Comparison Of Several Continuous Process Improvement Techniques – Part 3 of a Series

Continuous improvement is a philosophy by which organizations continually look for – and invest in – better ways to get their work done. This includes the evolution of their products and services, processes, procedures, workflows, and other aspects of day-to-day operations.

With so many techniques and methodologies available, it makes sense for organizations to evaluate and determine which one best meets their business needs and fulfills their objectives. For all approaches, it’s wise to remember the common mistakes that can occur with adopting any continuous process improvement mindset.

In Part 1 of our series, we summarized Kaizen, PDCA (Plan Do Check Act), and 5 Whys analysis.

In Part 2, we dug into Six Sigma and DMAIC – Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control.

In Part 3, we cover the Kanban method.

Kanban

The roots of applying Kanban (“visual signal” in Japanese) principles to manage factory floor inventory go back to the 1940s. Toyota Automotive knew they had to stay competitive and increase efficiency in the production line. One key issue was the cost associated with stocking inventory. Both raw materials and unfinished items languishing in inventory were considered a waste of space, time, and money.

A Toyota industrial engineer found inspiration in local supermarkets. Shelves were restocked only when almost everything available on the shelf had been purchased. He theorized that production lines could be managed similarly, with cards signaling the need for material replenishment. For example, an empty material container would have a card signifying the need for replacement action. These cards – the visual signal – communicated the required actions and gave the process its name.

From a focused start in “Just in Time” (JIT) automotive manufacturing processes, the Kanban method spread worldwide and today is used in many industries. The next chapter for Kanban introduced new principles and practices to improve efficiency for knowledge workers. The method helps optimize workflow while utilizing each team member to their full potential.

Benefits

There are numerous advantages to using the Kanban system to manage work, including:

  • Increased flexibility.
  • Focus on continuous delivery.
  • Reduction of wasted work/time.
  • Increased productivity.
  • Improved efficiency.
  • Improved collaboration.
  • Team members’ improved ability to focus.
  • More predictability.

Implementation of the Kanban method first requires the adoption of four fundamental principles

Start with what you are doing now: There’s no need to change existing processes, and process improvement is implemented over time.

Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change: Continuous, gradual change minimizes resistance and avoids disruption and team dissatisfaction.

Respect the current processes, roles, and responsibilities: No organizational changes are required at the outset, as existing processes, roles, and responsibilities are preserved until the need for change is evaluated.

Encourage acts of leadership at all levels: Decision-making and leadership are embraced and acknowledged at all levels of the organization.

Successful Kanban implementation also relies on embracing these six core practices

Visualize workflow: Understand the current flow of work and the sequence of execution steps to move from the initial request to a deliverable product. Observing this process allows you to track progress and identify bottlenecks in real-time.

Limit Work in Progress (WIP): Eliminate interruptions by controlling or limiting the amount of work in progress. This forces teams to focus on finishing what is already partially done before starting new work. 

Manage flow: One main goal of the Kanban method is to create the smoothest possible workflow by managing lead times and avoiding delay through observing and analyzing the process flow, with an eye on identifying problem areas. 

Make process policies explicit: Explicit procedures and policy documentation facilitate buy-in and allow everyone to suggest process improvements. Processes must be clearly defined, published, and communicated to everyone on the team.

Use feedback loops: Regular meetings and frequent opportunities to provide feedback are the way to facilitate positive change. 

Improve collaboratively: Kanban requires continuous, collaborative evaluation, analysis, and improvement. 

Remember that your Kanban system should accurately reflect your true process. Until you fully understand that, you can’t visualize where you want to be. 

Process improvement is a way of life at Thurman Co.

In addition to an in-house culture that thrives on ownership and responsibility throughout our team, we help businesses manage projects to significantly impact their success and growth, which often includes analyzing and improving processes.

When you’re ready to put your project in the hands of a trusted professional organization, contact us to learn more about working together.

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