The (True) Difference Between Push and Pull

Push Pull Illustration
Common, but misleading illustration of push and pull

One of the key differences in lean production is to use pull production rather than push production. While pretty much everyone knows (at least in theory) how to implement it using kanban, the underlying fundamental differences are a bit more fuzzy. But what exactly is the difference between push and pull? Also, what makes pull systems so superior to push systems?

It turns out that most definitions are going in the wrong direction. Even the names “push” and “pull” are actually not well suited to describe the concept. Neither are common illustrations, including the one here in the upper left.

What It Is Not! – Common Misconceptions

Let me start you with a selection of different definitions of push and pull that I’ve found online. For each of them I selected one actual quote, although many more similar definitions could be found.

Misconception 1 – Make-to-Stock and Make-to-Order

"Push type" means "make-to-stock," in which the production is not based on actual demand. "Pull type" means "make-to-order," in which the production is based on actual demand. (Lean Manufacturing Japan)
Push vs Pull wrongly based on Make-to-Oder Make-to-Stock
Is it really?

Often, push and pull are (incorrectly) explained through “make-to-stock” and “make-to order.” Supposedly, a push production creates products without having a specific customer request (make-to-stock). A pull production supposedly produces only if there is a request for a product by the end customer (make-to-order).

That is a simple but very flawed view of the difference between push and pull. Even Toyota produces some of their cars without a specific customer order, instead building up stock of popular models for walk-in customers. Hence, it is perfectly possible to produce make-to-stock using pull production.

On the other hand, using this definition, pull production would be centuries old, since make-to-order production is a very old concept. Every cobbler before the Industrial Revolution made shoes only if a customer requested them. However, these cobblers were anything but lean, and were usually surrounded by piles of material.

Ambiguity Push vs Pull vs Make-to-Oder Make-to-Stock
What is it now?

Sometimes it is attempted to correct the above definition by stating that the “order” in “make-to-order” does not have to be an end customer, but could be a stage in between. However, even for make-to-stock, somebody somewhere has to give the order to start producing. In this case, this “somebody” would be the customer, and any make-to-stock would be identical with make-to-order.

Misconception 2 – Market Forecast vs Actual Demand

Push Manufacturing: manufacturing activities are planned based on a market forecast[...]. Pull Manufacturing: manufacturing plan is based on actual customer demand. (Lean Enterprises Blog)
[Pull] means that no one upstream should produce a good or service until the customer downstream asks for it. (Womack and Jones in in Lean Thinking)

This (incorrect!) definition uses slightly different words but is otherwise similar to the make-to-stock and make-to-order definitions above. As shown by the second quote, even the best lean thinkers are muddled on this topic.

Misconception 3 – Direction of Information Flow

The difference between push and pull is the direction in which information and orders are forwarded. Push has a central logistic plan. Pull has an information flow opposite of the material flow. (, translated by me)
Logistic Plan Push Pull?
Are you sure?

Often, the main difference between push and pull is seen as the difference between having a central logistic plan or information directly from the customers. If there is a central logistic plan, it is supposedly push. If the orders come directly from the customer, it is supposedly pull.

Yet here we have again the same problems as before. The logistic plan is not created out of thin air, but based on the demands of the customer. Depending on the customer demands and the lead time, the logistics department starts make-to-stock or make-to-order production.

Logistic Plan Uncertainty
What is it?

Also, while a functioning kanban system is a pull system, it does not necessarily have to be based on paper kanban cards. A kanban system can also be digital using an ERP system, in which case the logistic plan would create its orders based on kanban. Hence you would have a pull system with a central logistic plan. Therefore this definition of push and pull does not work either.

Misconception 4 – MRP and Kanban

Push is MRP, pull is kanban (not really a quote, but often heard in industry).

Of all the views of push and pull, this one is at least partially correct. A well-implemented kanban system (i.e., not just a plant where every paper is miraculously called “kanban”) is indeed a pull system. However, it is not the only possible way to create a pull system. You could also use, for example, CONWIP.

Similarly, MRP can also be set up as a pull system using electronic kanban or similar methods. Hence, it is entirely feasible to implement pull using MRP.

What Is Really the Difference between Push and Pull?

All of the definitions above fail to capture the true essence of a pull system. The confusion probably stems from the rather unfortunate names “push” and “pull,” which are actually misleading. Regarding the true difference between push and pull, Hopp and Spearman are right on the money:

A pull production system is one that explicitly limits the amount of work in process that can be in the system. [...] a push production system is one that has no explicit limit on the amount of work in process that can be in the system. (Hopp and Spearman "To Pull or Not to Pull")
True Pull
True pull has an upper limit on WIP

Yes, if you explicitly limit your work in progress (WIP), it is a pull system. If not, it is a push system. It has nothing to do with physical pulling or pushing of material or information.

For example, a kanban system has a fixed upper limit on the work in progress. You cannot have more material than what is allowed by the number of your kanban cards. This limit is explicitly defined (the number of kanban cards).

Of course, any shop floor has an upper limit. If all available space is crammed full with WIP, at one point the shop will stop production. However, this limit is not well defined as it depends on the creativity of the logistics people to find more spaces to put stuff. Additionally, this limit is usually much more than any sensible kanban system would allow.

CONWIP system with Cards
CONWIP system

A true pull system starts production only if the WIP limit has not yet been reached. For example, in a kanban system, if there is material in the supermarket at the end the customer can take a part, and a new order is released. If there is no material, then all the WIP allowed is already in the queue. The customer gets no part, and no new order is released.

Similarly for CONWIP systems, a backlog of open orders is only started if there is a free CONWIP card available (see Basics of CONWIP Systems for details). While an order is not rejected in a CONWIP system, it still has to wait until a WIP slot in the form of a free CONWIP card is available.


Overall, most sources and most practitioners define push and pull incorrectly, probably because the names “push” and “pull” are actually quite misleading. This confusion is quite unfortunate, since it is one of the key elements of a successful manufacturing system. The main difference is the WIP limit. If you have an explicit WIP limit in your production, you have a pull system and hence have access to all the benefits of a lean pull production. If there is no explicit limit on WIP, it is a push system. 

I hope this was insightful for you. Now go out, limit your WIP, and organize your industry!

Selected Source:

Hopp, Wallace J., and Mark L. Spearman. “To Pull or Not to Pull: What Is the Question?” Manufacturing & Service Operations Management 6, No. 2 (April 1, 2004): 133–48. doi:10.1287/msom.1030.0028.

28 thoughts on “The (True) Difference Between Push and Pull

  1. Very. true, I have had an opportunity. to learn more about the public system by da use of kanban, and the drum buffer rope, whereby we created a material replenishment board for the top moving parts and implementing it realy worked. in terms of reducing WIP and it Assisted in a lot in scheduling on time and material shortage issues. where reduced

  2. Great clarity, the two fundamental functions of Kanban are 1) It tells you what to make (When, What, How many) and 2) Prevents Overproduction (as you say by limiting W.I.P).

  3. Thank you, Pablo. For me, the definition of pull being a cap on wip is regardless of your position in the supply chain. Hence, downstream from you it would also be a cap on wip. Same as your suppliers see you as their customer downstream.

  4. I have some concerns with this oversimplification of the Push vs Pull definition. There are many production companies that have real limitations on WIP due to for instance limited number of production bins in circulation, yet they are not regarded as Pull companies. They don’t use kanban system, produce according to the forecast and have central planning unit. Yet when the production order starts, they have to make every care to get the product out (and release the bins) ASAP.

  5. Hi Radovan, if they have a fixed upper limit on WIP (including finished goods), then they would be a Pull system. It does not matter if they work according to plan (make to stock) or based on direct orders (make to order). Due to the limit on WIP, they cannot produce more than the limit. I am aware that push/pull is often defined differently (see post above), but this explanation works best for me. In any case, thanks for commenting 🙂

  6. Sorry for nagging, but I still believe it is simplification of the definition. Maybe I didn’t properly understood the definition, so can you provide me with an example of what would you then consider a proper “push” system for which WIP limit definition is applicable?

  7. Hi Radovan, it’s not nagging, it is a good discussion. Science advances best if people with different opinions discuss their points, and I often learn quite a bit from questions. As for the definition: My main reference is the paper “To Pull or Not to Pull: What Is the Question” mentioned above in the post.

    As for a “Push” system with a WIP limit: I don’t think there are any. If it has a WIP limit, it is pull. This way you avoid overstuffing your system. A second question, of course, is to produce “the right” products. Pretty much all systems, kanban and MRP, push or pull, aim to produce the right products. I think Kanban are a pretty nifty and robust way, and better than MRP, but the main advantage of a Kanban is in my view the limit on WIP.

    Best wishes, Chris

  8. Thanx for clarifiyng, I understand your definiton better, however, can you please discuss a real life example of a system that would fall into “Push” category? For instance, would you agree that bread bakery a commonly accepted model of Push system? I am afraid that by the definition from Hopp and Spearman, all production systems would be classified as pull systems, because you can argue there is always limit of WIP that can be had in any production system.

  9. Thank you for this explanation. I guess, it was done like that in TAS CCEL Production even for non standard products : calculation of the WIP in the workshop by Logistic & planification with respect to customer need, taken also into account the levelling capacity, CONWIP to give autonomous of people and manage/visualise the flow in workshop, integrating red bins analysis.

  10. It is never ‘Pull’ if you are just making something because you have space that lets you. It needs to be explicitly Customer driven.

  11. Making to replenish a supermarket is Pull – this is still Customer driven. (Only if the criteria that were used to set the supermarket levels remain valid i.e. effective takt has not changed.)
    Making just because you can is never Pull.

  12. But … Isn’t every production for the customer eventually? In this case all production would be automatically pull, because everybody wants to satisfy the customer demand.

    Also, a FIFO lane gives a signal to the preceding process: If there is space, make a part. Hence, the preceding process produces if there is space, yet FIFO can be a complete valid part of a pull system. I still think your definition is ambiguous.

  13. Now, what I find amazing is the persistence of the misconceptions you have just described. Hopp and Spearman article has been published more than a decade ago, 12 years to be precise, and yet while doing literature review for my thesis I stumbled upon numerous occurrences of equating push with MTS and pull with MTO.

    Mr. Roser, I’d recommend you an article by Powell and Arica (2015), for which they conducted detailed literature review of various pull definitions and interpretations. From there, they go on to propose context-dependent definitions of pull, namely demand-pull, production-pull and plan-pull.

    Powell, D. and Arica, E., 2015. To Pull or Not to Pull: A Concept Lost in Translation?. American Journal of Management, 15(2), pp.64-73.

  14. Hi Bruno, thanks for the input. I regularly get disagreements on that based on “customer demand”, But this is either make to order vs. make to stock (for an actual existing order), or any production (since any production eventually wants to produce for the customer).

    As for the Powell Article, what they call production pull probably comes closest, but in my view the “withdrawal” and “Direction of Information Flow” is not needed. For me, information always flows both directions. Thanks for pointing out the article, it is a quite thorough literature review.

  15. Dear Mr. Christoph
    Thanks for this amazing illustration. It is an interesting topic. I am dealing with this in my thesis, and to be frank the more I read, the more I am confused. I find lots of contradictions here and there. This drives me to a question. What would you describe the integration of MRP and Kanban ? Some authors, call for using MRP in a generic form, or monthly bases, and using Kanban on a daily bases.

    First, what is your opinion about this integration ? and secondly, would you conciser this as a push plan pull execution system ? since we first plan through MRP, and execute through Kanban ?

  16. Hi Farouq, MRP is a software system that (usually) can also do kanban. Some companies, however, try to keep such programs out of manufacturing since they can cause more problems than they solve. In any case, regardless if you use MRP push, MRP e-kanban pull, or classic Paper kanban pull, it is imperative that a process only receives one signal for production. The worst case is if a kanban tells the process to do A, but MRP tells the process to do B, which will lead to chaos.

    Best wishes with your thesis 🙂


  17. Thanks very much Prof. Christoph for this explanation. Well, so if the MRP was used to calculate the final assemblies only, and the Kanbans were used for manufacturing parts ” replanishing what has been taken away from the inventories of assembly” would that make sense to you ? in such usages of MRP, should I concider it as a push or pull system ? and how can the MRP limit the WIP in such situation ?

  18. It seems you use MRP as a synonym to pull. Most MRP software can be set up to be pull or push. It is possible to combine a pull and a push system, where parts of the value stream are pull (in your case the components), and part is push (in your case the finished good). I kind of like starting kanban on the supply side, although in industry many start with the finished goods side since that’s where top management attention usually is and where careers are made 😉

  19. Hello Professor Christoph,

    I am curious about what you consider the perfect description of a pull and push system as defined by Hopp and Spearman; “A pull production system is one that explicitly limits the amount of work in process that can be in the system.” Where does this ‘limit’ come from? From forecasting based on how much product the company thinks it will sell, or is it based on actual sales and market analysis to determine how much product may be sold.
    The reason for my question is because I worked for a company that manufactures and sells consumer electronic goods. The biggest issue they still face is excess inventory. Too much inventory at warehouses across the globe because the products are not selling as much as they hoped or forecasted. But this does not prevent them from running their mfg plants around the clock. If the warehouses are full of product why keep making more product? Shouldn’t the excess inventory be considered the ‘limit’ the WIP?


  20. Hi Chris….Very informative article. So, going by this new approach towards ‘Push’ and ‘Pull’,
    an inbound contact centre is a pull since there are explicit limit on the no. of resources that can take customer calls at a given point in time and a self serve buffet in a restaurant will be push as it does not limit the no. of people taking food at a time?

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