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Everyone who was an adult before the 1990's remembers that cars used to breakdown regularly. Think back. It happened a lot. So what has changed? Why are we no longer using call boxes on the side of the freeway so often? Well... other than the fact that we all now have mobile phones ;) It was quality management in manufacturing that finally took root in America. Back then it was called Total Quality Management (TQM) and was taught to the Japanese after WWII by Americans like W. Edwards Deming and Joseph M. Juran.  It got bad for a while here in the U.S. In the 1970s and '80s Toyota and other Japanese manufacturer's almost killed the American auto industry with their inexpensive cars that used less gas and were more reliable. It took massive initiatives for the American auto industry to catch up. Ford had their famous "Quality is Job 1" campaign and there was even a popular and funny, but very serious, '80s movie called Gung Ho that told the story of the culture-shock American workers endured in making the change to a zero-defect mindset.

A lot has changed in the American economy and workforce since the 1980s. Far fewer of us are making things. Most people work in offices and type on computers all day. But much of what was learned about "quality management" is only now being translated and put to use in modern "knowledge work." Today's complex professional services businesses like software makers, attorneys, and "consultants" (like PFCS), are working on projects just as complex as automobiles or other manufactured products. But this modern work is being performed with a production system similar to the way old time craftsmen worked, relying on "judgement" and "experience" rather than engineered systems that include measurement of productivity and quality, with continuous improvement built in.

What Is Kanban?

"Kanban (看板 ?) (literally signboard or billboard in Japanese) is a scheduling system for lean manufacturing and just-in-time manufacturing. Kanban is an inventory control system to control the supply chain. Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, developed kanban to improve manufacturing efficiency." - Wikipedia

The fundamentals of a Kanban system: 

  1. Visualize the workflow (i.e. Visual Management)

  2. Limit Work-In-Process (WIP)

  3. Focus on the Flow (Measure Cycle Time)

  4. Defective products are not sent to subsequent processes. The result is 100% defect-free goods.

  5. Start with the existing process

  6. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change and continuous improvement

  7. Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities, and titles

  8. Leadership at all levels (Lead with a team approach)

Toyota studied supermarkets with the idea of applying shelf-stocking techniques to the factory floor. The supermarket stocks only what it expects to sell in a given time, and customers take only what they need, since future supply is assured. A process is the customer of one or more preceding processes. The "customer" process goes to the store to get required components, which in turn causes the store to restock. Kanban aligns inventory levels with actual consumption. A signal tells a supplier to produce and deliver a new shipment when material is consumed. These signals are tracked through the replenishment cycle, bringing visibility to the supplier, consumer, and buyer. Kanban uses the rate of demand to control the rate of production, passing demand from the end customer up through the chain of customer-store processes. (Wikipedia)

By limiting the work in process (WIP) at each step in the process, Kanban naturally exposes bottlenecks. These previously hidden bottlenecks can be opened, thus increasing the rate of the system's throughput.

Around 2010 Kanban started being applied to software development. In manufacturing of physical products, "visual management" is easy, because you can see the work by walking to the work area and following the physical flow of the process. In knowledge work, the fundamental "Visualize the workflow" (i.e. Visual Management) is less natural, but creating a visual management system dramatically increases the ease of understanding of the process and progress toward the objective. The power of Kanban changes the game even more dramatically when processes can (or need to) run in parallel, and the work of multiple processes is combined at various points in the process.

Why We Care

We know that professional services (generally) can be delivered with a much higher level of quality than they currently are; that is, faster, better, cheaper, more consistent. We want to create a system for increasing quality, improving consistency (decreasing variability), and continuously improving. We are already a really good consultancy. But it's our intention to be a great one; truly world-class. Like a professional services "solutions factory" for building problems. We think this manufacturing facility analogy is perfect (take a look at this video of the Tesla factory). "Problems" come into our "factory" and "solutions" are the resulting product that is manufactured inside and delivered to the customer, defect-free.

We know from our studies in quality management (including TQM, Lean, Lean Six Sigma) that using Kanban to control the process flow is a tool that will work for us. It's our intention to make a kanban system for world-class delivery of professional services. In our system, the technical consultants are the "customers" that come to the supermarket and our project coordinators keep the shelves stocked.

A Simple Kanban Application

A client of ours is the owner and manager of a multi-family residential project who needed to hire and manage a new on-site maintenance person. In one sitting we created a system that solved many of their issues. See the "To Do, Doing, Done" Kanban Board at the top of this post. We recommended they create a 4-foot tall, 6-foot wide board with these 3 simple columns. The maintenance person creates a "Kanban Card" (Work Order) for every service call, email, or written request for maintenance.

Kanban Card (Work Order) Contents

  • Work Order Number

  • Start Date

  • Called in By

  • Building Element

  • Location (Building & Location / Elevation / Unit / Room)

  • Description / Scope of Work / Materials / Equipment / Hold Points

  • Scope Defined By (Who or What Source?)

  • Estimated Duration (hours)

  • Estimated Cost ($)

  • Assigned To

  • Actual Duration (hours)

  • Actual Cost ($)

  • Completion Date

  • Completion Notes

  • Technician Signature

  • Approved By Signature

This Kanban Card (Work Order) is placed in the To Do column of the big Kanban Board. The maintenance person prioritizes for the week and day by placing the highest priority cards at the top of the To Do column. Every day work orders are moved into the Doing column for the projects in process. At the end of the day, Cards are filled in with Actual Duration, Actual Cost, and Completion Date. All of these work orders represent 100% of the time spent by the maintenance person. At the end of the week the work orders in the Done column are scanned and saved in the personnel file and used for payroll. Critical building maintenance information is saved into the building maintenance files to create a record that a building maintenance expert (like PFCS) can use to continuously improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the work. 

Since the Kanban Board was placed in the maintenance office of the community clubhouse, it created a transparent communication system that addressed concerns of the people living in the community who could now see the priorities and what was in process. Community members now negotiate with real information about prioritizing use of this expensive and important resource (the full-time maintenance person). 


We used our not-patent-pending Proving the Obvious Using Google method to research this post.

Google Search Results: "Kanban"

  1. Kanban on Wikipedia: This is good to read completely.

  2. Kanban (Development) on Wikipedia: This is a must read.

  3. What is Kanban by Xxxxx:

  4. What is Kanban by LeanKit: This is a great read.

  5. Image Search "Kanban" by Google. There are LOTS of great examples of kanban being applied to professional services, especially software development.

  6. A Brief Introduction to Kanban by Atlassian: This is a great read.

  7. What is Kanban by Everyday Kanban: This is a great read.

  8. Kanban Flow: Lean project management simplified. This is a good "free" (you can pay to upgrade) software tool.

  9. Kanban by Crisp: A basic introduction that includes visuals of a simple system, benefits, and lots of other resource references.

  10. Personal Kanban 101: "The human brain however, simply does not respond well to the stress of juggling multiple priorities... That’s where Personal Kanban can help... allows us to visualize the amount of work we have..." There is a 7 minute video that demonstrates the basics of using a To Do, Doing, Done personal kanban board.

Other Awesome Resources

  1. Steve Jobs 1990 interview video about Joseph Juran and Quality. The first 11 minutes 10 seconds (not the full 19 minutes) are key. When watching this, I am not surprised that he changed the world with technology and created in his own lifetime the most valuable company in the world.

  2. Theory of Constraints

  3. The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. This is considered by many the best business book ever written. It is a parable of a factory and all of it's jobs saved by process improvement. The Theory of Constraints was introduced in this book.

  4. Lean Thinking

  5. The Deming Institute

  6. History of Quality by ASQ (American Society for Quality)

  7. Limited WIP Society

  8. Please send us more!!