Japan Earthquake Exposes Flaws in Toyota’s Kanban System

A growing Agile methodology is the use of kanban, a process-framework that we borrowed from Japan and Toyota. It’s a simple system coming from the automotive industry. What is interesting to read is that it isn’t perfect. Duh. So much hype and chatter is going on in the Agile community about kanban that if you spent any small amount of time in the Agile twitterverse you’ll most likely come upon more and more people praising the awesome-sauce benefits from kanban. But like Nokia failing the “Nokia Test,” it seems that Toyota might be failing the kanban test:

Toyota adopted the “kanban” method to promote efficiency and reduce inventory. Under the method, Toyota procures the same parts from several companies, which increases competition among them and reduces the risks of relying on only a few makers…After the magnitude-9.0 quake and tsunami, which swept away one of Iwaki’s four factories in Yamamoto, Saito made a frantic effort to continue supplying parts to clients and maintaining the fragile supply structure that is so crucial in auto manufacturing.” – Asahi News

What has essentially happened is that the kanban system for Toyota has put them in a position of having just-in-time inventory, or rather, very little inventory. They just call on their manufacturing partners to send parts just as they need it.

“Takahiro Tomino, associate professor of production management at Meiji University, said the important thing in this supply system is to quickly recover production after disasters… If companies take measures, such as increasing inventory to prepare for once-in-a-century disasters, they will have to do so endlessly,” he said. “Using the March 11 earthquake as a lesson, they should grasp the entire picture of their procurement networks.

In software development, we’ve all run into software disasters. Taking into account the whole picture of things for your development flow of work will help you when big issues happen. Don’t let a lack of inventory (stories/work) become a bottleneck for your development. Keep the flow going!

The Japanese sure know how to rebuild quickly though...look at that!

The real question is… would creating a big inventory have saved the day? Waste? What would that look like in software development?

[HT: Asahi News]

3 Replies to “Japan Earthquake Exposes Flaws in Toyota’s Kanban System”

  1. I was going to point this out myself, so I’m glad you did.

    What I think is the most ironic thing, is that Kanban is a system to BUILD CARS by minimizing inventory?

    What does this have to do with Software? Nothing.

    Software is not an assembly line process, as much as some business wish it were.

    I wish people would start to think about developing software as a creative process and forget all the stuff about the assembly line process (which is where Kanban originated) or building consumer electronics (which is where Scrum originated).

    Neither of them have much to do with software development.

    If we want to learn from other fields we should be learning from fields that create creative output, such as (building) architects, airplane designers, ad campaign desiners, etc.


  2. I agree–this isn’t relevant to software development.

    However, when deciding to use just in time inventory, a risk analysis should be done. It’s not recommended for products that have increased demand during times of disaster–like medical products. Any good business class that covers just in time teaches that.

    1. Sarah – Thanks for the input! We can learn from Toyota’s experience… and keep these risks in mind when building software though… 🙂

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