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2 Rules to Organize Yourself: Personal Kanban

Geoff Schaadt

Update 1 June 2011:

I have been exposed to Kanban and other Lean tools for a few years, which led to my exposure to Personal Kanban via the Lean community.  However, I was of the belief that this was a generic term and practice.  Apparently, not so.  I saw this tweet this morning, and must assume that Jim Benson, author of Personal Kanban, with Tonianne DeMaria Barry, originated the concept and name.  My apologies and regret for the oversight.  I did link to a review of the book in the N.B., but I should have been more thorough in my research.  Go read it and visit his site.

- Geoff

We have written extensively in this space about the relentless pace of change and turmoil that is accelerating around us. This upheaval is not limited to “the world”, but trickles down into the everyday demands that each of us must face as we “do more with less” – smaller budgets, reduced staff, and seemingly fewer hours in the day as our personal and professional lives bleed together.

The result is a flood of priorities – both small and large, both personal and professional – accompanied by the projects, the emails, the voicemails, the to-do lists - the endless number of things that we have to remember, attend to, and complete.

Your time and your attention are fixed, a non-renewable resource, regardless of the number of tasks that get “delegated” to you.

Kanban1-400x267Productivity Porn

The psychological burden that each of us carries with us every single day continues to grow with each new ball that we have to keep in the air.

And so we seek new and better ways to keep track of it all.

Some of these things – dubbed Productivity Porn by the irrepressible Merlin Mann – are truly excellent (thinking of the David Allen empire or Atul Gawande and his Lists) while others I just find baffling (can someone make me understand the emotional need to pay triple for a paper notebook because it has a Moleskine label?).

So let me introduce yet another system for personal organization that may not be familiar: Personal Kanban.

Kanban

Kanban is a system of visual communication - in Japanese “kan” means visual and “ban” means card - that was developed for the shop floor at Toyota by Taiichi Ohno to create transparent communications to everyone in the production process, Kanban2-400x300not just the managers.

Eventually Kanban became another of the tools used in the Toyota Production System (TPS) – also known as Lean Manufacturing or World Class Manufacturing.

Email and Lean Manufacturing

So, what do just-in-time manufacturing processes have to do with your exploding Inbox? And what makes this Kanban nonsense any different from GTD or FranklinCovey or any of the other systems?

First, Kanban is not another personal productivity system in-and-of itself. It’s more a way of thinking about how you implement the system that you are currently using.

Kanban has only two hard and fast rules:

  1. visualize your workflow
  2. limit your work in progress

Visualize Your Work

Much like the GTD approach, Personal Kanban requires that you do a complete mental “dump”. You need to write down everything that is on your plate. Every project big or small, every task you need to remember, every little niggling thing that sits at the edge of consciousness abrading on your peace of mind.

The point is to get it all out of your brain and onto paper (pixels?).

Kanban4-375x500Then it is placed into some version of a Kanban Board. This can be a cork board with note cards, a white board filled with post-it notes, or any one of many digital versions. It doesn’t matter which approach you take – it only matters that you are able to create a visual representation of your tasks.

The board is broken into three columns:

  • Backlog – these are your tasks that are waiting to be done
  • Doing – these are the tasks that you are working on right now (work in progress)
  • Done – yes, capture what you have done, see it

Limit Your Work in Progress

It’s becoming more apparent that the human brain doesn’t multi-task well. Yet we insist on multi-tasking all of the time in an effort to “be more productive”.

Kanban abhors this approach.

We each have a finite capacity. So, we must limit the amount of Work in Progress (WIP) to allow for proper focus on the task at hand. The human psyche isn’t a great juggler – too many balls in the air reduces our efficiency and makes it far more likely that one of them is going to drop. And the amount of concentration and psychic energy spent on constantly shifting contexts is concentration and psychic energy that isn’t available for the work itself!

Implementation

Kanban doesn’t ask for great changes in the way we approach our own organization. However you sort and prioritize right now – keep doing that.

 The steps that are required to use Personal Kanban:

  1. You must visualize your work – get it out of your brain and onto paper.
  2. Place your tasks in the ‘Backlog’.
  3. Based on your system of prioritization, pull two or three or four of those into the ‘Doing’ column. Only you can determine the proper amount of active tasks that you can handle. (Though I would note that very few people can juggle five balls…)
  4. As you complete a task, it gets pulled over into the ‘Done’ column.

That simple.

Why bother with the ‘Done’ column – why not just trash those tasks as completed? Two purposes are served:

  • Kanban3-400x316It provides a record of your workflow for review and refinement. Are you working on the “right” things?
  • Back to that concept of “psychic energy” – visual cues from the ‘Done’ column provide an excellent source of positive reinforcement.

Your board can be reviewed on a daily or weekly basis – whichever works best for you. What matters is that you visualize your work and that you don’t take on too many things at once.

And, once you understand and implement this approach on a personal level, you can apply the same methods with your teams and your organization for greater transparency and efficiency in your communications.

N.B.  This post doesn’t pretend to provide a complete discussion of Kanban systems or how to best incorporate them into your own life. If you are really interested in exploring this topic, deep guidance is only a Google search away – or have a look at this review by Tim McMahon.

So what do you think? Does this approach resonate with you or is it yet another plank in the great pile of productivity porn?

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Comments

Geoff,

Really enjoyed this post. I was introduced to Personal Kanban and Jim Benson recently. Trying to put it into practice for my own business and your post is both interesting and very useful. Thanks!

By Debbie Weil on 2011/06/01

Geoff,

Really enjoyed this post. I was introduced to Personal Kanban and Jim Benson recently. Trying to put the system into practice for my own business - your post is both interesting and very useful. Thanks!

By Debbie Weil on 2011/06/01

Thanks so much for the kind feedback Debbie.  Hope your Lean journey is a successful one!

By Geoff Schaadt on 2011/06/01

Thanks Geoff!

Excellent timing and very useful ideas.  I think getting a very large white board is now in my DOING section. My computer screen and cork board are no longer big enough to manage all my ‘To Do’ post-it notes.

I hope you are well.

Ramona

By Ramona Packham on 2011/06/02

Thanks Ramona,

Or you could just buy some IdeaPaint and make the whole wall a board!

By Geoff Schaadt on 2011/06/02

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Posted by Geoff Schaadt
Posted on May 31, 2011
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Categories: communication, hr & talent management, lessons learned, process improvement, productivity