Kanban: the Art of the Japanese Shop Sign

The kanban has met many adventures on its way to becoming a popular tool for the limitation of tasks, projects and works in process. As superhero origin stories go, kanban has an interesting one.

As long ago as 8th century Japan, guidelines were set down for the forms and functions of kanban as corporate logos and shop signs. Just as the study of the use and evolution of forms of kanban as an improvement tool is illustrative as to the development of management various industries from manufacturing to software development, an examination of kanban as Japanese shop signs is instructive of the historical and cultural changes that took place.

The book Kanban: the Art of the Japanese Shop Sign by Dana Levy, Lea Sneider and Frank Gibney, may be of interest to the fan of Asian history, art, kaizen or software development, in decreasing order. If you are a kanban devotee and resident of King County, Washington you can find it in the public library. Frankly there is not much of use in this book to a lean practitioner or coder with a colorful whiteboard. However the book is full of hundreds of beautiful photographs of antique sign boards, each embodying the spirit of the times.

The thirty pages of commentary give a view into Japanese history through the keyhole of the merchant class. One passage which was deliciously ironic:

To most merchants, profits were secondary to increasing one’s share of the market and thus insuring the growth and permanency of the senior merchant house – an interesting portent of modern Japanese multinational business strategies.

The kanban as sign board in feudal Japan was in fact created originally to stimulate consumption and demand, to drive revenue growth through ostentatious displays and ornamentation. The kanban system was devised by Taiichi Ohno to stop overproduction, to limit supply and match it as closely as possible to downstream customer demand, using a humble paper tag rather than material requirements planning and execution software system.

Oh kanban, how far you have traveled.