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How Kanban Encourages Continuous Improvement

19 Dec 2019

The Kanban system has become widely popular, not just in manufacturing or software development. The main reason is that Kanban encourages continuous improvement, also known as Kaizen in Lean project management

This is a mindset of sorts that supports striving toward perfection in every sense of the word. 

By continuously improving every process in your company, you can maximize value to both your business and your customers while minimizing the waste along the way. Therefore, let's see how Kanban encourages continuous improvement.

Visualizing the workflow with Kanban

Everyone has heard about the Kanban board and how it helps visualize the workflow. However, there's more to it than just visualization. As a matter of fact, Kanban boards, when visible to everyone in the team, help spark conversations, discussions, collaborations and plans. 

Team members oftentimes meet in front of the board to discuss what to do, how to do it and consider possible improvements, if applicable. Every task that needs to be done is represented by a Kanban card with varying levels of complexity. The card then moves through various stages of the process (the simplest, e.g. To do - In progress - Done) By visualizing the workflow, team members can also identify potential issues and bottlenecks. 

What's more, they can find an ideal way to solve those issues, better manage the flow and make improvements wherever they can. So in reality, a Kanban board is a continuous improvement board that encourages the team to collaborate and find unique ways to become more efficient and productive. 

Minimizing and simplifying

As mentioned before, Kanban is about reducing waste on the way towards continuous improvement. However, any waste cannot be completely eradicated, it's simply impossible to achieve. Still, you can always minimize waste and reduce its negative effects on both business and customer value. 

Therefore, the team must consider what waste in their work is and how to remove it from the process. This is where simplifying things can become an advantage. 

Here's a good example: The team will meet regularly, in order to determine what waste is and how to be rid of it. But, even meetings can be considered waste if conducted too often and for too long.  

That said, brief stand up meetings in front of a Kanban board are common practice. For instance, the team will meet and discuss a few important aspects, such as:

  • What was accomplished yesterday?
  • What needs to be accomplished today?
  • Which obstacles are in our way?

A simple meeting with the minimum of waste (both in time and resources) is more effective than elaborate and prolonged discussions about what has happened and what could happen. 

Decentralized leadership

The Kanban framework doesn't recognize any official processes nor does it define any specific roles. The purpose is to, in fact, encourage continuous improvement. But how does it work? Simply put, in order to find the best solution and not just the fastest, everyone must participate and voice their opinions. 

That's why decentralized and shared leadership is vital in Kanban. If the leadership is centralized, a lot of team members must seek out permission from key figures to make even the smallest of decisions. In such cases, they most likely won't even bother to do so. 

Not to mention the amount of waste being generated when everything you do needs to be approved and analyzed by a supervisor. In shared leadership, everyone will collaborate, take on tasks and assignments, as well as seek a way to constantly improve. 

However, this doesn't mean that everyone can do what they want. Instead, collaboration and communication is the key so that everyone is on the same page throughout the entire project. 

With that in mind, try to find out an ideal way to how leadership should be distributed and how every team member will be able to show off their true potential. Only then can you move toward continuous improvement. 

Optimizing team communication

There's no collaboration without effective means of communication, that goes without saying. That's why Kanban encourages the team members to communicate and communicate well at all times. After all, communication and collaboration are key elements for continuous improvement. 

That said, all in any communication issues must be attended to for continuous improvement to work. Here are the two examples of communication models you can use to ensure that everyone on the team can collaborate effectively. 

  • Synchronous communication - Ideal for the immediate attention of all participants, this communication model encompasses all instant channels, such as face-to-face conversations, video conferencing, phone calls etc. However, the downside is that synchronous communication can also be a major distraction for team members that aren't participating, as it can ruin their flow of thought and negatively impact their productivity. 
  • Asynchronous communication - This communication model revolves around channels that don't require any immediate attention. The most popular form of asynchronous communication is, of course, email. This model is best suited for sending long-form information to recipients at a convenient time. But, when you're in need of an instant response, this model becomes unreliable at best.

That being said, in order to fully optimize communication and ensure continuous imprudent, both of these models must be perfected themselves

Continuous Improvement as a Culture

Simply adopting Kanban doesn't guarantee continuous improvement. Even though Kanban encourages and propagates continuous improvement, it's not often easy for people to understand its true meaning and purpose. 

Therefore, continuous improvement should be made part of the culture and not just something you read about online. It's up to leaders to inspire team members to adopt this mindset and strive towards improving both themselves and the work they do. There are a number of ways you can approach this matter. 

Leaders motivate employees through flexibility, appreciation, rewards and other forms of stimuli. It's important to know your team well so that you can motivate them the best way possible.