Implementing Personal Kanban

A couple of months ago I discovered Kanban, a tool used in different manufacturing and development processes. Up until now I had the impression that Lean, Kanban, Just-In-Time was mostly for software development and building cars. No way it could be to any use for me as a person or Service Manager. How wrong I was. After some quick research I discovered multiple books, sites, articles and success stories where people used Kanban and other lean tools/processes to improve their work or personal life.

Everywhere I went online, people were mentioning a book by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry called ‘Personal Kanban‘. So we bought it to our company library. The book was great! Easy to read, down to earth examples and several ahaaa-moments. After some initial reading I started to implement kanban boards for things I needed to get done both at work and at home.
Before I have used a system of boring to-do lists and mindmaps to keep track of all my ideas and things that have to be done. Now, all of that have been transferred to kanban boards. Everything from planning my music projects to cleaning the house or grocery shopping.

The two main points of personal kanban is to visualize your work and limit your work-in-progress. With those two simple ideas you can accomplish a lot.

Visualize your work

This include setting up some kind of board and the scrutinizing work of getting all those to-do-things down on paper/screen to create your first backlog. It will probably be a lot, but don’t worry, good things come later on.

Create the board

Whether you use a whiteboard, a door or an electronic tool doesn’t matter. Use what you have and what fits your purpose. I prefer an electronic board which also have an iPhone app so I can update or add new ideas while not close to the board. On the other hand, a whiteboard gives another feel when you draw your board and move notes around.

Board layout

When you start out you probably want at least three columns:

Ready / Backlog: which is everything you want to get done
Doing / WIP: what you are doing right now
Done: what is done, completed, finito!

But as you go along this will probably change, more columns will be drawn, swim lanes might be added. Don’t be afraid to change your board as you go along, it’s part of the process. Some projects will use a simple board, others require a complex layout.
The picture below show one of our boards at work. A few weeks in we are still changing the layout at least weekly. And probably will do for some time until we have found the ‘perfect’ layout.

Kanban board

One of the Kanban boards at Basefarm

WIP Limit

Personal Kanban stress the importance of limiting your work in progress. Usually we try to do too many things at once instead of achieve a flow which will actually allow more things to be done in less time.

My own experience is that WIP limit relieves stress since, while I know my backlog might be massive, I only need to concentrate on what’s in my WIP/Doing column. When a task is done, I pick the next one on top of the queue. Well, it’s almost that simple but there is always some crisis or unforseen activities that pop up out of nowhere that need immediate attention. But I have discovered that those things are also easier to take care of since I know my WIP limit (which currently is 2) and I can complete the task before starting on the next one.

It is also an iterative process to check your backlog and prioritise the tasks in there. Before I used a common tool of prioritising my work, the Eisenhower matrix, but now I’m trying out another common approach, to always have the most important task at the top of the column. No tasks are equally important, there’s always a prioritisation done and one task is on top, the most important one. This can of course change, but it makes it easy for me to know what to do next. It’s the top one, right.

Pull!

When the board is done, the first backlog is established, it is time to get to work! The process is simple. Pull the first task from the backlog to your Doing column and start doing what is supposed to be accomplished. When the task is done, pull the next one. Depending on what WIP limit you decide you can handle you only juggle x many tasks at the same time.

Reflect

After some time you will have completed several tasks and it is time to look back and reflect how it went. This is an important step that usually is forgotten or skipped due to limited time or any other excuse you can come up with. But don’t. Take the time to reflect since it might give great results in evaluating if you have become more effective, what can be done to improve further, what kind of tasks should you focus on and what kind of tasks should you try to delegate and so on.

Next steps

After my initial tries with a kanban board I noticed it really worked for me and I put more and more things into kanban boards, the boards grew in complexity and size but still very simple for me to handle. My personal to-do board have a few more columns than Backlog/Doing/Done and my board for my music projects have several swim lanes, columns, categories and colours involved.

This was just a short introduction based on my own experience. I’m in no way an expert and did not cover much in this blog post. But with any luck you have got something out of it and might read more from other sources. Not surprisingly, I recommend the book ‘Personal Kanban‘ which covers what I have mentioned here in depth and then more.

In my next post I will take a quick look at different online kanban tools I have tried out. Soon on a blog near you.