Kanban: Lessons from a Supermarket

Kanban boards are all the rage for task management. They’re intuitive, simple, and effective. By incorporating a visual layout, it transformed the to-do list from an annoyance to a productivity tool. Where do kanban boards come from? Ultimately, the supermarket.

Kanban Board

Taiichi Ohno was a factory supervisor in a Toyota manufacturing plant. Ohno was struck by the difference between his factory and the local supermarket. Ohno saw that supermarkets did not seem to have the kind of overstocking or understocking problems that factories did. Customers in a supermarket take what they need, and the supermarket, in turn, only stocks what it expects customers to take. The supermarket monitors their inventory, and when it runs low, orders the next batch. This repeats each day, or week, with items sitting on the shelves for the smallest time possible – yet shoppers always have what they want to buy.

Just In Time

Ohno zoomed in on a key point – it is possible to create a system in a factory that mimics this “just in time” stocking system of a supermarket, and optimize the production process. If the rate of production can be matched with the supply, you can eliminate waste, overstock, unnecessary orders, and more. When run properly, a kanban system creates a closed loop from supply to production and back again. Rather than supply “pushing” production, production “pulls” supply as needed.

The Toyota Production System

Ohno introduced the system to the factory, basing it on the idea of “making only what is needed, only when it is needed, and only in the amount that is needed.” This system was eventually adopted by Toyota as a whole. As the system was expanded to the entire company, it became the Toyota Production System – a comprehensive system designed to eliminate seven biggest drains on productivity in a factory:

  1. Waste of overproduction (largest waste)
  2. Waste of time on hand (waiting)
  3. Waste of transportation
  4. Waste of processing itself
  5. Waste of stock at hand
  6. Waste of movement
  7. Waste of making defective products
  8. Waste of underutilized workers

The Toyota Production System revolutionized the automotive industry, and put Toyota at the top. These productivity drains cost companies money at the bottom line, and every eliminated waste also eliminated a cost. The Toyota Production System in turn created the Just In Time production method, which is used around the world across multiple industries today.

Key Takeaway

Lessons for optimizing productivity are everywhere, even at the cheese counter in the supermarket! Eliminating the seven wastes from your project will help you get more done, faster, and more effectively. Rather than supply “pushing” your output, tune your effort to allow demand to “pull.” For project management, you will conserve your team’s energy and keep them operating at peak efficiency by employing these techniques.