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How Using Kanban Builds Trust

by Michael Ballé
August 12, 2020

How Using Kanban Builds Trust

by Michael Ballé
August 12, 2020 | Comments (4)

Lean started with kanban, and kanban is a trust machine. As I noted recently, kanban is far more than a lean tool: It should be seen as a gateway to lean, and as much of a foundation for improvement as a simple set of cards with information on them. In fact, when pressed to explain the true purpose of kanban (as recounted in Chapter II of The Birth of Lean), Taichi Ohno essentially admitted to Michikazu Tanaka that it was designed to create a positive tension in the workplace that would ultimately motivate people to do their best imaginable work.

There are four elements elements to kanban: a heijunka board reflecting takt time, the kanban cards, a shop stock, and component kanbans. 

My colleagues and I at Lean Sensei Partners produce and deliver short instructional videos. Here is our heijunka board: 

As we had no way of knowing what the “demand” would be for short videos on lean thinking, we reasoned that the people with the highest number of linkedin “follow” should publish more frequently, and so we should introduce those in the team with less visibility, which we translated into a rhythm of publication – a takt time. 

By reading the plan, I know who is doing what, and that on May 6th I will receive a kanban card asking me to deliver a video.

I have this video ready in my shop stock and will send it to our video leader. 

This activity signals me to start working on my next video to have it ready for the next pull.

Finally, this creates a materials kanban problem. I need to find the photos necessary to create the video, and I don’t yet have a regular source of procurement on that. 

Kanban holds the key to sincere communication and building trust over the long termI say that kanban is a trust machine because, first of all, follwing the instructions captured in the cards means that we all understand what we have to do and why. Our purpose here is to share our ideas on what we believe is important in lean thinking. Equally important, this is an opportunity for self-study (what do I have to say?) and team learning as we discuss each other’s work (what do we collectively think about that?). 

Through the clarity of the kanban, we can each discuss the plan, and discuss each individual video. For instance, when I struggled with the rapid pace that our takt time demanded, I shared this with the video leader, who immediately agreed to slow down my takt time (since we don’t know what real customer demand is, there is no big issue). Also when someone struggles with delivering on takt, they tell the leader right away who can help them out. Or, trickier, when I’m not sure about something that someone else is doing, I can have a quick chat with them about it.

It’s also trust machine because this method allows us to break down difficult conversations at the kanban level, which creates the right conditions for sincere communications. We discuss problems one at a time. We make changes one at a time. We learn to work with each other and be more understanding of our quirks. Meantime, production happens. Collectively, we can be proud of what we’ve achieved – and give ourselves a pat on the back.

Kanban holds the key to sincere communication and building trust over the long term.

But what happens if someone steps out of this conversation? Sometimes you don’t notice (although with kanban it’s visible enough), but responses get slower, conversations get more difficult, kanbans are skipped, changes are done grudgingly.

People change. Every one of us is under a lot of pressure from daily life and the egos of every individual, and sometimes alignments shift. At times this is not even a matter that people don’t see their interest in working with you, but simply that the pressures of life have moved them elsewhere. Then they start doing weird stuff.

The hardest challenge is when others behave in a way they know is wrong but feel they can’t do anything else. The justification engine gets going and generates the onlly obvious source of blame…their partners. Not fair enough. Not enough respect. Not enough help. Not enough consideration. We’ve all been through it.

Kanban cards don’t lie. When the kanban card doesn’t come back there are only two options:

  1. The delivery team is struggling, and willing to discuss it and work with you to fix the problems and get back on track
  2. The delivery team avoids communication and is busy doing something else

In case number two, the hardest decisions to make is: let them go and move on.

Precisely because lean can only function with trust, we invest massively in relationships. The main lean principle is relationship first: first fix the relationship, then fix the problem. And in 99% of cases it works spectacularly. But this also means accepting the case where the relationship is unfixable because the other guy has already made different choices which they simply have not told you yet.

When the kanban cards don’t come back, there is either a fixable problem, or they are being held for ransom. Accept it and don’t try to fix what can’t be fixed.

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Andrew Bishop August 12, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Years ago, touring our plant with my visiting colleague, Andy, we watched the main production floor from a mezzanine above the production staff offices.  I was so proud of the autonomous work of our associates – refugees, many of them, from crisis zones around the world with a dozen languages among them.  Everything moved like clockwork.  Hundreds of SKUs being pulled through a multiplex cell, distributed to specialized environments for continued processing, all driven by kanban and visually controlled.  Then the humiliation began – I couldn’t see why from my perch above but things ground to a halt!  From the quiet hum of the production floor confused voices rose. Embarrassed and flustered, I made excuses to Andy.  But he just kept watching patiently.   It was probably just a few moments (seemed like ages!) when he said “Look, it’s rebooting!” as the clockwork began to tick again.  Whatever problem had arisen was resolved at the front line and the pull of customer demand reasserted itself without intervention from a supervisor or manager. 

Part of the magic of a well elaborated kanban system is the autonomy it engenders.  Within the parameters of the system each is free to act and solve problems.  As you observe, this is an expression of trust and it engenders trust – horizontally through the value stream from one operator to the next, right up to and including the customer; and up and down the support system from the front line to the corner office. Thanks for the reminder.  Show respect!



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Michael Ballé August 13, 2020
2 People AGREE with this reply

Yes, thank you -that's exactly it.

There's a special feeling when things work not because it's a machine but because people flow as a team, and know what to do when they hit a problem - it's that feeling of cooperation, on passing the ball, I was trying to capture.

When you've experienced it, it'hard to understand why so few seek it - it's there, the door is kanban. And respect!

Thank you for that sharing that moment!



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Mark Reich August 15, 2020

Hello Michael,

I hope you are well and surviving these crazy times we're in.  Thank you for bringing us back to discuss the purpose of kanban.  I feel sometimes it gets obscured.  Certainly it is a topic worth revisiting to understand it's history and fundamentals.  And to explain again its purpose as a primary tool of the pull system that provides authority to build based on customer demand. As you say, this creates trust in everyone that what we produce is what the customer wants. We need more Posts like this one.   Thanks again.  



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Michael Ballé August 15, 2020

Thank you Mark for your kind comment! Yes, if we look back, kanban was the key tool to get lean really started at Toyota, from theory of just-in-time to practice, kanban is how most us first learned of lean in the old days, and now, in my practice, I still believe that kanban is the entry ticket to the rest of lean thinking - the practice that acts you into a different kind of thinking - and different kind of relationships.

Ironaically, a lot of the lean literature has become an argument around "you can do lean without kanban" with hoshin kanri, A3s, kata, startuyp, etc., but that is like practicing mindfulness without sitting down to meditate. Without the practice, you sit outside the room looking in but never get it!

Thank you for your support on this, and yes we need to get more people involed in this: whithout kanban, how do you know which problems to solve! Keep safe!



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