The kan ban man can

A colleague posted a link to an article about the KanBan system the other day … my word, it’s been a while since I heard that mentioned. Excuse me a moment while I have a fade-to-wibbly-lines flashback.

It seems that kanban is going to be one of the next big things in management, which is kind of disturbing. Correctly applied it’s a brilliant system, but there are (as ever) several things you need to get right.

First though, let’s establish what kanban means. When you say the word, what I see is this …


This is because once upon a time, when I worked in electronics manufacture, the kanban was the rack where we got the next box of components to build another batch of devices. At the beginning of each production line was a pic-n-mix of cases, substrates and electronic components in small boxes. I never saw the boxes empty, because the computer tracked the number of devices built and signalled the stores guy to load up a trolley with whatever we would need in the next shift, bringing it round and restocking the rack before we ran out. Allocating parts to the kanban rack signalled the stores computer to order more parts from the supplier only when they were needed.

The point was to ensure that when we needed parts, we had them – and there weren’t hundreds of parts sitting in racks or in the stores (representing money tied up and not available for other needs). It also meant that if the specification for any device changed – different gauge of wire, higher rated resistor, thicker gold plating on the substrate – we didn’t end up with hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of obsolete parts. We could change to the new spec immediately and relatively painlessly.

This particular employer, although very different from local government, is where I learned most of what I apply every day in my current role. Here are my top tips:

1. Change doesn’t have to hurt.

If you have set things up correctly, change is easy. Nobody has a vested interest in using the old (process, parts, specification) because the supply line is responsive and adapts easily to new instructions. It’s also critical that everybody knows what has changed and why, and what they are now expected to do.

2. No matter what you do for a job, you have at least one customer – and if they’re not happy, you have failed.

Your customer might be the person who buys the product you make, but only if you personally build every piece and place it in their hand yourself. If you don’t, then they’re only your target market. Your customer is the next person in line.

This is important, because for most people I work with, their customer is their immediate line manager or supervisor. It doesn’t matter what the policies or the rules say, their job security depends on making that person happy. At the factory, my customer was the team I handed my part-built devices to. If they weren’t happy with the quality, and sent them back to be reworked, I had failed. If I didn’t build enough and they were sat waiting for me to supply them, I had failed. If they had a sufficient supply of devices built to the correct specification and standard, I was succeeding.

3. Empowered teams happen when you hand over power. There is no other way.

I’ve written about this before, but it’s too important to miss a chance to hammer home this message. You can’t tell a team they’re empowered and then try to control their every move, or allow anyone else in the command chain to do so. At the factory we had, allegedly, empowered teams – but the memo hadn’t reached the middle managers, some of whom continued to try to run the production line like a military installation. This caused a lot of problems, most of which I don’t want to remember, even as a learning example. Lets just say, it was a steep curve for me, my workmates and a wide swathe of the corporate ladder.*

4. You cannot ration these things – information, leadership and innovation. You would be deluded to even try.

Try to deny staff the right to information, and they’ll find it some other way. Impose a power structure that leaves staff without direction, and they will reform around a leader of their own choosing. You might not like who they choose, but you’ll be stuck with ’em. ** And innovation … It’ll happen. People have ideas, and sometimes they’re really good. If you stamp them flat the first time they reach for daylight, you won’t see any more – but they’ll keep happening nonetheless.

If you want a really terrifying example – the factory’s night shift were repeatedly denied advanced training for the stock management system, which meant nobody had any kind of admin rights. No new accounts could be added, so if you had just joined somebody else had to stop what they were doing to do your computer work for you. If a mistake was made, it couldn’t be resolved until 8am. Day shift would spend an hour processing and recoding mistakes before they could start doing their own work.

So … some smart guy *** hacked in and made himself an administrator with full access and all the privileges. Now he could sort all of these problems without holding up the line or bothering the IT department. He also let a few strategically chosen colleagues know how to do the same. From management’s point of view, the problem (requests for training they weren’t prepared to allow or fund) went away. I leave it to you to imagine how bad that could have gone.

On balance, I still think KanBan is a good system. Lets use it, by all means. Just … don’t say I didn’t warn you.


* My line manager’s pet name for me was ‘Lucifer’. I’m almost certain that’s unrelated though.

** As my managers were with me. Be warned. See also *

*** Not me, although it would have been if I’d thought of it first …


About jargonaut

Unashamed geek lost in policy land. Frequently required to believe three impossible things before breakfast, and implement them by tea time.
This entry was posted in Organisational Development, Ramblings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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