Scaling Kanban Across an Organization

In industry, when you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. Some will argue that it’s possible to plateau — to maintain a steady-state — but in reality, this doesn’t last. You may feel that you’re in control and running safely in “cruise-control” mode, but unplanned or unforeseen market changes can very quickly stall your business.

Kanban is a method of controlling inventory levels using visual markers. In the simplest examples, physical cards placed where you stock your inventory indicate when it is time to reorder or produce the item in question.

While one can easily picture this working in, say, a small store or warehouse, how does this scale up to global organizations? Or in the opposite case, how can you take the successful example of a Kanban implementation on a large scale (either elsewhere in your organization or in other industrial examples) and apply it to a smaller group or functional area under your control?

While the details of each Kanban implementation vary from organization to organization and from the largest groups down to the smallest companies, the heart of a Kanban inventory control system is the same: Remove the guesswork from establishing and maintaining inventory levels.

eliminate inventory guesswork

We have put together this guide to share our experience in scaling Kanban across different aspects and areas of your business. While Kanban can be applied to a broad spectrum of businesses, the implementation will vary depending on the size, complexity and scope of the project. Understanding how to scale a Kanban project before you get started will allow you to anticipate various issues and “right-size” a Kanban for your needs.

Why Scale Is Important

Kanban has been in use by Toyota since the middle of the 20th century and has been adopted across many industries over the past several decades. As a result, there is no end to the number of examples available to you.

Every organization will tweak their Kanban according to their business type and individual needs, but the heart of the Kanban stays the same: a visual indication or permission to adjust inventory and/or production levels.

kanban is easy

The problem with these examples, even the successful ones, is that they may or may not be representative of what you are planning to do. Kanbanize was created to offer a broad range of tools that are easy to learn and implement across a wide spectrum of business functions:

You can apply Kanbanize to these functions and see real productivity gains. We know that no two business are exactly alike, which is why we provide the flexibility to choose the options and process flow that suit your needs — including powerful analytics, time tracking, task visualization, email integration and more.

That doesn’t mean you need to start from zero and reinvent the wheel. It simply means that you need to understand the project as a whole, how it works and determine what needs to be scaled up or down to suit your specific needs. There is no limit to how much you can scale up Kanban, but it’s useful to design your system with room for future growth, either physically or across processes, departments and business units.

Key Steps in Implementing Your Kanban

No matter the scale of your Kanban project, there are several key steps to ensuring a smooth and painless deployment:

1) Know Your Processes Inside Out

know your processes


Once your organization has made the decision to implement a Kanban system, it can be tempting to jump quickly into building the system itself without doing a full analysis of your current state.

The advantages and rewards of the Kanban way of doing business are real and documented, which means many organizations want to create their Kanban quickly and start reaping the rewards. It is important to take the time to analyze your current situation fully and understand where the concrete improvements can be made. This includes aspects such as:

  • Processes: Is your production stable and predictable? Answering no to this question doesn’t mean you can’t properly create and scale a Kanban in your organization, but it does mean that you need to put some extra buffer and flexibility into your planning.
  • Involvement: This is where the notion of scale is important. A company-wide Kanban program has certain advantages and disadvantages at each level, and the amount of control you and your department have over the project is important to understand from the outset.
  • Investment: If the sky is the limit and a complete re-working of how your organization works is feasible, you won’t have the same constraints as an organization that has to limit their Kanban implementation to one specific area or process to start with.

Remember, Kanban isn’t simply labeled on a shelf or a graphical display on a computer screen. This is an important part of Kanban: Making inventory visible. Most would say this is the key (and this is the root of the word Kanban, which is Japanese for “signboard” or “billboard”), but this visual information isn’t useful unless the inventory limits they represent are meaningfully dimensioned.

Before you even start planning the type of Kanban displays (labels, floor or rack markings, bin sizes, etc.) you will install, make sure you have a good snapshot of where you are today. Not only will this help you scale your Kanban for the process at hand, but it will also give you a yardstick by which to measure your implementation, progress, and improvement.

2) Dimension for Today, but Plan for Tomorrow

plan ahead

Once you have your current status figured out with the help of tools like Value Stream Mapping, TAKT time and Process Flow charting, it’s time to let us help you put in place your personalized Kanban solution. Kanbanize is simple visual management software which boosts your productivity by applying lean principles to your work. We help you design your workflow, collaborate with others and track important metrics out of the box. Here again, it is important to consider scale. Your Kanban must meet your needs today but also allow for future growth.

Remember, a properly functioning Kanban system will allow you to reduce WIP (work in process) and minimize inventory over time, so this can free up some space on a Kanban board and storage area (or warehouse supermarket). It is still a good idea to identify other products that could benefit from Kanban treatment in the future. If your organization already works with Kanban, an ambitious project including all products and lines is feasible, but newcomers to this inventory control system may want to start with a pilot program on a stable product with the goal of adding others later.

The following are a few examples where planning ahead can benefit you in the long run:

Space Requirements

Some users will actually see an initial increase in the space required for their inventory upon go-live of a Kanban project. Your current situation analysis will reveal where you carry too much stock, but it could also highlight areas where you run too lean and don’t have enough inventory. Many newcomers to the Kanban way of organizing inventory and production often find their current physical layout and storage inadequate, disorganized or not visible enough.

When you apply the supermarket concept of inventory, where downstream processes supply themselves with the exact number of parts for their operations, you may find it necessary to separate certain types of inventory or create WIP storage close to workstations. Don’t fall into the “We’ve always done it this way” mentality. A Kanban system is a break from how many companies control their inventory, which is to say inefficiently and costly.

Physical Kanban Supplies

If you will be implementing a physical Kanban in your facility, you’ll be glad to learn that there are some excellent Kanban tools and equipment available on the market. Certain companies specialize in cards, charts, holders, displays and other visual signals. Make sure that whatever physical implementation of Kanban you choose, you are able to easily scale it up in the future. This will help you standardize your inventory control, which is a positive point for employees familiar with Kanban from previous work experience.

If you are starting small with a goal of growth once the Kanban mentality is installed and functioning well, make sure you have an idea where you’ll be in six months, one year and three years. If you see a pilot Kanban is embraced and productive, you don’t want to lose time and momentum waiting to deploy it across the rest of your facility or company. Here again, the use of standardized, readily available Kanban supplies and equipment will allow a faster and more seamless scaling up.

3) Training

kanban is great for teams

This is one aspect of a Kanban implementation that is often sorely lacking. It is important for the team designing and putting the system in place to consider every level of user. What seems logical, obvious and understandable in the context of a planning meeting may not prove to be so when in place on the shop floor. What you learn in your first training sessions will help you scale up to broader training for additional employees.

While a well-designed Kanban system is visual and obvious, end users who do not understand the theory behind it don’t always trust it. This is especially true for mature employees who have been working according to certain rules and habits for years. When planning your Kanban, put yourself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing about it and may not initially embrace the idea of change. Remember, as straightforward as Kanban should be if an end-user doesn’t want it to work, it won’t!

Don’t Under-Train: After one run through a Kanban simulation, the implementation team might have the knack of it. Team members such as managers, engineers and logistics personnel will generally be open and receptive to Kanban practices, but when training end-users, run through as many different scenarios as possible. What happens if cards get lost? Does everyone understand that they don’t produce or pick stock unless the Kanban instructs them to? Are there existing areas with hidden or rogue security stock?

Do In-Situ Training: While a fun meeting-room simulation with toys and mockups of a Kanban is useful during early stages of a project, quickly move the training and practice to where your employees will really use it, whether it’s their desk, the shop floor or a warehouse. People react differently in a training room with bright lights, comfortable chairs and less noise than they do at their busy workstations. Training in the work area helps people get comfortable with how Kanban works and improves their day-to-day tasks.

This can also help you pinpoint individual changes you can make to work areas. Are individuals’ computer monitors large enough to display all the information they need on one screen? Will touch-screen and tablet systems work in areas where gloves are required? Are all wireless connections strong and reliable in all areas of your building?

Don’t Over-Simplify: Be careful not to over-simplify your training. While a first approach can be general, quickly move on to more complex situations and scenarios that your employees will encounter. If the power goes out, does the system reboot automatically? What if a computer network or wireless connection drops out? If a printer jams, what happens with the missing orders, lists or labels? Does the end of the month present any particular problems? Once you’ve presented all the possible difficulties that you might encounter with your Kanban system, make sure you create and document the solutions to employ.

4) Maintaining the System

maintain your system

Once your Kanban system is in place, your job is only half done. Users need to see 100% support from management. It is important to continually stress the benefits of Kanban. It isn’t changing for the sake of change. It is designed to improve workflow, reduce inventory and WIP and save the company money.

Saving money is something every employee at every level can understand, so express the advantages of Kanban in dollars. Explain how carrying less stock has a direct and continued benefit to the health of the company. Let people know that their continued dedication to your company’s Kanban has a positive effect that can be seen on a daily basis.

When employees have a positive reception to Kanban, it makes scaling up easier. End users can become trainers when you later deploy Kanban across other areas of your business. Empower them to make suggestions to improve the system. A heavy-handed implementation in one aspect of your business, such as your IT support function or human resources group, can discourage the users, and any future attempts of scaling up your Kanban will be met with resistance.

One simple tool for maintaining a Kanban is the PDCA wheel. This handy tool is extensively explained elsewhere online and in industry literature, but in simple terms, it drives continuous improvement with the following steps:

  • PLAN: This is the first step of your Kanban implementation, during the planning phase of the project.
  • DO: The implementation phase.
  • CHECK: Here you put in place indicators (inventory and WIP levels, downtime, stock errors) and verify that you are on target.
  • ACT: When targets aren’t met, it’s time to react. Correcting discrepancies before they become systematic means they won’t become accepted as normal. You then return to the planning phase to make the necessary improvements.

Picture these four steps in the form of a wheel. Carefully respecting each step forces the wheel to turn, and your Kanban continues to be a fully integrated and appreciated a way of working.

Don’t forget that when you are confident that your system is stable and generating the desired effect, it’s time to raise the bar and scale-up. This can mean going back to the “Plan” stage and seeing where you can make your Kanban more visual, more effective and more efficient.

Can you safely reduce inventory further? Would new or resized WIP stocks be useful? It can also mean scaling Kanban across other production lines, units, warehouses or facilities. Make note of your best practices and share these with management. Don’t hesitate to note problems or difficulties that you overcame. This will allow the next Kanban implementation to anticipate and avoid these pitfalls.

Should We Start Small?

We have gone through many of the important considerations of Kanban as they pertain to scale. This may have you thinking that it is necessary to start small and only later scale it up to cover all aspects of your business. This is not necessarily true. If the culture in your factory, warehouse or company is open to change, a Kanban implementation can be relatively painless.

It is entirely possible to create and implement a comprehensive Kanban from the get-go that covers all aspects of your business. However, many established companies with ingrained inventory control and production system find that planning and implementing a Kanban project in phases guarantees success.

When one department discovers that another department is enjoying the improved workflow, reduced inventory levels and serenity of stable, reliable WIP levels, it will make them more curious, receptive and open to the scaling-up of Kanban to their work area.

In some cases, you will even be pleasantly surprised to find that other departments start asking questions about Kanban or have ideas about implementing it themselves. Be sure to foster this curiosity, as this kind of organic Kanban scaling is the best-case situation.

get into the right mindset

Creating a Kanban mindset isn’t difficult. It can be something as simple as installing visual indicators for the number of coffee cups in the coffee machine. Create a label at a certain level that instructs employees to request additional cups. Do the same with things like work gloves, earplugs, and other consumables. Mark the minimum level on the containers or shelves and place a reminder to request or reorder when a certain level is attained.

Without spending a penny on training, you’ll have instilled the concept of Kanban. This is Kanban in its most basic form. The ideas of stock levels and replenishment become second nature, and when it’s time to implement Kanban to improve your Project Management, IT support HR department, and marketing efforts, your employees will already embrace Kanban without even realizing it.

This is the concept of scaling Kanban. It is a powerful tool that is applied to a variety of industries, from grocery stores to manufacturing plants, from hotels and restaurant chains to airports and logistics platforms. This shows just how flexible it is. If you have inventory to control and production to plan, Kanban can be applied.

No Downside

It is difficult to find a downside to Kanban. It can be done with minimal capital investment in most cases, though sometimes it will require questioning how you run your business today. The study and planning phase can take some time, but most companies learn a lot about their current inventory and production that opens their eyes to the need for improvements.

And even though some employees will initially not want to accept a different way of working, at the end of a Kanban project, everyone can be congratulated and feel proud of their part in the health of the company.

kanban is easy to understand

One common anecdote we hear from companies that have implemented Kanbanize is that employees start to think of Kanban outside of the workplace. It’s common for them to comment on the idea of Kanban in a supermarket, gas station or vending machine. Use simple examples to stress the visual aspect of Kanban. Something as ordinary as a fuel gauge on the dashboard of a car can be used to explain Kanban:

  • While driving, they can monitor the level (with increments) and see when they are approaching the lower limit. This gives them confidence that they can continue driving. This is the “Okay” zone.
  • When filling up, the gauge indicates when the tank is full and they should stop filling. This is the “Replenishment Complete” condition.

Sharing these simple concepts with your employees and asking them for other examples is an enjoyable and positive way to teach about Kanban. Looking for a fun way to introduce the concept of Kanban within your organization?

At your next employee meeting or event, create a simple Kanban using colored Post-Its or cards on a table with drinks or snacks. Respect the Kanban signals to start or stop restocking. Let everyone see that it can be that visual and that easy. Once they’ve seen the simplicity and power of Kanban, scaling it up will be a breeze.

Start the Process Today

If you’re interested in beginning the process of implementing Kanban in your organization today, Kanbanize is ready to help. Sign up for a free trial and start reaping the benefits of scaling Kanban.


Subscribe to our blog. Get each new piece of content straight into your mailbox.

Read insightful articles from top Agile/Lean thought leaders and our experienced team.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *