Supermarkets are using Kanban to help fight the Coronavirus

Kanban Apr 1, 2020

You have seen Kanban in action and are probably oblivious to it

The last few weeks of self-isolation haven’t been easy. Suddenly your world becomes limited to the confines of your house, and you have only two reasons to go outside: taking a walk or going to the supermarket for groceries. That’s about it. Luckily my world is occasionally filled with the joy of feeding ducks with stale bread, but I digress.

In the Netherlands, we have implemented social distancing measures, where everybody needs to keep a distance of 1.5 m (5 feet) at all times. The onset of social distancing was a maddening, chaotic mess. People did not keep their distance, and visiting the supermarket was a frustrating experience. It felt like participating in a real-life version Pac-Man — except no matter what you do, the ghosts catch up to you, and there is no magical fruit available to help you escape.

Image by Ahmed Altamimi

It feels weird to say, but nowadays, going to the supermarket starts to feel like a day out. Because of this, I pay extra attention to my surroundings, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that stores are evolving and fine-tuning their approach towards the Coronavirus day by day. A trend I have observed is that more and more supermarkets are adopting Kanban to assist with halting the spread of the Coronavirus.

Using Kanban to prevent Coronavirus from spreading

One of the big problems supermarkets face is controlling the number of customers in the store. If too many people enter the store, the social distance of 1.5 m becomes unenforceable. Plus, the store will likely receive a big fine for breaking the rules. If too few customers can enter the store, then you may have a queue out front (possible penalties again), and the supermarket may lose money due to diminished sales.

Supermarkets want to have the right amount of people inside: not too little and not too many. Shoppers need to be able to enter and leave swiftly, and to achieve this the supermarket needs a way to manage the flow of visitors. Managing the flow of foot traffic is where Kanban comes in and shines.

How does Kanban work in a nutshell?

Kanban is the Japanse word for ‘Signal Card’ and has its roots in car manufacturing. Since its inception by Toyota in 1940, as part of their Lean Manufacturing approach, Kanban has spread its wings beyond just accelerating the production of car parts.

Image by Dimitri Houtteman

For example, Kanban is sometimes used in Japan to make sure parks are not too crowded and remain pleasant for visitors. Before entering, visitors receive a plastic card, called a Kanban token. The park has a limited supply of these Kanban tokens, equal to what the park has deemed the maximum amount of visitors the park can handle while remaining quiet and enjoyable.

When there are no more Kanban tokens available, visitors can’t enter the park before a new token becomes available. When a visitor leaves the park, they need to drop off their Kanban token, so it becomes available to others. By using a cheap and straightforward Kanban approach, parks can remain lovely for all visitors. If only they would use Kanban at Park Güell in Barcelona.

Kanban tokens signal the amount of capacity available in the park to handle visitors. Kanban represents a pull system, where new visitors can only enter if sufficient capacity is available, indicated by the availability of a token.

By now you might be wondering, how does Kanban relate to Supermarkets and the Coronavirus?

How do supermarkets apply Kanban to uphold social distancing?

Supermarkets need to limit the capacity of their store, so customers can safely uphold 1.5 m social distance and move through the store swiftly. How do supermarkets achieve this with Kanban?

Image by Maarten Dalmijn (feel free to reuse wherever you want)
  1. The total number of shopping baskets is limited to the maximum amount of customers the store can handle while respecting social distancing measures and customers flowing smoothly through the store.
  2. Everybody who enters must take a shopping basket. If no shopping basket is available, you need to wait.
  3. Whoever leaves the store, drops off their shopping basket. The shopping basket is then cleaned and made available again for new customers.

The Kanban shopping basket approach is a simple, cheap, and effective way to ensure supermarkets are not overcrowded. An important prerequisite for Kanban to work, and to not make things worse, is that the shopping baskets are cleaned well.

We have just scratched the surface of Kanban, and doing Kanban is not as simple as merely managing the amount of shopping baskets. There are many more elements that can be part of an effective Kanban approach, such as cycle time, lead time, flow efficiency, service level agreements, Theory of Constraints, and much more.

In the Netherlands, most people are now familiar with Kanban without even realizing it. I love the simplicity of the approach, and I hope others will be able to appreciate it as well on their next visit to the supermarket. And maybe the next time somebody starts talking about Kanban, a light bulb will turn on in your head, and you will remember the elegant approach of these supermarkets.