The Kanban method for lean manufacturing

You already know how important efficiency and waste reduction are for effective manufacturing, but do you know how the Kanban method relates to lean manufacturing and strives for operational excellence?

Get ready to soak in everything there is to know about this pillar of lean manufacturing.

Today, we’ll be covering:

What is the Kanban method?

Kanban is a Japanese term that roughly translates as ‘visual card.’

The Kanban method is a visual scheduling system developed by Toyota when they implemented their Toyota Production System (TPS).

The Kanban method was designed to optimise production processes and achieve a smooth and efficient workflow by regulating the amount of materials and information across the production process.

How does the Kanban method work?

As with most effective processes, the Kanban method is quite simple and easy to implement. 

This method works by representing the production process visually, and it works as follows:

Visual signals —At the core of Kanban, we find visual signals or cards. Each work-in-progress (WIP) item, such as a part or product, is represented by a physical card or a digital equivalent. These cards act as signals, indicating when production or replenishment should take place.

Pull system —Instead of a traditional push system, where products are made based on a forecast, Kanban operates a pull system. This means that products are manufactured or restocked only when there’s a demand signal, that is, when a Kanban card is displayed.

Limiting WIP —Kanban cards are limited, so the amount of work in progress at any given time is controlled. When the WIP reaches its limit, production stops until a Kanban card is returned, indicating there’s space available for more work.

Continuous improvement  —Kanban encourages continuous improvement by analysing the reasons for stoppages and slowdowns in production, which in turn enforces a culture of problem-solving and operational efficiency.

Why is the Kanban method important for lean manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing is all about reducing waste and increasing efficiency in production processes, and the Kanban method aligns seamlessly with these goals.

There are several reasons why the Kanban method is relevant for lean manufacturing. Let’s take a look:

Kanban method for lean manufacturing

Waste reduction

One of the core principles of lean manufacturing deals with eliminating waste, referred to as muda in Japanese. 

The Kanban’s pull method tackles multiple forms of waste head-on:


Traditional manufacturing can lead to overproduction due to inaccurate demand forecasting.

Kanban ensures that products are only produced when needed, reducing excess inventory and storage costs.

Excess inventory

By setting limits on WIP and producing only what is necessary, Kanban helps factories maintain lean inventories, freeing up space and resources.

Waiting times

Production inefficiency often results in waiting times, where both workers and resources are idle. Kanban minimises these wait times by synchronising production with demand.


Defective products are a form of waste. The Kanban system encourages early detection of defects.

Because Kanban stops production when an issue arises, the problem can be corrected immediately, and rework costs go down.


Manufacturers need to be able to respond quickly to changing market demands.

Kanban allows you to quickly adjust production levels based on real-time demand signals.

Streamlined processes

Lean manufacturing seeks to streamline processes, making them more efficient and effective. 

The Kanban method does precisely that by optimising the flow of materials and information. This streamlined approach minimises non-value-added activities, simplifying the production process.

Employee empowerment

Another critical aspect of lean manufacturing is involving employees in the continuous improvement process. 

The Kanban method encourages workers to identify and address production issues, which in turn improves employee productivity and engagement.

Benefits of the Kanban method

The Kanban method is a valuable tool in the lean manufacturing toolkit, and some of the advantages it brings to the table are: 

Inventory reduction —One of the most immediate and significant benefits of the Kanban method is inventory reduction.

When you produce only what you need when you need it, excess inventory is minimised. 

This saves storage space and lowers carrying costs and the risk of obsolete inventory.

Increased efficiency —Efficiency gains are a hallmark of the Kanban system. 

When you optimise your production process, reduce wait times, and eliminate overproduction, you can make more with fewer resources, which means higher productivity and profitability.

Improved quality —With the Kanban method, as soon as a defect is detected, production stops to quickly address the issue. This results in higher product quality. 

And because defective items are identified and corrected early in the process, you don’t need to worry about costly rework and can instead focus on boosting customer satisfaction.

Better visibility —The visual nature of the Kanban system provides real-time visibility over the production process so you can check progress.

This is crucial for decision-making, as managers can quickly identify bottlenecks, monitor progress, and allocate resources effectively.

Cost savings —Lean manufacturing principles, including the Kanban method, seek to improve cost efficiency. 

Reduced waste and improved efficiency contribute to a more cost-effective manufacturing operation.

Increased customer satisfaction —By aligning production with customer demand, the Kanban method ensures that products are delivered on time. 

This leads to higher customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Real-life examples of the Kanban method

The Kanban method has made its mark across various industries, transforming manufacturing processes and yielding impressive results. 

Today, we bring you 3 different industries that use the Kanban method successfully:

Toyota Production System

The birthplace of the Kanban method, Toyota, has reaped substantial rewards from its implementation. 

Toyota’s production lines are renowned for their efficiency and quality. 

By using Kanban cards to regulate the flow of parts and materials, Toyota has minimised waste, reduced inventory levels, and achieved high levels of flexibility and responsiveness.

Virginia Mason Medical Center

Lean principles, including Kanban, are not limited to manufacturing. 

The Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle adopted the Kanban method to streamline its supply chain and improve patient care. 

They used Kanban to manage inventory of medical supplies, ensuring that essential items were always available, reducing costs, and improving patient safety.


Kanban is not exclusive to physical production; it can be applied to knowledge work as well. 

Spotify, the music streaming giant, uses Kanban boards to manage its software development process. 

Teams visualise their work, prioritise tasks, and pull new work items as capacity becomes available. This approach has helped Spotify maintain a fast-paced and highly adaptive development process.

mlean® and the Kanban method

By adopting the Kanban method, factories can reap multiple benefits, including reduced inventory, increased efficiency, improved quality, and enhanced customer satisfaction. 

Kanban also empowers employees to actively participate in the continuous improvement process, fostering a culture of problem-solving and innovation.

At mlean, we developed our mlean® Production System with lean manufacturing and digital continuous improvement in mind, including principles from the Kanban method.

We also understand the chaotic and complex nature of factories, which is why we’ve created this modular solution to help you unify your tech stack and manage your plant from a 360° angle with:

  • Standardisation
  • Maintenance
  • Shop floor management
  • Start of production
  • Audits
  • Improvement drivers
  • … And much more

Our system connects everybody from shop floor to office, making daily tasks easier to record, access, and track from a multilevel perspective.

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