noun, often attributive kan·ban \ ˈkän-ˌbän \

Definition of kanban

kanban was our Word of the Day on 01/15/2013. Hear the podcast!

The History of the kanban System

Toyota Motor Company is credited with developing the kanban system of manufacturing, which takes its name from the Japanese word for "sign" or "placard." In the kanban system, each shipment of parts used in making a product comes with a kanban, or sign. When the parts are nearly exhausted, the sign is sent to suppliers, who ship new ones to the assembly line. In the early 1980s, kanban became a buzzword in the American business community-offering a perfect example of how languages often reflect larger societal trends … and how trading partners often trade more than durable goods.

Origin and Etymology of kanban

Japanese, sign, placard; from the cards used on assembly lines to signal that parts are needed

Financial Definition of KANBAN


What It Is

Kanban is a Japanese term that refers to the  "just-in-time" inventory method's signal to a supplier to send more inventory.

How It Works

Just in time (JIT) is an inventory management method whereby materials, goods and even labor are scheduled to arrive or be replenished only exactly when needed in the production process. Toyota Motor Company developed JIT in the 1950s. JIT is often referred to as a "pull" system, whereas traditional inventory methods are often referred to as "push" systems or "just-in-case" management.

The goal of JIT and kanban is to improve product quality by keeping only enough inventory on hand to meet immediate production needs. In order to effectively employ JIT, a company must accurately forecast demand. JIT's encouragement of planning, simplification and standardization is aimed at reducing production errors and, by extension, encourages the limitation of the number options a product has. These methods rely on kanban communication, but eliminate the expense of housing idle materials, and lower the costs of defective products, wasted space, extra equipment, overtime, warranty repair and scrap.

Why It Matters

Kanban speeds the production process, thereby eliminating long lead times and improving delivery performance. It works best for companies using repetitive manufacturing functions.

Possible indicators of a company's use of kanban methods are high inventory turnover ratios and high asset turnover ratios. Low inventory balances mean a company's choice of inventory accounting methods has minimal impact.

Learn More about kanban

Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up kanban? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!


resembling the blue of the sky

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Difficult Spelling Words Quiz

  • alphabet-pasta-spelling-help
  • Which is the correct spelling?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

Word Winder's CrossWinder

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.


Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!