Visualize Life with a Personal Kanban – Part 1

Kanban is a signalling system first devised and popularized by the Japanese (Toyota) in the 1950s.  Essentially it is a board with the things you want to do arranged into the flow (a value stream) that the work goes through.  It’s a way of immediately seeing what you have to do.  The practice is part of the broader subject area of Lean Manufacturing which has in the last decade or so spilled over into knowledge work like software development.

However the subject of with post is to talk about the process I’ve undertaken to set up a Personal Kanban.  The other subject areas are very interesting and I write about them in other blog posts and there is also a wealth of information available in books and on other websites.

Personal Kanban is the application of work/life visualization to your own personal circumstances.  It’s the application of the lean principles of Visualize your Work and Limit Work In Process to life.  It goes beyond mere todo lists.   Jim Benson’s and Tonianne DeMaria Barry’s book, Personal Kanban, is the starting point for further research and there are other sources for Personal Kanban popping up as well like Paul Klipp’s startup guide (free, but pay $4 on Amazon for the version including Personal Kanban).

Inspired by the book and in recognition that I needed to get the many things in my life under control.  All the ideas that were racing round my head, some forgotten and some dominating overs caused maladies like procrastination and anxiety and I saw this as a way to start.  It can appear easy to understand, it’s common sense right, but like many things putting it into practice is much harder then it seems.

The biggest issue for me is getting everything out, and I mean everything out.  On first creation it’s difficult to get it all out. All the activities in your life that are important. I think this is natural and nothing to beat yourself up over – recognize that we can make the additions and corrections as we go.  However also bear in mind that not putting everything down risks having things lurking in a secret list somewhere and that will undermine the purpose of the Kanban.  I can see parallels to this in everyday work life as well – unknown work creeping in and destroying the time allocated to the known work.   Admittedly though I’ve found it hard to get everything down for my Personal Kanban.  What qualifies for placement on the board.  I guess that’s up to you, but essentially it needs to resemble the truth!

So lets see how I went in setting up my board.  Firstly the recommendation is to use sticky notes for a physical board like in the example here:

I do recommend this as well, but in my situation I decided to go for an online electronic board because I could not deal with the less reliable stickies falling off, the non backup nature of the physical wall, the more work required to manage tracking of cycle time and lead time and the non portable nature of it.  I’ll add though for a team situation, like a family, go for a physical board because the instant visualization is the key benefit to be gained (and possible backup with an online board).

I first started my journey last year, around November, with a free online board called Trello.   Trello is a simple board and probably the easiest to use and for a personal board would be enough.  A simple board has three columns :- ToDo, Doing, Done .  Should be enough and this is what it started out like.  However I wasn’t pleased with just that.  I re-read the Personal Kanban book and read Paul Klipps startup guide and incorporated extra columns and you can see this here:

StartedWithTrello a few months ago, progressvively refined with extra lanes and sizing -  Paul Klipp and Jim Benson books are helpful

In addition to To Do, which is potentially infinite, I’ve added a This Week column, Today and Current column (from reading Paul Klipp), The Pen column is from Jim Benson and that’s for stalled activities, a Retro column for activities that need an retrospective performed and learnings recorded against and an Abandon column for ideas that never came to fruition for whatever reason (e.g. relevancy, dud idea).

The cards are also colour coded for activity types which is also helpful.  However this board is missing a very important feature and that is the WIP limits above the columns.  Trello does not have the feature, although there are addons for the Chrome browser which can help.  I relied on a mental note for limiting the amount of work in each of the This Week, Today and Current columns.  Managing work in process or WIP is very important and we should minimize it or find the sweet spot otherwise everything gets started and then take forever to finish.  This is the application of Little’s Law (and you should apply this to work as well).

I also found that managing repeating events was becoming a little difficult and I tried to handle this by adding a column for Repeating Events, rather than creating a new card each day or week for those events as shown here:

Experiement with a Lane for Repeating Events

Adding the column has been useful but by now I was feeling I was reaching the limit of what Trello could offer.  Managing WIP limits is very important. Managing many vertical columns was also stretching the capability.  That said it is possible to keep going with this and in some settings that may be necessary to avoid avoidance from perceived complication from others.

However, I did not have this issue so I felt it better to transition over to LeanKit.  That will be the subject on the next blog post where I’ll explain how and why I set up the Lean Kit board.

You can now also read Part 2 and Part 3 of the series.

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4 responses to “Visualize Life with a Personal Kanban – Part 1

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