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It sometimes feels like every warehouse has their own method for tracking inventory, but one of the most popular and enduring methods is known as kanban.

Kanban, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is a Japanese method used in warehouses, factories, and other manufacturing concerns where parts are delivered, replenished, or manufactured only as needed. It’s often referred to as “just-in-time”, and the process can take many forms, typically involving giant walls of physical cards that are flipped over or moved to accommodate the changing needs for different parts.

While kanban is most commonly associated with lean manufacturing, warehouses and distribution centers can actually benefit greatly from using kanban to track their inventory levels and re-ordering needs as well.

 

Kanban for Inventory Levels

 

Depending on what, exactly, your warehouse carries, kanban can be an easy way to track and control inventory levels, particularly when the time comes to replenish certain items.

Particularly in these days of ecommerce and instant gratification through fast shipping, excess inventory can actually cause your warehouse to lose out on money and opportunities for sales. As a result, many warehouses are trying to find new ways of quickly re-ordering needed items without keeping too much of any given item on hand at one time, taking warehouse shelving space away from other items that may be needed more. Enter kanban.

Let’s say you run a kanban board near the front of your warehouse – ideally in a place where everyone can see it, probably close to the workstations you use for shipping & receiving – that tracks your inventory levels for either your entire warehouse, a number of popular and fast-selling items, or the smallest items that are hardest to count (individual parts and the like). If someone on your picking staff notices that a certain item is out of stock on your pallet racks, they’ll go back to your kanban board to take down the card relating to that item, signaling that it needs to be reordered asap to make sure it stays in stock.

 

Kanban for Receiving Items

 

On the flip side, you can also easily adapt this method to work with new inbound items as well. As items are processed into the warehouse and sent off to their final destination, create kanban cards for each of them. On each of these cards, track how many you have on hand, their location, and any other needed high-level information. While this might require you to set up a few adjacent boards to make room for everything, it can help your workers stay more prepared to deal with inventory issues and prevent shortages or misorders of needed items.

Even if your warehouse doesn’t manufacture the items directly, keeping a kanban board to help you keep track of item levels can go a long way towards preventing shortages or overages.

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