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The Kanban method, or how to process one request at a time

Is your organisation sagging under a mountain of requests? Then the Kanban method may be just the thing for you!

How do you react when you need to take a ‘wait-your-turn’ ticket at the post office, the bank or the pharmacy? Personally, I’m a fan of these queuing systems. At the very least, I’m sure I will not be waiting in the wrong line. The approach, which here helps regulate waiting time for customers, is also used in the Kanban method to process service requests in organisations, ranging from invoice approvals, permit applications and information to support requests.

The aim of Kanban watchword is limiting the amount of work in progress. In other words, it works to prevent us from multi-tasking. Organisations that have implemented the Kanban method have quickly obtained measurable benefits:

  • More requests are processed in a shorter time frame

  • Stress levels are reduced in teams

  • Quality of results has improved

  • So has customer satisfaction

How does it work?

The Kanban method uses a pull system inspired by lean manufacturing but applied to the tertiary sector. Its main goal is to reduce lead time.

The basic principles are as follows:

  • Every step of the work process is visible to everyone in the Kanban table (one column per stage of the process)

  • A card is created for every request that enters the process

  • A limit on the number of cards is fixed for every stage of the process (represented by a column)

  • When a card is completed and moved to the next column, a new one is pulled from the previous column – this is the pull system in action

  • Categories of services are defined to differentiate between types of request that enter the same process

  • Cards that are accepted at the beginning of the process are handled on a first-come, first-served basis

The theory behind this organisational method is that it is much more efficient to limit the amount of work in progress than to multiply it. Kanban has proven that processing one demand after the other will take less time than processing them in parallel. This also means that when a task is blocked in the system, it must be released before a new one can be started.

Let’s take an example. You work in a department that is responsible for sending out offers to clients. The process can be summarised as follows:

  1. The salespeople prepare the information contained in the offer

  2. The offer is then transferred to the administrative department, which then ensures that the format is correct and that the text is flawless and easily understandable. The calculation data contained in the offer are also verified.

  3. The verified offer is forwarded to one of the partners for signature

  4. The signed offer returns to the administrative department so that the correct number of copies can be made

  5. The offer is sent to clients with the desired number of copies

  6. A copy is filed in the ‘outstanding offers’ folder

What problems are encountered?

  • The salespeople tend to submit their offers at the last minute, and considerable pressure is applied so that their offer gets sent out before the others

  • The administrative department gives priority to the person who is shouting the loudest, presuming their request is more urgent

  • Offers tend to accumulate on the partners’ desk, which then leads to delays and stress for the rest of the process

How can a Kanban system help?

  • First of all, a first-come, first-served system is established

  • The processing deadline for an offer to be sent and corrected is 24 hours

  • Cases that cannot wait 24 hours are handled urgently but the salesperson must justify the emergency. Urgent requests are systematically analysed to identify ways in which they can be avoided in the future.

  • Associates must schedule one hour early morning and another hour early afternoon, every day, for signing offers. A stand-in system for signing is implemented to cover absences.

  • A maximum number of pending offers waiting for signature is set. When this limit is reached, the secretaries stop processing new offers and start clearing the backlog by requesting for pending files to be signed.

  • The average processing time for an offer – from the moment a secretary begins to deal with it until the offer is mailed – is measured and communicated regularly.

The tracking table looks like this:

Artwork: Asphalte Design, © Marakoudja 2019

If, over time, the company notices that the processing capacity of the administrative department is not sufficient to respect the 24-hour deadline, it can correct the situation. Several possibilities are available depending on where the bottleneck is located:

  • Increase the quality of offers on arrival at the administrative department

  • Eliminate the approval stage for certain standard offers

  • Increase capacity at the administrative department

Using a Kanban system quickly increases efficiency because a fair and transparent view of the work in progress can be achieved.

Kanban can also be useful to you personally. Are you tired of processing the same to-do lists? Are you under pressure and fine that everything takes ages to be completed? Why not create your own Kanban system?

The photo below was taken during a course organised by Pyxis Switzerland and led by Pierre LeBlanc. I highly recommend them if you want to find out more about this method. They offer training in Canada, France, Switzerland and Singapore. Moreover, started in Montreal back in 2000, which is certainly a great place to start out!

Kanban means serenity at all times.

What about you ? Do you have similar or different experiences? Let me know, I'll be happy to discuss it with you!

Artwork : Mélanie Bénard Tremblay, 2019, © Marakoudja.


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