In any industrial facility, communication and visual cues can improve day-to-day operations—but what process is best for your facility? In facilities that struggle with production backlogs, excess waste, or defective products coming off the line, a visual management system like Kanban may be the answer.

What Is Kanban?

In Lean/5S manufacturing or industrial facilities, Kanban often refers to an inventory control pull system that works based on customer need rather than forecasting. Also referred to as Just-in-Time (JIT) manufacturing, Kanban aims to reduce overproduction and wasted warehouse space by producing to demand, whereas, in a push system, the forecasting-based production may result in over- or underproduction.

Kanban is a Lean Manufacturing term, but the process may look familiar no matter what industry you’re in. The Kanban system is often used in manufacturing, healthcare, technology, and retail inventory management.

Kanban, meaning “billboard,” uses physical or digital cues to display progress and next steps. For Kanban users in the technology sector, this may be a whiteboard or other display board or even a digital bulletin board solution.

How Does Kanban Reduce Waste?

Studies suggest that people can process signs with graphics faster than text alone, and are more likely to remember visuals better than text instructions. Kanban helps employees visualize and manage the workflow, limit works-in-progress for better focus, and encourages collaboration to complete processes efficiently.

While Kanban is often used to trigger production or inventory replenishment, it can also be implemented as a workflow solution. With Kanban, it’s easy for everyone, from production floor employees to upper management, to see the progress at a glance, without the need to stop staff to ask for an update or decide where help is more needed.

Logging the time spent on each step within the process allows for research into areas where workflow may be stagnating, where there may be bottlenecks, or areas that could use improved methods for better efficiency. Kanban visuals may also pinpoint where unnecessary effort is spent, highlight irregularities, and reveal areas where staff are overburdened—which can lead to errors.

Visual Cues for Kanban

Generally, Kanban is broken into four basic steps: A backlog queue, up next, in progress, and complete. Each of these steps can be split further, as needed. For example, the in-progress items may be split within steps in the “in progress” designation. Pre-production work may be in progress step one, while production may be step two, then packaging may be step three. This general example illustrates how the Kanban process, while structured, can be tailored to each facility’s specific needs. The backbone of Kanban is a visual management system to organize and track the steps in the process.

Kanban Display Board

A Kanban board is the simplest tool that works for visual project management. It can be minimal, such as a bulletin board or pocket-style board. The process can also be separated into upcoming tasks, tasks in progress, and completed tasks, with additional steps in between as needed. As an item moves through the processes, a coordinating Kanban, or card, moves along the board to create a visual of the progress.

A simplified Kanban may be implemented using a whiteboard with a divided circle, which is split into quarters or thirds. Depending on how many points in the process, each “slice” of the circle is colored as that step is completed. For example, when picking is complete, a quarter is filled. Then, another when packing is complete—creating a half-filled circle. Delivering to the shipping department creates a three-quarters-filled circle, and the process is complete when the package is shipped, so the final quarter is filled to signify that the last step has been finished. The Kanban process can be implemented at any point in the production or warehousing process.

Two-Bin Inventory Management System

The two-bin system can be used to automate stock replenishment, improve stock distribution efficiency, and prevent shortages. This system targets components of the manufacturing process and ensures inventory is available, rather than tracking the process from beginning to end.

With the two-bin Kanban method, an empty bin signals the beginning of the process: Items necessary for production are distributed into the empty basket so the workers on the production line can begin assembly. The filled basket is replaced by an empty one, ready for replenishment. This prevents a backlog of components as the parts are only gathered and queued when there are employees ready to assemble the products. Additionally, the division of tasks reduces the time to completion as one employee or team is responsible for components while another manages assembly.

For larger-scale options implementing a two-bin system, floor markings and signage are ideal to designate space for pallets, bins, or rolling carts. This keeps the space organized, ensuring the cart is always returned to the appropriate place—but also makes it simple to see at a glance if the process has stalled.

Floor Markings, Shelf Labels, and Signage for Kanban

For production facilities or warehouses, color-coded floor marking tape and custom signage can improve communication and boost efficiency. Floor markings may even turn up space you didn’t know you had: When areas are measured and marked, you may find that the improved organization creates additional workspace or storage.

For pallets of components or large orders, turn the process on the Kanban board into floor markings.

  1. Mark the floor with red (queue), yellow (in progress), and green (complete) taped boxes and corresponding floor signs to designate holding areas.
  2. Place the components necessary in the corresponding box so it’s clear where items stand in the manufacturing process.
  3. When an item is in the queue—or red box—it signals that work is ready to begin.
  4. After the process has been initiated, the product moves through the boxes, the physical location acting as a visual cue when the next steps in the process may start.

To implement Kanban in a smaller capacity, using warehouse shelving units and marking points in the process with shelf labels may be sufficient. The goal is to create visual cues to initiate workflow and promote progress.

Limiting the number of in-progress tasks can prevent bottlenecks and over-production. Similarly, an in-progress cue that’s consistently below capacity may indicate a lag in production or point to staffing concerns.

No matter the process, a Kanban-style system may help improve productivity and encourage employee autonomy. Tailor the method to your location and provide ample training, and watch for opportunities for improvement. For more tips for boosting efficiency in industrial locations, explore our Resource Center.