Articles > From Toyota to Kanban, the Japanese roots of agile frameworks

by Alexis Ulrich  LinkedIn

The Toyota Production System is a work organization developed by the Japanese engineer Taiichi Ōno in 1962. Based on Taylorism, it is also called lean manufactoring. It brings together several key concepts: just-in-time, continuous improvement, zero defect, circles of quality, kanban… Adapted to software development in agile methodologies (RUP, XP, Kanban, Scrum…), some of its concepts are transposed when necessary.
Here is a lexicon of these concepts with their Japanese name.

The Kanban word written in Kanji (看板), in Hiragana (かんばん), and in Romaji

Andon – Baka-Yoke – Genba – Genchi Genbutsu – Hansei – Heijunka – Jidoka – Kaizen – Kanban – Nemawashi – Muda, Muri, Mura – Ōbeya – Poka-Yoke – San Gen Shugi


行灯 (あんどん in Hiragana)
“paper lantern” (lantern made of paper stretched over a wooden, bamboo or metal frame)

The Andon is a visual system that shows at which workshop an anomaly has occurred on a production line.
This indicator is transposed into agile methodologies visual management: bottleneck on a Kanban board, blocked card on a Scrum board.


馬鹿ヨケ (ばか in Hiragana, バカ in Katakana)

Like the Poka-Yoke, the Baka-Yoke limits errors, but at the operator level. This is for example a plug that can only be connected in one way, like a USB plug.


現場 (げんば in Hiragana)
“field, stage, floor of a shop, of a factory”
from (Hiragana: うつつ, utsutsu, “reality”) and (Hiragana: じょう, jou, “place”)

Sometimes westernized in Gemba, this concept expresses “where reality lies”, and thus: the place where the work is done, hence the production workshop.
The improvements are detectable and put in place by the workers themselves. Management cannot make decisions without confronting the place where time, space and productivity coexist: the production workshop. We could talk here about the confrontation with reality, or the need to put the hands in the grease.
This is one of the three principles of San Gen Shugi, with Genbutsu and Genjitsu.
In the Kanban agile methodology, we do not try to revolutionize the methods of work and the roles of each person in one fell swoop, but rather to start where we are and to progressively improve the processes.

Genchi Genbutsu

Expression composed of 現地 (Hiragana: げんち, genchi, “place”) and 現物 (Hiragana: げんぶつ, genbutsu, “stock, in kind”)
“go see yourself”

Nothing beats direct observation, in the field. This is one of the founding principles of Toyota’s production system, with Genba and Genjitsu (see San Gen Shugi).


反省 (はんせい in Hiragana)
“introspection, repentance, contrition”

Recognize mistakes and take action so that they do not reproduce: an essential step in continuous improvement.


平準化 (へいじゅんか in Hiragana)
“smoothing, equalization”
from (Hiragana: ひら, hira, “flat, level”) and 化する (kasaru, “to transform into”)

Leveling of production in terms of volume (number of units produced) and product diversity, heijunka sacrifices to the zero stock policy to avoid the possible fluctuations of a production on demand. This is an ad hoc balancing between responsiveness to the market and cost of production, with smoothing of the production costs over a period of time to avoid short-term fluctuations.


from (Hiragana: , ji, “auto”) and 退かす (Hiragana: どかす, dokasu, “to remove”)

With the help of an adequate Poka-Yoke coding system, a production machine can detect some errors and stop by itself if one of them occurs. It then activates an Andon to alert its operator. Transposed to the world of computing, these are automatic alerts (or probes) warning the support team so that it corrects the problem as quickly as possible.


改善 (かいぜん in Hiragana)
from (kai, “change”) and (zen, “better”)

This term translates into “continuous improvement” which aims to constantly improve quality, deadlines, productivity, and working conditions in a gradual way.
It is found in particular in the “retrospective” ceremony in the Scrum framework where the development team meets periodically to reflect on improvements to the methods of work.


看板 (かんばん in Hiragana)

In Toyotism, the kanban is a cardboard card attached for example to a container of spare parts. The number of kanbans being limited, it tells it is no longer necessary to produce parts as long as a container has not been emptied, and therefore used. This is the principle of just-in-time.
The Kanban agile framework helps visualizing the current workflow and the possible bottlenecks by limiting the number of tasks in a given state.


根回し (ねまわし in Hiragana)
from (Hiragana: , ne, “root”) and 回す (Hiragana: まわす, mawasu, “to turn”)
Literally: “to dig in circles around the roots (to transplant a tree)”

This is the building of a consensus among all the people involved in a process. Before being proposed at an upper hierarchical level (n+1), an idea must be accepted by all members of the lower level (n), and if necessary modified until approved. It is only then it can be formally proposed to the immediate superior who will do the same with the level (n+1), before proposing it to his superior level (n+2), and so on up to the required decision-making level.

Muda, Muri, Mura

無駄 (Hiragana: むだ, muda, “waste”)
無理 (Hiragana: むり, muri, “overburden”)
蒸らす (Hiragana: むらす, murasu, “to parboil”, and by extension of rice parboiling, “to eliminate irregularities”)

In any process, we want to eliminate waste, that is, what does not bring value (there are seven at Toyota: transport, stock, travel, waiting, over-treatment, overproduction, and defects), overloads (of work or capacity), and finally irregularities and variability.


大部屋 (おおべや in Hiragana)
de (Hiragana: おお, oo, “big”) and 部屋 (Hiragana: へや, heya, “room”)
“big room”

During the product development phase, the people involved at the managerial level find themselves in the same room to improve communication and speed up decision-making. This breaks the silos of the various departments. The obeya uses the principles of visual management with seven panels representing the objectives, the voice of the customer, the product, the performance, the macro planning and the micro plan, as well as problem solving.



To reach the “zero defect” level of a perfect quality, we define a coding system that detects all possible errors. Automatic, it is mechanical on an assembly line, and made of code in a software development process (test-driven development responds to this use). Its principle is to detect errors rather than having to correct them.

San Gen Shugi

Expression composed of (Hiragana: さん, san, “three”), 現実 (Hiragana: げんじつ, genjitsu, “reality”) and 主義 (Hiragana: しゅぎ, shugi, “principle, doctrine”)
“philosophy of the three realisms”

A problem analysis must follow the following three principles: Genba, the place where the problem occurs, Genbutsu, what is affected by the problem, and Genjitsu, the numeric data that quantifies the problem.