The subject of electronic kanban (eKanban) often triggers deeply polarizing responses in managers. Some people intuitively perceive huge advantages of the concept while others are vehemently opposed to the concept. That said, it’s vital for us to define what we mean and don’t mean by eKanban before we proceed.

To start, eKanban is not a plan-driven MRP system necessarily meant to replace all physical kanban elements with electronic elements. Rather, eKanban complements some of the physical Kanban’s elements with automation designed to eliminate errors and improve productivity by utilizing real-time replenishment data and analysis.

Electronic Kanban (eKanban) Functions

Consider the series of maintenance tasks that must be conducted on a regular basis as we implement kanban and continued long after it’s deployed. We must routinely size orders, audit kanban, and inventory performance, and adjust our kanban plans in response to a new analysis. Thus, for a kanban system to work most efficiently, it needs the most precise and timely data, followed by prompt action.

An eKanban system supports various kanban management tasks with a repository of real-time data that can be sorted, searched, analyzed, and applied through automation. With automated kanban data services, the effectiveness and efficiency of kanban management tasks related to managing orders, cards, and audits are vastly improved.

  • Kanban Planning

    The first-and most important-phase in the kanban cycle is kanban planning. The success or failure of a kanban initiative largely depends on the effectiveness of the kanban planning phase. Kanban planning is also the most data-hungry phase of kanban. During planning, you must collect an array of part data or plan-for-every-part (PFEP). That data then informs replenishment decisions made with the assistance of an array of logic trees and complex formulas for determining optimal replenishment approach, replenishment trigger timing, replenishment quantities, number of kanban cards, and more.

    Additionally, in order to review and adjust kanban plans in future cycles, current and accurate plan data must also be referenced.

    Thus, workflow and inventory data must be as current and accurate as possible. Unfortunately, for many organizations, the requisite data collecting, if conducted manually, is a monumental endeavor that often returns a hodge-podge of incomplete and inaccurate data, causing inefficient or ineffective kanban plans or excessive data-collection rework.
    This is where eKanban shines. An eKanban calculator can automate much of the mathematics and decision-making for the user. Sophisticated eKanban automation is designed to handle any number of different situations that the user can define.

    At its most basic, electronic kanban delivers the benefits of accurate data by utilizing real-time data repositories. However, eKanban calculators facilitate additional versatility of a kanban process by enabling more frequent kanban sizing calculations than is possible with manual data collection and analysis. Depending on how complex a facility’s resizing process is, planners may be able to execute resizes monthly or even weekly, instead of quarterly.

    eKanban tools should be able to create solutions rounded to minimum order and package limits while accommodating daily demand and lead times. These might sound like features every eKanban tool would include. Unfortunately, many do not handle minimum order rounding or limited packages.
    Another critical feature that an eKanban tool should include is the ability to evaluate current solutions and trigger a red flag when there’s a risk of a part stockout. This helps planners and buyers stay on top of their deployment plans and avoid any risks to delivery schedules.
    A good eKanban tool will also show the actual on-hand figures for each part and make comparisons as needed. This makes it possible for buyers and planners to quickly recognize where resizing efforts can produce the most significant payoff. Optimal eKanban systems can be configured to determine part and project, and negotiation priorities by considering their impacts on inventory and workflow.

    Of course, eKanban tools can also help with deploying a kanban solution with features for creating and printing kanban cards, configuring cards when a solution uses several formats and assisting card design.

    Electronically controlled kanban cards can be a boon for facilities that frequently need to resize their kanban plan in response to variable demand. Of course, issuing cards by hand is not difficult. Kanban cards can easily be scanned and hung on a kanban board as necessary. However, what can be difficult, is removing cards once they are circulating. eKanban systems can make it possible to deactivate cards from a computer terminal rather than chasing them down manually. When a card is deactivated in the system, an error will come up when a user attempts to scan the card that informs them that it needs to be removed from the production floor.

  • Card & Order Management

    The processes followed for card management and orders are executed daily by employees who work in a production facility. When errors occur, they can have ramifications for the entire production process for that order. Automation’s chief advantage is its ability to remove the human error that can occur and speed up the time it takes to cycle through each process. Barcode scanning is a feature common to all eKanban tools. It is faster than typing at a terminal and eliminates the possibility of mistyping part numbers or quantities.

    • Orders:

      Many eKanban tools have the ability to generate orders or releases when a card is scanned with quantities, suppliers, and lead times dynamically determined based on the most current data parameters. This allows planners to adjust the order that a card generates without changing the physical card itself. This helps facilities resize quantities based on demand by using generic cards with no printed quantities on them. Rather, the quantity can be stored in a record tied to that card’s barcode.

    • Confirmations:

      Order confirmation, whether for internal or external clients, is another function that an eKanban tool can provide. A supplier can confirm orders, change their due dates, or alter the quantities ordered electronically. This significantly reduces the labor spent on phone calls, emails, and paper trails, and eliminates time spent waiting for an employee to be available. Automating the confirmation process can lead to large labor savings for suppliers that mandate acknowledgments.

    • Receipts:

      Automating receipts for orders completed can also be accomplished electronically via barcode scanning, such as when shipments are received on the loading dock. A single scan can record the date and quantity received. This can save time for a facility’s shipping and records departments.

  • Kanban Audits

    Another major function of most reliable eKanban tools is order tracking. Kanban systems that are mature and well-designed will have processes that correct errors when they happen so that production flows and deliveries aren’t impacted. Electronic kanban systems help eliminate the sources of those errors, and they make it much quicker to find and correct them. For example, order tracking in an eKanban system makes it possible for planners and buyers to discover through automated reports that an order is a past due, still open or was recently opened.

    Audits are supported with automated reports that can be organized by part number, the number of cards that are active and open orders. Due dates, lead times, and receipt dates are other ways to sort and format kanban data. The possibilities realized by combining these criteria in various ways make eKanban a time-saving tool when conducting complex audits in large facilities. Common errors like duplicated orders or orders that were never closed can be found in a fraction of the time it would take for auditors to find them by inspecting records and kanban cards.

Visual Management and Beyond

It might be tempting to think that the physical aspects of a kanban system become unnecessary after moving to an eKanban tool. However, visual management is key to the success of any Kanban system, so kanban cards, physical audits, and boards are still valuable. Keep in mind that a purely virtual kanban system that uses electronic cards is not much different than