I don’t get kanban -- I don’t work in production so how would it apply to one-off work?
Dear Gemba Coach,
We all produce something – don’t we? Be it report, plans, instructions – something. For instance, if you’re in service, you produce plans to get the technician in front of the customer at the right time with the right brief and the right parts. If you’re in engineering, you produce specs or designs. I’m a writer, I produce books and columns. Each one is a one-off, and yet there is a production stream.
Once you get your first kanban system running, regardless of the context, every other lean principle suddenly appears differently and you can start unlocking the secrets of sustainable, long-term quality and productivity through win-win relationships.The first mental revolution of kanban is to see one’s work as a flow of value, not as a once-and-never-again-until-I-need-to-get-back-at-it job. When we imagined Gemba Coach nine years ago (nine!), we set a weekly takt (a rhythm of once a week). At the time it seemed impossible to keep up, but it made me think right away in terms of sustaining a flow of value, with two core questions:
- How do I keep readers interested over a long period? Once I’ve said what I have to say, what then?
- How do I keep the execution cost down? If it’s too difficult to deliver, it simply won’t happen.
kanban is not a technique for stock replenishment. kanban is a technique to pull value through a capillary value production system rather than extract it in batches. kanban is just as powerful if each piece of work is different (each Toyota is different on the line, models, options, etc. and each car has its kanban card) than if the pieces are all the same (such as a component, where a kanban card corresponds to a box).
In the case of writing this column, of course, there have been many hits and misses and wanderings over such a long period of time (as well as writing ups and downs) – each column needs to be different. But, with my editor, we’ve learned to balance the questions of the moment with back-to-basics questions closer to the foundation of lean thinking.
kanban starts with establishing a takt time. Rather than think in the traditional terms of how many jobs you need to deliver in what period of time, turn this around and ask yourself “What’s the time interval between two pieces?” In the case of this example: one week. In other cases, it can be seconds, minutes, or (rarely) months. But thinking of work as a flow of value that needs to be sustained at a certain rhythm, changes how you look at it.
Our grasp of quality is the biggest change. This is no longer about writing a masterpiece and be done, this is about maintaining quality over years. Once you’ve got a basic standard, this allows you to question and try things one at a time. And answers change. For instance, my editor always felt that I write too long – and that’s true. Many people stop reading after the first couple of paragraphs. But then again, we’re now discovering that higher word counts are correlated with higher social media rankings. We didn’t know that at the time. But both positions are valid. Technically, this means that I try to get the most important point across in the first three paragraphs and then blabber on as much as I like.
I know I need to deliver a column a week. The ideal lead-time is instantaneous from request to delivery. However, it takes me a certain time to write a column, shall we say a couple of hours on and off for 1,500 words. If I want to deliver just in time to my editor I need a couple of columns ready ahead of time in a supermarket.
The supermarket is not going to be filled with six months worth of work, but will vary from one to four columns ahead of demand, according to what kind of topics I’m tackling and when my diary is free to write.
- When he’s pulled one from the supermarket, I know I have to write one – but it need not be right on the spot if I’m busy with other things: it visualizes my non-flexibility without screwing up my schedule.
- Because they are pulled one by one, I can be responsible for the quality of each piece and check that it’s OK before sending it.
- My editor does a “final inspection” review which leads to work together on a “finishing touch’” – polishing the issues we catch and a discussion on the overall quality of the flow at any given time: what do we need to change, what do we need to keep?
The Root of Lean
When it comes to the kanban itself, it doesn’t have to be a card that gets reinjected in the system. Anything can work as a kanban – it’s a signal that corresponds to a check. With this check (bolt, email, card), I purchase a fixed quantity of work.
I like cards because with today’s tech it’s easy to have a barcode or QR code and thus track the lead-time in the system. Tracking the lead-time allows us to have an andon call if some cards steer over the standard time for delivery – the equivalent of my editor asking me what’s going on if I haven’t delivered a column a week after he’s asked.
In this example, my editor is pulling on just one person. But the real power of kanban is when he starts using the same system for all authors. The benefits of establishing a drip-by-drip flow of value across several production cells are surprising – and inspiring. Many of the usual issues of getting people to deliver disappear, which creates much smoother, trusting relationships whilst enabling real discussions. Content discussions happen steadily all the time as opposed to storing rancor and batching debates when no one is ready to listen – or speak.
This steady flow of value with time-after-time discussion and adjustment is the real power of kanban. It creates a flow of trust as well as work because you now have one-on-one conversations as opposed to one-to-many.
The beauty of kanban is that you treat each person as an individual, not a part in a process. You treat each issue as singular, easier to solve and to learn from. kanban is at the root of lean, so, believe me, you haven’t practiced lean for real until you’ve tried your hand at kanban. Once you get your first kanban system running, regardless of the context, every other lean principle suddenly appears differently and you can start unlocking the secrets of sustainable, long-term quality and productivity through win-win relationships.
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