Rethinking Kanban Systems: a complete formal exposition and assessment

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2011)




Dan Coffey
Senior Lecturer in Economics
Leeds University Business School
University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT
+ 44 (0) 113 3434485
Dr. Carole Thornley
Director of Post-Graduate Research, Institute of Public Policy and Management
Senior Lecturer, Keele Management School
University of Keele, Keele, ST5 5BG
+44 (0) 01782 583608
Since the first appearance in English of Taichii Ohno’s commentary on the distinctive features of Toyota Production System (TPS) (see Ohno 1988 [1978]), a very considerable body of literature – whether or not specifically focusing on Toyota – has referenced the so-called ‘kanban’ system as a major development in manufacturing practice. At the same time, on the practical front it is obvious that a diversity of versions exist, as described in operations management texts (for example, Bicheno and Elliot (1997)). In this paper we develop a complete formal exposition in the sense of a mathematical model encompassing in a single structure the properties of different kinds of kanban-system, as the basis for a thoroughgoing appraisal of the ‘systems’ strengths and weaknesses. The analysis in rooted more generally in terms of what is or is not implied for wider forms of industrial organization in the auto sector, including the spatial organization of production.
The paper is organized in three main sections as follows:
(i) A literary section, tracing the evolution of the idea of a ‘kanban’ system from the commentary of Taichii Ohno, at various times a Managing Director, Senior Managing Director, and Executive Vice President of Toyota, through both the Toyota specific literature and overviews of Japan’s auto industry (encompassing inter alia major contributions like those of Yasuhiro Monden (1998) and Koichi Shimokawa (2010)), the appraisals by academics seated outside the management science disciplines, and the policy prescriptive advice offered by consultancy (in all its forms) to manufacturers.
(ii) A formal section, which develops the mathematical structure (model) which will be used to assess the properties of, and compare, different kinds of ‘kanban’-system.
(iii) An applications section, in which we consider, in addition to the inferences arrived at by formal deduction, how the approach taken in this paper could be put to work for purposes of empirical application, in a variety of manufacturing contexts.
We consider how this fits more generally into the body of commentary developed by GERPISA, as well as some related points of analysis in Coffey (2006) The paper as a whole contributes to management science, is of direct interest and applicability to original equipment manufacturers and suppliers in the auto industry, and has a bearing more generally on a range of related topics pertaining to the organization of production.
Bicheno, J. and Elliot, B. (1997) Operations Management: An Active Learning Approach, Blackwell Business
Coffey, D. (2006) The Myth of Japanese Efficiency: the World Car Industry in a Globalizing Age, Cheltenham and New York: Edward Elgar
Monden, Y. (1998) Toyota Production System: An Integrated Approach to Just-in-Time (3rd Edition), Norcross, Georgia: Engineering and Management Press.
Ohno, T. (1978) Toyota Seisan Hoshiki: Datsu Kibo no Keiei wo Mezashite (The Toyota Production Method: How Can We Overcome The Managament Philosophy of Scale Economies), Tokyo: Diamond Sha
Ohno, T. (1988) Toyota Production System: Beyond Large Scale Production, Cambridge, MA: Productivity Press
Shimokawa, K. (2010) Japan and the Global Automotive Industry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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