadlines.

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Look at the graph below; you can see the slowdown of work at specific points. These are the bottlenecks of the system.

How Kanban helped Spotify and Corbis achieve higher efficiency?


You must have heard about Spotify, who hasn’t, it’s one of the top music streaming company in the world. One thing you would be unaware of is Spotify has implemented kanban into there operations department.

Spotify was growing a much faster rate than the company could adopt. They had to come up with a solution to cope up with the extra work. A continuous flow of work from multiple departments was a huge issue, and the team at Spotify wasn’t aware of the scale of the work.

When they introduced Kanban in their system, communication improved drastically with shorter lead time.


Corbis is the world’s second-largest stock photography company, and they have implemented kanban into there system and have found it to be quite useful. At first, they found kanban to be difficult to implement. But, as time passed, they became more comfortable and efficient at using it.

Implementing Kanban in your system.

Let’s try to understand it with an example,

Imagine, you have 100 boxes of shipment, to ship every day from your storage facility. After the arrival of the shipment from the factory, you have to segregate the boxes and dispatch them to their respective addresses.

Whenever trying to implement kanban, we need to follow these basic guidelines. We will use this example for a better understanding of the process.

1. Visualize the workflow:

The first step towards implementing kanban to your system is to visualize the workflow. This is done by categorizing all the tasks in 3 categories viz. To-do, In Progress, Done. 

You can either use a physical whiteboard with sticky notes or electronic boards for this.


As soon as the boxes arrive at the storage facilities. You could categorise them into three sections:-

  • To do – Boxes that are to be shipped.
  • In progress – Boxes that are under inspection and in process of labelling.
  • Done – Boxes Loaded and shipped.

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2. Limit Work in progress.

A very basic notion we have been hearing from our parents since childhood is to Complete the task at hand and then take up another work. 

The idea is the same, complete tasks at hand and then take up extra work.

A limit is set on every column which is decided based on the historic data


The boxes under the label “In progress” are to be inspected, labelled and sent for loading. If the person in charge only focuses on inspection and ignores the labelling and loading of boxes, the unattended boxes will start to pile up.

If you see a pile of boxes at the end of the conveyor, you know there are issues with the current sorting system, to solve these issues managing the workflow is crucial.

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3Ensure a smooth workflow:

After the implementation of the first two steps, you would either get one of the two results:-

  • Smooth flow of work. This shows that your work process is efficient enough to get the best out of your resources.
  • Work Pile-up. In general, this is most likely the case. 

Now, you are aware of the shortcomings of your workflow process. And you can start working on them.

In the above example, to overcome the work pile up issues with the boxes, you can employ more staff to look at labelling and loading work. This will solve the problem of work pile and will also speed up the work.

4. Clear and detailed process policies:

Guidelines for completing a task should be precise and clear. It makes it easier for employees to understand their roles. Depending on the complexity of the projects the kanban board can include a word or a series of instructions.

Continuing the example, The instructions for inspection and labelling of boxes should be clear and easy to understand. It makes it easier for the employees to understand their task and the average time to complete the task will go down.

5Implement Feedback Loops.

Feedback helps you evaluate the efficiency of your process by comparing the output with the input. If you have a feedback loop implemented after every stage of the process, it becomes easier for you to pinpoint the problems with the process.

How Kanban can be beneficial for you?

Kanban has its advantages when compared to other methods. This is the reason for its wide adoption across multiple sectors.

  1. Kanban can be implemented gradually into the system at the pace you and your team are comfortable with. You can just start with kanban boards and after a while implementing WIP(Work in progress) limits.
  2. It is a work process optimization system and can be implemented on top of any management system.
  3. It’s easy to understand due to its visual cues and only basic guidelines are to be followed.

Kanban and Theory of Constraints. 

Kanban and the theory of constraints are very similar to each other in many ways. Often people confuse the two.

The goal of Theory of Constrains is to minimize the constraints of a system for higher output. While Kanban focuses on workflow optimization to ensure smooth workflow.

The key differences between Kanban and Theory of constraints are.

  • Theory of constraints focuses on identifying the constraints of the system and improving them until no constrains are left. Kanban, on the other hand, has WIP limits to ensure smooth flow of work.
  • TOC has buffers while Kanban uses queues.

Both of them can be used simultaneously to further optimize the system for greater efficiency.


Kanban is a great tool and is used across various sectors. It is used to improve your workflow through careful optimization of your workflow. It also helps in identifying and eliminating the problems with your current system.

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