Seth Godin Got "Kanban" Wrong

Seth’s Blog: In praise of a blank page

I don’t expect “lean expertise” from marketing blogger Seth Godin (it’s nice he often mentions lean concepts), but he got some details about lean wrong and he doesn’t allow reader comments on his blog (sort of a one way conversation).

Seth wrote, and I wasn’t exactly sure of his point (read his whole post for the context):

In Japanese car factories, this is called kanban. You trade production efficiencies for quality. If a part isn’t perfect, the worker refuses to install it. And the entire assembly line stops. Detroit was horrified by this idea. Keeping the assembly line going is the holy grail. Guess what? The line doesn’t get stopped very often. Things get better, fast.

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Ah… he was already corrected by Ralph Bernstein (from Productivity Press) and Seth added that to his post. It’s actually a two-way conversation with Seth if you email him.

Ralph’s clarification (which is what I would have said here):

In your posting, In praise of a blank page, your use of the word kanban is incorrect. Kanban refers to a type of visual control that signals an upstream operation to deliver what is needed. (The Wikipedia description to which you linked touches on aspects of the concept, but doesn’t get it exactly right.)

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What you probably meant was andon.

An andon is a device that calls attention to defects, equipment abnormalities and other problems, or reports the status and needs of a system by means of colored lights. Typically, when a worker on a line encounters a problem, he or she will pull a cord that lights up the andon board and stops the line.

Also, it’s a little misleading to say that in such a system, you trade production efficiencies for quality. It’s a lot more efficient to stop and eliminate a defect immediately than to repair a finished product (or dozens of finished products) containing the defect. But you are right about one thing: with this kind of system, things do get better fast.

At least Seth’s blog believes in “kaizen.” I don’t mean to pick on him, I’m not always right myself and I admit that.

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an book titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. robert says

    Mark – I agree with you 100%. I posted about this earlier today here:

    Seth clearly needs a Lean 101 class before confusing the entire issue. Lean implementation is hard enough without half-truths being circulated.


  2. Mike Gardner says

    I’m glad to see I was not the only one to take Mr. Godin to task for this. ( If you follow his highlighted kanban link you get the Wikipedia definition, which is none too clear, either.

  3. Dan Keldsen says

    Mark, Rob and Mike – Whoops, I fell into the trap as well. Posted a correction on my blog moments ago!

    I presume that Seth Godin doesn’t allow direct comments on his blog because his site is high profile and would be a massive blog spam magnet. Trackbacks take a bit more work on the spamming front, so less likely to overwhelm. Hopefully I have not angered the spam gods (devils?) by pointing this out now! ;)

  4. Mark Graban says

    If anyone doesn’t like the Kanban explanation on Wikipedia, you’re free to improve it. That would be “kaizen” in action, right?

  5. Maciej says

    My intro marketing textbook from university speaks rather briefly on the topic, but essentially seems to equate “Total Quality Management” “Just-In-Time” and “Kanban” as all meaning the same. It does not mention Six Sigma, Lean, etc. I don’t know if this is representative of all marketing knowledge out there, but it doesn’t surprise me.

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