A Lean, Kanban Manufacturing Concept Ripe for the IT World

Kanban is the Japanese word for 'sign.' The core of Kanban is a production pull system where flow between work stations within a factory as well as with external suppliers and distributors is driven by downstream demand.

The goal of Kanban is to level production across a system, reduce lead times, and decrease excess inventory - all major components of the lean definition of waste. Many different tools and processes have been created to accomplish this including a concept known as the 'visual factory.'

The intent of the visual factory is to empower workers with information pertaining to a production system beyond that of their own work station. By having access to the big picture, well trained and motivated employees can begin self-managing the production system according to lean principles.

This technique is highly adaptable to the information technology workspace. Modern knowledge workers thrive on information and are capable of making the myriad decisions necessary to maintain optimal productivity without minute by minute managerial involvement. The visual factory is a powerful tool to enable skilled, dedicated teams get to the next evolutionary level - self-organization.

Examples that Theory Y Managers will Love

Pretty much everyone who has taken a business management course has probably had to answer exam questions about Douglas McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X assumes that employees will avoid work whenever able and that constant, close management is necessary. Theory Y, the more accepted of two in most modern practices, states that employees are self starters who work hard at their jobs and are even capable of self-management and course correction when it comes to tactical goal obtainment.

Managers who subscribe to McGregor's Theory Y will quickly see the value of always available, at a glance production information whether it be in an IT situation or elsewhere. A help desk call center could be aware of average wait time and number of customers on hold via wall mounted LCDs. Again, if one subscribes to Theory Y, many infinitesimal decisions are going to be made by the employees that could have profoundly beneficial effects on the center's overall performance. Break times might be adjusted when the backlog and wait times are increasing. Effort and focus could ramp up when the collective body of service providers sees that they are getting behind.

Doing this successfully also requires a range of management competencies beyond the scope of this article to incentivize success through obtainable, metric based goals and to foster a self-managing team environment. The point is that with the information available, dedicated and trusted employees will take steps on their own for the organization to be successful.

This same principle is very well represented in an arena that many CapTechers will be much more familiar with - Agile software development.

Agile Gets It

One could make a very strong case that Agile is the software development incarnation of Lean Six Sigma, and Agile has fully embraced the concept of the visual factory whether practitioners realize it or not. Waste exists in much the same way within a development team. In fact, a typical waterfall team can easily be compared to a very inefficient factory from the last century.

In waterfall, developers sit idle until they receive development tasks properly vetted by business analysts and dev leads. Then they work at various rates until their tasks are complete. Some programmers finish faster than others, and if the feature pipeline is empty, they sit idle.

Many developers stay 'heads down,' plugging away on features that are no longer top priority to the stakeholders. At the same time, in demand functionalities that need to be front loaded because of marketplace developments sit in the queue because a plan written and approved months ago says that is the way things have to be done. Changing the project plan requires approval of numerous entities, the blessing of assorted deities, and perhaps even the sacrifice of various forest creatures.

In its purest form, Agile is a true software building utopia and is lean to the extreme. Teams are self-organizing, self-managing, and cross trained enough to assist with any of the major development functional areas. When a task is completed, a new task is simply withdrawn from the backlog and started. The cross team training and familiarity allows developers and designers to help other team members ensuring that no bandwidth is wasted throughout the course of the sprint. Shippable software containing the features currently desired the most is produced at the end of each sprint.

Well establish Agile teams are virtual factory workers constantly surrounded by real time data. Roadmaps, task boards, and burn down charts line the walls of team work spaces. This information is crucial to the team's success as self-managers. It allows decisions to be made on the spot that impact the future of the project without any input outside of the team.

Team progress is always clear via the burn down chart making time and resource allocations self-evident, and members are empowered and incentivized to complete the agreed upon sprint backlog on time. The sprint team's buy in is often higher because they have a big picture sense and control of what is going on as opposed to working on a single task in an informational vacuum.

In Conclusion

Knowledge and information is power. One of the key workplace differentiators between now and just 30 years ago is that real time data that was once available to a privileged few executives can now be disseminated throughout an organization.

This absolutely holds true in the IT. Production data regarding a project is widely available and expected in the modern age. Though some forms of data dissemination have become common place such as gantt charts and burn down charts, the possibilities are so much greater. The goal is to provide each team member with near realtime overall project progression, task progression, and visibility on what everyone else is working on. When accomplished, you will have laid an important piece of the foundation necessary to construct a high performing, self-organizing, and Agile team.