Taiichi Ohno, February 1912- May 1990, is an indisputable product hero.
You may not know Ohno’s name, but you’ll know his legacy — he’s most widely known as the father of Toyota's production system and, in a way, the lean manufacturing method, too. His ideas also helped develop the Kanban board many product teams use today.
Taiichi Ohno began his career in 1932 at Toyoda Spinning Corporation, assisting in the manufacture and selling of spinning and weaving equipment. In 1943, after the textile machinery plant closed, he got transferred to the newly founded Toyota motor company. Here, Taiichi was put in charge of one of the manufacturing workshops. His main objective? To boost Toyota's productivity to compete with American companies — and boy did he succeed!
He began making innovative layout changes to the factory, aiming to eliminate inefficiencies and waste. His work impressed the company, and Taiichi made his way to Toyota’s top executive level. By the time he became vice president in 1975, he had helped integrate and streamline all stages in a car's production life-cycle.
He famously said: "Let the flow manage the process, not the managers administer the flow."
Taiichi made engineering history by creating the Toyota production system (TPS) — a manufacturing approach designed to eliminate waste and manufacture cars with absolute, ultimate efficiency.
But how did he spot the inefficiencies in the first place?
That’s where Ohno’s attention to detail and skilled engineering mind came into play. While tasked with streamlining the production process at Toyota, Ohno identified the leading causes of slow, sluggish productivity. He noticed that waste and inefficiency were mostly due to the misalignment of raw materials inventory (fabric, steel, glass, etc) with production management.
Essentially, Toyota was stockpiling the materials required to make their cars, while having no way or reason to use them.
But that wasn’t all. In total, Ohno identified seven key areas of waste in Toyota’s processes:
Inspired by supermarkets in the US, Ohno’s first solution was iteration one of the Kanban board. By attaching Kanban cards to every raw material and every finished product, manufacturing teams could keep track of the essential stages of production — only starting to build a new car once another had sold via the store. This, in essence, is how supermarkets stock their shelves — replacing like for like, "just in time".
Gradually, Taiichi developed and tested other time and project management processes such as jidoka (intelligent automation), heijunka (leveling), and kaizen (continuous improvement). Combining these with the just-in-time stock control offered by the Kanban approach, Taiichi ended up designing the Toyota production system.
Of course, Ohno achieved his ambition and TPS helped Toyota become as competitive as some of the biggest US manufacturing companies.
Since TPS proved to be such a success for Toyota, it was adopted at large in the USA, where it became known as lean manufacturing. Today, businesses around the world — and from a wide number of different industries — use lean manufacturing and lean management practices to be more efficient and create less waste.
While Ohno’s Kanban cards were designed to streamline the physical manufacturing of Toyota cars, there’s much that we modern product managers can learn from his approach.
Let’s look at the basics of Kanban, for example.
The Kanban system helped engineers track production stages. Cards were moved from one category to another, providing a quick visual representation of the team’s progress. By monitoring and aligning cards from different sets, engineers could adjust processes to eliminate time inefficiencies and waste.
Let’s return back to those seven types of waste that Ohno identified at Toyota — each of these has meaning in digital design and software development, too:
Inventory: builds still in progress, or partially done
Extra processing: inefficient meetings, disorganized sprints, bloated backlogs
Overproduction: miscommunication between teams leading to duplicate work, unnecessary features, feature scope, etc.
Transportation: jumping from task to task inefficiently, time-wasting
Waiting: long delays in asynchronous communication
Motion: time spent sending follow up emails and messages, trying to understand team progress
Defects: bugs, errors, mistakes in coding, crucial fixes that go unnoticed or unattended to
But in the very same way that Toyota benefited from a structured approach to workflow tracking, Kanban, digital product teams can do so, too.
For best results, your Kanban board should be kept simple: just three columns, "Next", "In progress", and "Done". Start by assigning all jobs in your upcoming sprint or development cycle to one of the three columns.
Give all members of the team access to your Kanban board and make them responsible for their own tasks — if a card is assigned to them, it’s their job to update the status, as it advances from "Next" to "In progress", and from "In progress" to "Done". The birds-eye clarity of Kanban makes it easy for team leaders and product owners to know what’s being done, when, and by who. But it also helps connect each individual worker to the overall mission, too.
Many project management tools borrow the Kanban structure, including Trello, Monday, and our very own airfocus.