kanban for sustainability

Кanban is often seen as a niche approach, related mostly to manufacturing, product and software development. However, getting to its core idea opens your eyes to the various applications it can have in business and everyday life.

When I started reading about Kanban and Lean management, my first thought was “This sounds extremely similar to the sustainability, circular economy, zero-waste approaches I have read about before.” This might not be your first association, but today I will try to show you Kanban from this (maybe new) perspective.

What Does Kanban and Circular Economy Have in Common?

Putting the different rules and methodologies on the side for a second, what Kanban and Lean really aim at is reducing waste and improving process systems. To quote the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the goal of Lean is “maximizing customer value while minimizing waste.”

Kanban and Circular economySimilar to that, in the circular economy, one of the main goals is to redesign the production and supply of goods to minimize waste. You`ve probably heard the famous quote, related to circular economy practices “Waste is a design flaw.”
The fact that waste is so central for both concepts shines light into the potential application of Kanban practices for achieving sustainability goals.

Attacking Personal Waste Streams with Kanban

Since my head to head clash with Kanban, I started applying its first two principles “start with what you do” and “agree to pursue incremental evolutionary change” in every situation. It will be hard to avoid wasteful practices on a societal, business, or project level without having an established personal attitude towards it. So before we go into reshaping the whole economic system, let’s see how we can minimize our waste on the everyday life level.

In Kanbanize, we trust our gut feeling only when it is backed by data. Considering which wasteful aspects I should focus on in this piece, I dove into some statistics:

  • Australians discard up to 20% of the food they purchase. That equates to 1 out of every 5 bags of groceries. (Source)
  • In the US, an average person wastes 238 pounds (around 108kg.) of food per year (21% of the food they buy), costing them $1,800 per year. (Source)
  • ReFED (The Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste) estimates the negative financial impact of food waste at $218 billion per year wasted, $144 billion directly coming from households. (Source)

It is common sense that food waste is a massive environmental problem. As food products need to be produced, often processed, stored and transported, most of them are part of a very long supply chain, causing waste on multiple levels. However, the numbers above show clearly that a significant part of the problem is right in our hands.

On the bright side, this also means we have the power to eliminate a significant part of the global food waste solely by changing our behavior.

How to Fight Food Waste with Kanban Practices

The first step is to get closer to the root cause of the problem. Statistics point out that the number one contributor to household food waste is spoilage. More than 60% of the domestic food waste is due to products not being used before they go bad. Improper storage, lack of visibility in refrigerators, partially used ingredients and misjudged needs are among the main reasons for food being thrown away. (Source)

I’ve been trying to manage my food waste very consciously in the past few years by not overbuying, creating detailed plans for meals and having my fridge half empty, so everything is visible. So I was quite surprised when I realized I was actually applying some of the main Kanban principles, without knowing it.

My Personal Strategy

To name what I did with the right terms:

Life hacks to fight food waste

  • Implementing a PULL system – I buy only when there is a direct need for something. Often we fall in the trap of sales and “2-for-1” offers. We end up storing and often throwing products out. With a PULL system, food products are pulled (purchased) if there is a demand for them. Or of course, if you really crave something.
  • Setting WIP Limits for your fridge – it is surprising how similar work and food are in this particular case, so I have a strict no multitask rule in both. Stick to what you have started, finish it. Or at least aim for it. Do not transform your fridge into a graveyard of opened cheese packages and milk cartons, the way you do not want to transform your project into a landfill for unfinished tasks.
  • Visualizing – there are different alternatives here. A very old school trick of mine is taking a picture of the fridge before I leave in the morning. This way if I decide to go grocery shopping I know what is still “in stock” at home. For those of you using google photos, it also makes up for really funny reminders afterward (Last year on this day….).
    Lately, a lot of inventory-like apps have popped up and in some of them, you can also add the best-before dates of the products. How you decide to do it is up to you. The main point is you need to have your resources (in this case food supplies) in front of your eyes.

I`ve been following those for almost 2 years now and the result is I can only remember throwing out a food product 2 or 3 times in the whole period. So I can proudly say I have lowered my contribution to the global food waste catastrophe to a minimum.

Textile Waste and My Lean Approach Towards It

The second waste stream I will focus on today is textiles. Similar to the food products, typically clothes are part of a very long supply chain and often travel across the globe to end up in your wardrobe. Again, the idea is to focus on what is in our hands and what we can do to improve the situation. So let’s look at the numbers describing our consumer behavior:

Textile waste statistics

  • In 2017, the average consumer is purchasing 60 percent more items of clothing compared to 2000, but each garment is kept half as long. (Source)
  • 30% of clothing in the average UK wardrobe has not been worn in the past year or so. This equates to around 1.7 billion items of clothing not been worn for at least a year. (Source)
  • In the past 15 years, the average number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used has decreased by 36%. (Source)
  • The average man owns 12 pairs of shoes, while most women own 27 pairs of shoes. (Source)

The statistic is quite convincing. When it comes to clothing, our behavior is completely irrational. We buy more, not because we use more. We, as consumers, have shortened the lifecycle of clothing items. Furthermore, we are “overstocking” our homes with clothes and shoes, we simply possess and do not wear. Again, this also puts us in a very powerful position! Being a big part of the problem also means you have the potential to be a big part of the solution.

To be clear, I am not excluding myself from the picture. Recently, I moved to a new apartment and I had the chance to see everything I own. With a lot of shame, I have to admit I have more than 27 pairs of shoes. So what I realized is, I need a system in place to end this.

Implementing Lean to Decrease Textile Waste

Every optimization process needs a deliberate effort and is often not the most pleasant thing. First, you need to admit a flaw, then you need to go out of your usual way and put effort into making things better. So in order to achieve results, you really need to be motivated to do it. After looking at all the boxes of clothes I had forgotten I have and counting all the shoes, my motivation was in place. Masochistically enough, I decided to implement a simple process:

  • Visualize – I am repeating myself here, but this simple method is extremely powerful! Very often it is not about not having, it is about not seeing what to wear. Try to have a big part of what you own on hangers, not in draws. As the saying goes “You can’t manage what you can’t see.”
  • In Lean, there are 7 types of waste. What also statistics make clear is that when it comes to clothing, inventory is a big topic. So I decided to implement a simple step to not enlarge my inventory even more. When I want to buy something, I give the idea a 7 day trial period. I do not commit directly. Imagining a Kanban board in front of me, you can say I put it in the backlog.
    If after the trial period I still haven’t changed my mind, then I buy it. Setting my commitment point after the “trial period” has done miracles for me. Commitment points are in general a very powerful tool to implement in every decision process.

Combining these with a strategy for old clothing items (resell, reuse), has generally changed my behavior and reduced my personal textile waste significantly. Although I still feel I can do more.


Putting the outlined techniques into practice has helped me reduce my food waste to a minimum and change my consumer behavior towards clothing for good. It’s no rocket science and I am sure anybody who puts a bit of discipline and motivation into following the Lean and Kanban practices can achieve the same.

Let’s imagine we all collectively commit to having a PULL system and not overstock with food supplies or clothes. To visualize what we have in our fridges or wardrobes, so we can make better use of it and commit to improving incrementally in the optimization of our personal waste streams.

Estimations point that if the average life of a clothing item was extended by just three months, it would reduce their carbon and water footprints, as well as waste generation, by 5 to 10% (Source).  According to a report from the UK based organization WRAP, if food is removed from UK landfills, the greenhouse gas abatement would be equivalent to removing one-fifth of all the cars in the UK from the road (Source).

As a final note, there is one more similarity between Kanban and sustainability I want to underline – “Continuous improvement”. In both areas, the aim is making things better than they were yesterday, constantly.

“Zero-waste” is not a destination, it is a mentality, that Kanban can help you adapt.

The results, listed above, are just the beginning of what we can achieve collectively by making waste our number one enemy. Eliminating it on every level is the backbone for improvement and the way towards a cleaner tomorrow. In your life, in your work, and on a grander scale.

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