How a Simple Office Kanban System Works at the Lean Enterprise Institute
One of the things I like about working at the Lean Enterprise Institute might seem like a silly thing — it's that I get to actually be the USER of a simple kanban system.
I've helped factories and hospitals set up kanban systems, but then I walk away and don't get to really live them day-to-day. As an aside, early in my career *I* made the kanban system — this was a mistake, even if it was a technically correct and workable. (Update: I write about this in my contribution to the book Practicing Lean).
I learned that it's far more effective to teach the kanban method and then let the actual users of the system set it up and own it. They learn more and it's all-in-all a better approach. Teaching them to fish rather than giving them a fish, if you will.
In this post, I'll give a quick example of how our simple kanban system works at LEI. I didn't set this one up, I just get to use it and I benefit from it since we always have the coffee or tea I want.
Many of our office supplies, including “K-cups” for coffee and tea, are on a simple kanban card system. My understanding of the history pre-kanban is that the office would sometimes run out of items. That doesn't happen with the kanban system. Is that really a core issue in our business, making sure we don't run out of tea? No, but managing with kanban is easier than the other informal ways of managing supplies.
As another aside, the commercial Keurig coffee maker is a “single cup” machine, meaning the beverages are always fresh and we never have a scorched pot of empty burned coffee sitting there. Per cup might be more expensive, but the variety of flavors and freshness are a big plus (which is why we use one at home.
So, the other day I went to make a cup of tea in the afternoon (I drink coffee in the morning, if you care). I took the last K-cup. so there was an empty box:
Being a conscientious employee, it was time to use the kanban system!
I took a few steps to the left to the cabinet where coffee/tea inventory is stored. When I took the box, there was a blue kanban card sticking out, as this represented the re-order point. An alternative and common kanban setup would be to stack the two tea boxes on top of each other on the counter, but that would take up more space than our current setup.
I put the new stock in place (as I would expect other colleagues to do):
I then had to take the kanban card, pictured below — it's a simple design, an index card with scotch tape over it. Nothing fancy — it works.
My remaining job was to walk the kanban card to the front reception desk, placing the card in the designated spot, as pictured here:
That came out a bit blurry on my iPhone. The top holder is for the supplies that need to be ordered. Down below are the cards for items that have already been ordered (this prevents double ordering). Jean, a wonderful person who is usually the voice of LEI when you call the office, places the order to our distributor/vendor. When new stock arrives, the cards are taken from the bottom holder and are matched with the inventory when it's put away.
That's it. Simple.
Many of these items, in situations like this, are a simple “2-bin system” – meaning there is a second bin (the full box of K-cups) to be used once the first bin is empty. The empty bin is the reorder signal and could possibly serve as the kanban signal itself. You could tear part of the box to use as the kanban card for Jean.
In setting up a system like this, you just have to be careful that the 2nd bin has enough inventory to last you until the new stock arrives. If you order weekly and the material arrives the day after, the re-order quantity really needs to be six days worth of supply. Let's say you order every Wednesday and a kanban card is delivered RIGHT after the order went out, the card might sit for a week until a new order goes out (or maybe the order gets modified if it was just put in).
Two-bin systems often work great. I use it at home, as I've blogged about before. If you want to make sure you don't run out of things, just have a 2-bin system. The extra inventory and space is often very minimal. Who wants to have the shaving creme can empty just as you're looking to shave on a very important day?
Items I currently have on 2-bin kanban at home include:
- Shaving creme
- Toilet paper (2 packs)
- Dishwasher detergent
Again, this simple system works. It's not the solution to world hunger, but it's a good way to practice what we preach. More important lean principles for LEI include:
- Strong sense of shared purpose
- Visual management
- Standardized work
- A culture of kaizen / PDCA
But we like our kanban system. Have you done something similar in your office?