Kanban for engineering originated when Kanban, a visual workflow management method, was applied to engineering challenges in product and process development.

Because of the digitization of products, emerging business models in the era of Industry 4.0 place increasing emphasis on physical products that generate service-driven income. This is a key trend made possible by disruptive new technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data and Digital Factories.

These advances are imposing new dynamics on traditional ideas of product development processes, time-to-market and revenue streams as new methods, like visual workflow management, are being used to grow and improve our understanding of customer value.

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“Kanban for engineering originated when Kanban was applied to engineering challenges in product and process development.”
“Kanban for engineering originated when Kanban was applied to engineering challenges in product and process development.”

Whether it’s managing non-conformance issues in the aerospace industry or facilitating cross-team collaboration to assemble some of the world’s most complex vehicle designs, you will find Kanban-based practices being used to manage some of the toughest problems in New Product Introduction (NPI) programs all over the world.

By adopting Kanban, engineering teams have been able to:

  • Accelerate value creation by reducing process delays and waste
  • Improve predictability and increase business alignment through visibility of status
  • Optimize design and engineering processes by fostering speed, adaptability, and innovation

Kanban Principles for the Manufacturing Industry

Let’s look at some foundational principles behind Kanban, applied to an engineering and manufacturing context.

  • Visualize your work. By creating a visual model of your work and workflow, engineers can observe the flow of work moving through their Kanban system. Making the work visible, along with blockers, bottlenecks and queues instantly leads to increased communication and collaboration.
  • Limit Work in Process. By limiting how much-unfinished work is in process, you can reduce the time it takes an item to travel through the Kanban system. Engineers can also avoid problems caused by task switching and reduce the need to constantly reprioritize items.
  • Focus on Flow. By using work-in-process (WIP) limits and developing team-driven policies, engineers can optimize their Kanban system to improve the smooth flow of work, collect metrics to analyze flow, and even get leading indicators of future problems by analyzing the flow of work.
  • Continuously Improve. Once your Kanban system is in place, it becomes the cornerstone of a culture of continuous improvement. Engineering teams measure their effectiveness by tracking flow, quality, throughput, lead times and more. Experiments and analysis can change the system to improve the team’s effectiveness.
While it is obvious that the core principles behind Kanban are highly compatible with most engineering pursuits, the ability to measure metrics such as cycle time, lead time and flow-based throughput solidify Kanban as the right workflow management method for the engineers of today.

The benefits of Kanban can be realized across the value stream from Engineers to Executives. Engineers are able to visualize their work, limit their work in process (WIP) and quickly identify bottlenecks. Executives appreciate the ability to receive a birds-eye view into the status of high-priority work across their portfolio.

Engineering organizations adopt Kanban to be more flexible in their process improvement efforts and better visualize the results of their continuous improvement initiatives. Through increased collaboration, an environment is established where cultural transformation is not only valued but actively pursued. And while continuous improvement is the bedrock of innovation, Kanban is a vehicle by which the team may progress ever closer to this goal.