Written by Steve Stephenson
Throughout this site you will find references and resource material about Kanban and processes for lean manufacturing.
Derived from the combination of two Japanese words, kan ("visual") and ban ("card" or "board"), kanban roughly translates to sign board or signal board.
In English it has developed a highly specialized meaning - kanban is a process of manufacturing or work space organization that relies upon visual signals to control inventory. Kanban has become synonymous Just in Time production and "demand scheduling." It i s a cornerstone of lean manufacturing, just as it relies upon 5s and kaizen, so to do they rely upon kanban for full implementation.
Kanban, as a means of manufacturing, was developed by Toyota during the late 1940s and early 1950s. During that period, the Toyota Corporation studied American supermarkets and their management techniques. Taiichi Ohno, the man credited with developing JIT, saw the relationship between the supermarket and its customer as an efficient means of organizing production, because a supermarket assures future stock while only supplying what the consumer has immediately signaled that he or she needs.
The premise behind this organization is a visual signal, a kanban. In the case of a supermarket it might be the level in a bin of oranges dipping below a certain marker. This visual signal, in turn, tells the supermarket employee to stock more oranges. Ohno saw the possibility to deploy this means of organization in Toyota's main machine shop, and had done so by 1953.
In the 1970s, with the economy worsening, kanban made its way across the Pacific Ocean to the United States. Since 1977 it has become the principle means of implementing Just in Time (JIT) production and is used in all manner of working environments.