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.
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.
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.
Email and Lean Manufacturing
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:
- visualize your workflow
- 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:
- You must visualize your work – get it out of your brain and onto paper.
- Place your tasks in the ‘Backlog’.
- 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…)
- As you complete a task, it gets pulled over into the ‘Done’ column.
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?
note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 31 May 2011