Patterns for Success: Personal Kanban5 min read

One of the best daily routines to assure personal and professional success is to manage your responsibilities with a system. Today, I’m going to tell you about how to use the Personal Kanbansystem to manage your responsibilities.

The word kanban is of Japanese origin, and simply means sign board or billboard. The kanban systemis a very visually-oriented logistical chain control system developed by Taiichi Ohno for the Toyota Production System. It’s used to control the flow of parts around Toyota facilities for building cars, but has been adapted for the purpose of managing software projects as well as personal workflows. Today, we’re going to focus more on kanban as a personal workflow management system.

The kanban itself is simply a card that tells you, in simple terms, what is needed. Each product or task that is required is put on a card and arranged on a kanban board. This can be as simple as a piece of wall or a cubicle partition that has been split up into columns. Each column represents a stage of your workflow (i.e. “To Do”, “In Progress”, “Done”). There are no hard rules about how many columns you should have, or what they should be, but ideally they should represent well-defined stages of work in a progression from something that is needed to something that is finished and delivered.

Kanban does prescribe some rules. We’re going to limit them for personal kanban use:

  1. Visualize your workflow. Kanban is a very visual system. You can see all of the work that needs to be done, what work is in progress, and what’s been done. You can derive all of this just by glancing at your kanban board. You may use other visual indicators for things like putting a red sticker on a work item that is blocked by external factors, or a green sticker for something that must be expedited.
  2. Limit your work in progress. It is really common to fall into the trap where you are very busy, working on many different things at once, but not completing many or any of them. Kanban requires you to set a column limit on work in progress. So maybe you set a column limit of three. This means that if you already have three different tasks in progress, you’re not going to be able to start a new task until you finish at least one of the tasks that is already in progress. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but measured over a longer period of time, you will be able to see that you are getting a lot more work done. You actually lose a good bit of time to context switching when you’re balancing multiple tasks, so ideally you’re limiting this to the lowest number of tasks you can while still assuring that you will be productively working most of the time. Try this, and watch your throughput soar!

Designing your kanban board couldn’t be easier. Start off with a simple design, with three columns and a header row. The first column should be labeled To Do, and then In Progress, and finally Done. Come up with a reasonable but small column limit for In Progress. I suggest starting with a two item limit, and increment or decrement after you’ve had some time to get a feel for how well that serves you. Write that number down in parentheses next to In Progress. You can tape the columns off on any hard surface like a wall or marker board, and use Post-It Notes for the column headers and the kanban cards themselves.

Each kanban card should have a short, simple description of what is needed. For my own personal kanban, my card for writing this article would read “ADN article: personal kanban” and in the corner I would put “1/1/2015” as the date that I’ve committed to delivering the article to my editor. The To Docolumn is stack ranked in order of what needs to get done first. You’ll need to sort out what works for you in terms of how to stack rank the To Do column. Just accept that the order of this column will change sometimes, and that’s okay. We need to welcome these changes. What deserves a bit more resistance is the temptation to halt something that is In Progress to make room for something else; it’s a better work habit to finish what you started before moving on, in most cases.

When you’re ready to work on a task, grab the first card from the top of the To Do column and move it to In Progress as you start. When you complete the task, move the card to Done. It’s really that simple. You can empty out your Done column every time you give an accounting of what you’ve completed to your supervisor or your team mates.

If you want to get fancy and use software instead of a wall board, some popular solutions include LeanKitTrello, and Kanbanery.

We hope you find Personal Kanban to be a valuable tool in your professional and personal endeavors. May success be yours!