Kaizen & Kanban: Process & Differences

Instructor: Bob Bruner

Bob is a software professional with 24 years in the industry. He has a bachelor's degree in Geology, and also has extensive experience in the Oil and Gas industry.

Kaizen and Kanban are terms that are rooted in Japanese business and manufacturing, particularly as it developed in the last half of the 20th century. In this lesson we will explore the meanings of these terms, and how they relate to overall project management activities.

If you were a manager of a production system and kept encountering a backlog at the same spot every few days, what would you do? What if your employees seemed to be making the same small mistakes over and over? A quick review of management literature might lead you to look at adopting Kanban and Kaizen practices. Let's take a deeper look at why these might draw your attention, starting with some basic definitions.

Kanban and Kaizen Definitions

Kanban is a term that literally means visual card or sign. This system was originally used as a way to monitor assembly lines in a production environment, but the term has been broadened to refer to an overall signaling system that has been adopted by many software organizations as a part of Agile project management. As we shall see, it is particularly useful in the visualization of pull scheduling systems, where it is used as an aid to maintaining optimal system throughput.

Kaizen simply means change for the good. Its use reflects a philosophy that is based upon attempting to make continuous improvement in all areas of work activities. A key part of optimizing change for the better is to eliminate waste and excess in the system. In many ways adopting Kaizen is less process oriented than implementing Kanban, but there are many overlaps as well as dissimilarities in the two approaches.

A Kanban Process

The first part of the Kanban procedure is to simply visualize your actual workflow. This begins by identifying the individual categories or lanes of your delivery system. These are shown on a Kanban board, typically as horizontal column headings. Your actual work items are split into logical pieces, each of which is an item that is written on a card. As work items flow through the delivery system these cards are subsequently moved on the Kanban board as well.

A key component of Kanban methodology is to limit the amount of Work in Progress (WIP) in any one lane. Explicit limits are set for each category, and work is not allowed to be started or pulled into a lane if the amount of work in that lane is already at its limit. A process in which work is begun only when there are resources available to accomplish the necessary tasks is referred to as pull scheduling.

The nature of the visual Kanban board typically makes any bottlenecks in the system easily visible. In our example at the start of the lesson, everyone would quickly notice the same backlog issues, and any steps taken to correct the issue would likely be well received. Kanban promotes a collaborative spirit towards addressing any Work in Progress backlog, and resources are typically dynamically allocated in order to address any issues.

The time that each card stays in any lane, as well as the time a card is waiting to move into a subsequent lane should be recorded for analysis. A key to effective Kanban usage is to analyze both the overall process and the processes within each individual lane, with the ultimate goal being to find ways to remove waste or inefficiencies that are identified.

The Kaizen Philosophy

The Kaizen philosophy assumes that constant small improvements can be found in every system, and that the sum of these ongoing improvements can ultimately lead to large gains in productivity. In particular Kaizen will look to eliminate any waste and excess that is noted in the system.

In order to achieve the Kaizen goal of continuous improvement the work environment must foster open communications within and across the organization. A team embracing Kaizen will empower every individual in the organization to make suggestions, and the implementation and results of any suggestions that are adopted are intended to be readily visible across the organization.

The process used to implement change follows a basic procedure of identifying an issue, making a suggestion for change, and then implementing a new procedure intended to improve the situation. This concept was further popularized as part of a quality control guideline that employs a four step approach:

Plan - Do - Check - Act

This feedback loop is commonly referred to by its acronym, PDCA, and made a logical fit to Kaizen philosophy when it was first introduced. The iterative feedback nature of this loop will also be familiar to practitioners of Iterative Agile project management.

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