Why kanban shouldn't work
I spent quite a bit of time working in Japan as a relocation trainer for the automotive industry and have developed a deep appreciation of the systems and approaches that make Japanese industry successful. Despite the current stagnation, evidence on the ground is far more optimistic regarding Japan's future viability as new dimensions of growth are starting to be integrated into everyday Japanese life. While the passion for adopting Japanese practices is waning, I believe that there are still many things we have yet to learn.
That being said, I am very hesitant to advocate using Japanese management practices in North American corporations.
Let me elaborate by looking at kanban. Kanban is essentially 'just-in-time parts delivery' as exemplified by Toyota since the 1920s. The process seems a straightforward one, particularly the highly refined methodology of Taiichi Ono in the 1950s and 1960s. In brief, all of the parts needed each day were listed on huge signs hanging over the factory assembly lines. Kanban literally means signboard or billboard.
The idea seems easy enough to adapt elsewhere, and many organizations have; making use of the structure to pinpoint bottlenecks and address them directly.
However, the concept of kanban has a long history in Japan dating back to the Tokugawa Shogunate. I won't get into the misunderstandings of 'face' in Western views of Japanese culture but suffice to say, the idea of kanban is tightly linked to some of the concepts associated with 'face'. Early kanban were decorations on curtains in front of shops to block out sun or dust. The habit of displaying kanban has become a ubiquitous aspect of Japanese commerce.
So, when the employees on Toyota's line were looking up at the kanban, the workers experienced and received a number of significances that are not translated into Western application. The depth and quality of association with the kanban is not a conditioned aspect of Western social life. This doesn't mean that kanban can't or doesn't work in Western contexts. It merely means that I prefer to advocate for solutions that address core problems in a way that is a natural extension of our own metaphors. Part of an effective transformation involves defining new metaphors that provide a more fertile ground for new solutions to take hold.
All of us are in a constant process of learning how to be members of our own cultures, chosen or otherwise. Japanese institutions are all aligned with whatever definition of being 'Japanese' is relevant at the time. Institutions evolve when their founding metaphors no longer are valid. Therefore, kanban is a product not just of one company's needs, but of a system that helps make decisions about what is valuable and how it should be valued.
We collectively possess a mass of tacit, unexamined knowledge. Smart organizations align activities with the natural assets already present. Swimming upstream is never the preferred solution. Our education system, our culture and our entertainment stress the primacy of the individual. Why then, would we choose a process that places primacy on collective behaviour and group loyalty when those qualities are only beginning to be reinforced in our institutions?
The circumstances of the organization ought to be the primary determinant of what systems support performance and innovation. Solutions that are aligned with the inherent energy of people are more likely to survive and thrive.
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