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What are Kanban Squares?

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.

Kanban squares can be used in manufacturing to manage resource usage. This lesson illustrates how this simple concept can be used to avoid unnecessary waste.

An Empty Shelf

Have you ever gone to the grocery store to pick up a few things, only to find an empty shelf where one of your favorite items usually sits? It's mildly annoying, but you will probably find something very similar to put in your cart so that you can continue with your shopping. Now imagine a similar situation, but in this case you are managing a large assembly line. You unexpectedly find yourself without any stock in one specific area, but there aren't any replacements available. At this point the entire assembly line may grind to a halt, leading to a great waste of time due to poor inventory control. Kanban squares are a simple tool that can help you avoid these kinds of issues.

Some Useful Kanban Background

Kanban itself is a Japanese term that means 'visual card', and was created as a process improvement methodology used in manufacturing. This visualization process is used to help manage the flow of work in the system, with the ultimate goal being to avoid waste and unnecessary overhead, and to reduce the amount of work in progress at any time.

Kanban squares are a particular type of visualization process that uses actual physical space to help identify when resources are running low in a particular area. The term kanban square was adopted because the space used for this purpose was typically a painted square on a factory floor. While kanban itself has been adopted in a wide variety of areas outside of manufacturing, the use of kanban squares will typically be limited to a factory or assembly line setting, or as part of overall inventory management control.

How Kanban Squares Work

Let's take the example of an assembly line to understand how kanban squares are put to use. At each station a specific set of supplies are required. Each of these supplies will be stored close to the assembly line in a specific location, which will be a kanban square. In some cases the square might contain a single part, in other cases it might contain a pallet or a bin that contains many smaller parts that are required at that station.

A pallet or bin that is empty is removed from the square, indicating that it needs to be replaced by another full set of supplies. The pallet or bin itself may have some sort of card or specific information attached to it that provides the required re-stocking information. This type of information can also be handled electronically, but it will still rely upon the physical state of the kanban square itself to provide the associated signal.

In some cases a single square will suffice, and in other cases there may be one or more squares used. If multiple squares are used, this is usually an indication that a certain backlog of stock needs to be maintained. In this case the kanban squares are often painted different colors, which are used to help define when re-ordering is necessary. An empty green square might indicate that you still have enough supplies on hand, while an empty red square might indicate that restocking of that supply is required.

Each supply used at a station will have its own set of kanban squares, with number and coloring depending on individual production and acquisition factors. For example, assume one station requires multiple different types of parts. If a particular part is difficult to obtain or produce, you may need to order or restock that part well ahead of another part that can be more easily obtained. In this case you might have a larger number of squares for the part requiring more time to procure, and the reorder signal, typically a red square, will be found early in the sequence.

Depending on the size of the parts being assembled, physical kanban squares may be replaced by other types of containers. Smaller boxes or bins on shelves may be useful for maintaining a backlog of smaller supplies, particularly if these parts are used at multiple stations. Color-coded file folders may be useful for document-based systems.

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