2 Rules to Organize Yourself: Personal Kanban

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.

Productivity 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 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, not 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?).

Then 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!


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:

  • It 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?


Picture Attribution:
Photo 1
Photo 2
Photo 3
Photo 4

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 31 May 2011


Managers, it’s Time for an Easter Egg Hunt

I have two kids.

They love kid things – colouring, bikes, skating, dolls, birthday parties, video games, dancing, hockey, braids. All the usual stuff. And they really love holiday celebrations, with the Easter egg hunt coming in very near the top of the list.

It has always been fun for my wife and I to set up the hunt. We’re plastic egg people. I know, it’s not traditional – yes, we have a fake Christmas tree too – but it’s convenient and let’s us mix things up with the treats.

But here’s the deal. As the kids get older, setting up the hunt gets more and more challenging. Parents, you know what I’m talking about.

When they were 3 years old, we would just walk around the yard and put plastic eggs down wherever we felt like it. Everything was out in the open and easy to spot. Yet they still would not see all of the brightly coloured eggs. Why? They would just walk around, head down, staring at the ground in front of wherever their body ended up pointing. Egg was a foot off the ground sitting on a swing? Couldn’t see it – it wasn’t where their attention was focussed.

But with time and the hard-won experience of multiple Easter adventures, they learned to take in more of their environment. Perhaps the eggs were above the ground, maybe even above their heads – higher than they could reach without climbing. They realized that Mom & Dad even put eggs in places that they couldn’t find without making an effort to get to places where they had never been before.

Now we have to work to find places that are challenging for our little bloodhounds to find. Why bother? It’s not as fun when it’s easy.

The Peter Principle – not Peter Cottontail

As a manager, time and experience have the same effect on you.

As so often happens, The Peter Principle placed me in a manager’s position before I had acquired the emotional maturity and life experience needed to be really effective at leading a group of humans toward a common goal.

I was so inexperienced that I just couldn’t see some serious problems that were right there in front of me – out in the open. They may as well have been trapped in a big pink egg and sitting on a swing seat. I was focussed on the ground in front of me.

But I didn’t get fired, and time and hard-won experience led to some inevitable growth. I learned to sit back, relax, and scan the environment with a practiced eye. And, eventually, I could pick out those bits of colour where there shouldn’t be any.

Still, I didn’t grow into a real and effective leader for my team and manager for my department until I got off of my seat, out of my office, and started looking in the places where I had never been before. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes it was scary to go into those places. But eventually – like everything that is worthwhile – I struggled through and I learned.

It’s Time for Your Easter Egg Hunt

Here’s my challenge to you as we head into the egg hunting season – get off of your seat, out of your office, and go looking in those uncomfortable places where the real challenges and problems for your team will be found.

  • We have been trained to provide consistent and clear feedback to our direct reports. When is the last time that you asked for their feedback on your performance? Do you think that they will feel confident and secure enough to provide you with honest feedback? There’s a nice, cozy dark place to start in. Nothing like a little dose of self-awareness to rattle our assumptions.
  • Do you know the short and long term goals of each of your staff? Have you ever asked this question and given sufficient time, space, and – most important – attention to allow the individual to develop a comprehensive answer? Do they have learning and development plans in place to support these goals?
  • Do you understand the preferred working and communication style of each of your team members? Are your team members clear on your preferred working and communication styles? Are you aware of the importance of generational differences in these preferences?
  • Do your employees believe that you “have their back”? When trouble appears do they feel like they are on their own, or are they part of team that pulls together and has a leader that will work for the greater good of the team – not for his/her own personal benefit?
  • Does your team trust you? How can you be sure?

There are many more challenges that could be added to this list. The point is, you’ll never know if you don’t search.

The answers won’t be in plastic eggs sitting out in the open – they’ll be difficult to find. But that’s ok, it’s not as fun when it’s easy.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 21 April 2011

Social Media – Early Adopters Boat Has Left; Will You be a Laggard?

Recent studies indicate that the adoption rate of online social networks is in decline.

This does not imply that the popularity of social networks is in decline.  Rather, the adoption rate is flattening as a majority of the population are already on these networks.

From the Pew Internet & American Life Project report on Older Adults and Social Media:

What can we take from this?

  • Use of social networking sites continues to climb– no surprise here
  • Adoption among young people is slowest: also no surprise– over 80% of the GenY/Millenials (ages 18-29) are already there
  • The group with the highest adoption rate is the Boomers (ages 50-64)
  • 47% of the Boomers (who are internet users) are now using social media sites

Let’s re-visit our old friend, Roger’s Innovation Curve:

Reviewing the percentages from the Pew study, a few items stand out for me:

  • Any discussion of early adopters is old news– that chasm was crossed 3-5 years ago
  • Even if you focus on the 65+ crowd, they are well into the “Early Majority” stage– one-in-four are using social networking sites
  • The GenX’ers (ages 30-49) are well on the downhill slide of “Late Majority”
  • And most surprising to me – Boomers, as a group, are on the verge of moving into “Late Majority” adoption status– Furthermore, Boomers exhibit a greater rate of adoption over the past year than the any other group

Another view of the data

From the Forrester Technographics research group:

Looking at a worldwide view of Social Media participation across user types, we find:

  • Content Contributors (Creators, Critics, and Collectors who create blogs, write reviews, catalogue links, etc.) has flattened out,– indicating that people are settling into their natural roles
  • Unfortunately, the data for Conversationalists (the quick updaters who live on facebook and twitter) is only available for this year– I suspect much of the momentum from the creative group moved to this subheading

Are you a laggard?

The question then, as you look at these charts, is where do you fall?  If you haven’t yet engaged in this world of inexpensive, rapid information flows, the question becomes – why not?  And if not – are you planning to?

It’s clear that adoption of these technologies has been rapid.  The early adopters are long gone.  Those who join now are moving squarely into the Late Majority camp.

But that’s ok.  If the activity of content creators has truly flattened out – then there is still tremendous opportunity to become a voice of authority.

Success in this space is about the quality of the information and a willingness to share and cooperate.  That proprietary “Intellectual Property” that you are trying to lock up by using a pdf?  Well, Google has made it trivial for people to extract that.

Participate, share, and trust.  These are the tools that will carry the day.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 5 October 2010

Jargon Monoxide

Effective communication skills.

The Harvard Business Review says, “Effective communication is a key driver for achieving desired results on a personal or business level.”

So why is this so common:

Together, we will leverage our assets to deliver the strategic value that our stakeholders expect and deserve as we create synergistic value add via the integration of complex systems to facilitate collaboration across mission critical projects in order to best provide enhanced innovation, efficiency, productivity, retention, and engagement.

Suffocating in the Jargon Monoxide

I’ve long been a fan of Dr. Bob Sutton, author of – among many great books and articles – The No  Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss.  He recently pointed out a term that was used in one of his classes by Polly LeBarre, former editor at Fast Company:  Jargon Monoxide.

It’s one of those, “boy, I wish I had thought of that” terms.


Some highly technical fields require special terms and a unique language to provide for proper communication between the practitioners – medical terminology is the most familiar example for many of us.

But the business of management and leadership rarely requires special terminology or language, though that doesn’t seem to reduce the mind-crippling ramblings of business writers, executives, and a great many management consultants.

We “communicate” in platitudes and double-speak corporatese. Words and phrases are strung together which, to the uninitiated, appear to be completely absent in meaning – if not intentionally misleading.

Carbon Monoxide

A poisonous gas that is invisible, odourless, and tasteless, and is highly toxic to humans and animals.

It is also contributes significantly to urban pollution.

Made to Stick

Jargon Monoxide, it really grabbed me the first time I heard it, and – as I think about it – I believe it resonates really well with the principles described by the Heath brothers in Made to Stick.

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

A few of my favourite examples

  • Value add
  • White board [as a verb]
  • Synergies
  • Transitioning
  • Boiling the ocean
  • Human Capital
  • Dialogue [as a verb]

Speak Human

So why do we do it? All of us will, in spite of our best intentions, engage in some terrible business language.  But why?

I will reference and paraphrase Dr. Sutton again:  In many business environments people are recognized and rewarded for saying smart things rather than doing smart things. And, as the carousel of promotion, re-assignment, and re-organization spins faster and faster, few people are in one position long enough that they have to live with the repercussions of their decisions.

And so, we fall back on the popular phrase of the day to impress the supervisors and colleagues who will be writing up our next performance evaluation with the deep and thorough comprehension that we have developed in the face of a complex environment.

The ability of an organization to maximize achievements is not enhanced by leveraging its core competencies via the verbal and/or written modality, so, at the end of the day, the optics of the situation are not favourable in light of the key performance indicators.

Actually, people perform best when communications are clear, concise, and direct.

What are your favourite examples of Jargon Monoxide?  Let us know in the comments.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 23 December 2011