Pull, Don’t Push: How “Just in Time” Kanban Techniques Drive Effective Fast Food Processes

kanban in fast food

Recently, I talked to the owner of a local burger joint who complained that they saw a decrease in customers and were throwing out a lot of food at the end of the day. The old way of doing things simply wasn’t cutting it, and the company wasn’t sure how they were going to meet the supply and demand of their market, while also eliminating wasted food to help control expenses. Looking deeper, much of the challenge came with their production process. Up until recently, they had simply made their burgers a batch at a time, but now they needed a system with a “just in time” approach, where food was prepped at a customer’s request, instead of waiting in a hot window.

The company developed a lean system using the process of Kanban. They put a “burger regulator” tray between the servers and the kitchen. As burgers are removed, it signals the kitchen to cook and replace them. Batch sizes were now determined by important data like the time of day and peak periods. After a month of implementing the Kanban system, waste was down by 70% and customers were receiving fresh orders in a timely fashion. Could a Kanban system be the solution to your food company production challenges?

Understanding Kanban

Kanban is part of lean management that was a process originally developed for manufacturing cars, but in fact, was itself borrowed from watching grocery stores do business. It closely follows the line of thinking that you should only produce inventory as it is needed—and not in anticipation of need. That is the basis for a “just in time” mentality that applies to lean in the fast food industry.

Much in the way a supermarket only restocks items that are removed, Kanban is a signaling system in a supply chain that tells the next process when to begin. In some cases, cards are used, and in other cases, bins or trays are employed. The main idea is that each part of the Kanban process is telling the next one when to begin based on immediate customer demand. The following are a few simple rules when using Kanban in the fast food industry:

  • The earlier processes always produce what the later ones need.
  • The later process will dictate what is required to the earlier process.
  • Defects are never passed on to a later process.
  • No items are produced or moved without a Kanban signal.
  • Demand should always be a smooth process.

When you follow the simple rules of Kanban, waste is immediately eliminated. It’s easy to why this approach is popular in fast food chains.

Pull Don’t Push

Traditional manufacturing involves producing inventory and pushing it through a supply chain. This means a lot of guesswork as to what is exactly needed when—and it really isn’t a system that works well in the fast food industry. Scheduling production through forecasting is a slippery slope when it comes to food. This type of industry should rely on a pull (rather than a push) system.

A pull system focuses on “just in time” (JIT) methods, in that a customer ordering a product is the first signal in a Kanban process. It tells the rest of the supply chain if and when an item needs to be replaced. Nothing is produced or manufactured until the Kanban designates it. Therefore, the entire food supply chain only produces what is being consumed by the customer at the rate in which they purchase it.

Types of Kanban

Over the years, fast food companies have developed a variety of ways in which to implement a Kanban system. The following are 3 examples of processes that are currently working for companies:

Two Bin System: The most popular form of Kanban in fast food involves employing 1-3 bins during the process that are used to signal production. In this system, the fries in the first bin have to be completely used up and placed in the second bin before the fry cook drops another basket. That means only the fries that are being eaten are getting replaced, and nothing is sitting under a lamp. The only issue with using bins is when employees use them for other purposes. Therefore, this method requires discipline and accountability.

Multiple Bins: Similar to the 2-bin style, the only difference in this Kanban process is that generally, people are waiting for multiple bins to be returned before they begin production. The multiple bins allow for a larger scope of work in progress. This usually works well for fast food establishments with large menus and a high volume of customers.

Card System: Kanban is the same idea across the board, but in the card system, instead of returning a bin, workers use cards to signal the next step in the process. Unlike the bin system, a card does not need to signify food that was just used. It could be as simple as a customer receipt. The card system doesn’t actually require cards, as any form of visual tools can be used to implement this style of Kanban.

JIT is absolutely essential in the fast food industry. Heat lamps and cold fries make for angry customers. Fast food needs to be just that–fast–and a Kanban system can help you organize your business in a way that will streamline processes and eliminate unnecessary waste.

Are you ready to explore whether a Kanban or just in time lean solution could help your company save costs and increase efficiency? Contact Incito Consulting today to learn more about our strategic consulting services for the food industry.