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Kanban Pull System Guide: Definition & Examples 

Since Kanban is a methodology that works extremely well with Agile project management principles, it makes sense that using Lean techniques to control workflow would be particularly useful.

When organizations first begin using Kanban, they often hear about the so-called Kanban pull system and wonder what it is and whether they need to implement it. This article offers a Kanban pull system definition, explores why Kanban is a pull system and not a push system, why this is important, and how to implement a Kanban pull system yourself. 

Discover the basics of Kanban, its principles, and essential tools like project visualization, WIP limits, and feedback loops in the Ultimate Kanban Project Management Guide.

What is a Kanban Pull System?

A Kanban pull system is a Lean management technique comparable to just-in-time stock control. Just as a supermarket only orders replacement stock when its stock control system warns that it is about to run out of a certain item, a pull system means that you start new work only when the client asks for it. 

Because this cuts out making any assumptions about future demand, it reduces the possibility of wasted time and effort. It allows you to optimize storage and reduce costs. Only when the customer makes a request can production of the requested task or product begin.

As you might expect, pull systems were first developed in manufacturing environments to keep waste and overhead to a minimum. Applying the same concept to Kanban use in various working environments means that all kinds of companies can benefit from the same concept regardless of the product or service they produce.

kanban pull system

Why is “Pull” better than “Push”?

Looking again at a manufacturing context, the push system is also called “make to stock.” Under a push system, you make and deliver products based on assumptions of what the customer might want. Canned food companies can use this system because the long shelf life of their products means that they will not go bad if they produce too much, and they will eventually be able to sell through the excess production. 

Pull, on the other hand, is also called “make to demand.” Key goals include minimizing waste, balancing workloads, enhancing responsiveness, reducing lead times, improving quality, empowering teams, and visualizing workflow for efficient and customer-centric operations. In this case, you only start to produce your product once customers request it.

Print-on-demand products from platforms such as Redbubble are a great example of this. On this platform, anyone can set up their own merchandise store without making any stock whatsoever. Products are only made once a customer orders them. They are made exactly to order. 

Scenario: Imagine you are managing a SaaS development team responsible for creating and releasing new features for your cloud-based project management software.

SaaS Development Kanban Pull System Example:

  1. Digital Kanban Cards: Create digital cards for each feature or user story.
  2. Set WIP Limits: Determine limits for each stage: Analysis, Development, Testing, and Deployment.
  3. Visualize Workflow: Use a digital Kanban board to visualize the workflow.
  4. Initiate Work: Pull cards from the backlog to start work.
  5. WIP Control: Ensure stages don’t exceed WIP limits.
  6. Development and Testing: Move cards as work progresses.
  7. Continuous Delivery: Deploy completed features immediately.
  8. Monitoring and Improvement: Regularly review the board to optimize the workflow and prioritize based on customer feedback.

Implementing a pull system allows you to manage work more efficiently, prioritize features based on customer demand, and maintain a steady flow of new functionality to your users while avoiding overloading your development team.

A push system makes stores and markets products to possible consumers. This system may work for some but not all manufacturing companies. A pull system works best for companies that want to keep overheads low or need a fast turnaround on their products – perhaps due to low shelf life. 

Using the Kanban pull system creates more flexibility for your team. Under this system, no one does unnecessary work or makes assumptions about customer demand. The system also allows teams to adapt to changes in customer demand that can happen during a project. 

The just-in-time concept works the same in knowledge work as in manufacturing or grocery retail. A work item or task will only begin if there is demand for it. 

Apple is a notable example of the pull system in action. When launching a new product, Apple creates a buzz around that launch. This leads to long lines of people waiting outside the Apple stores. Apple waits to see if there is a demand for more products. If the demand increases, they produce more. 

task management

How to Implement a Kanban Pull System

Kanban has five core properties that guide teams in implementing a well-functioning pull system:

  • Step 1: Visualize the workflow. You can only achieve a steady stream of work through Kanban when you are able to remove inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and unnecessary waste in your processes. You need to know how to get the best out of Kanban boards. 
  • Step 2: Limit the Work-in-Progress (WIP). The ultimate goal of using Kanban boards is to help make projects as efficient as possible by cutting out wasted time and resources. Kanban WIP limits are a key tool for this because they set the maximum amount of work that can exist in a workflow.
  • Step 3: Measure and manage the workflow. In project management, flow describes how an item or piece of work moves through a business process. Kanban is used to visualize workflow and therefore show how an item moves through a process.
  • Step 4: Make process policies explicit.
  • Step 5: Use models to recognize improvement opportunities.

Ready to start using the Kanban Pull System for your projects?

Now you have a better understanding of the pull system in Kanban, and how to implement it, you should be able to work more efficiently yourself as well as more effectively delegate and distribute tasks to team members. Being able to distribute tasks properly helps improve performance and avoid burnout. 

Learn more about how Kanban works by browsing our fast-growing selection of Kanban resources and research.

Find out more about how Teamhood’s flexible Kanban system works, or book a demo to see how it could work for you:

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