Say Goodbye to the To-Do List and Hello to Personal Kanban

How important is your “to-do” list in your personal life? While it is one way to keep track of tasks, there is an alternative that is much more powerful – the Personal Kanban. It might have a funny name, but what I’ve learned about this simple tool has powerful implications on the Agile methodology. In this post, we’ll describe Personal Kanban (PK), compare it to the to-do-list, and talk about what’s in it for you.

PK is a productivity tool that can be used by individuals or small teams. The word “Kanban” is Japanese in origin and literally means “signboard.” (1) The core rules of Personal Kanban are simple:

1)      Visualize your work

2)     Limit your work in progress (WIP) (2)

Work is posted in a conspicuous place and is broken down by phases, also known as the value stream. The following picture is a representation of what a simple PK may look like with three phases – Backlog, Doing, and Done. You’ll notice the number “5” in the “Doing” column. This reminds the user that their limit of WIP items is five. Nothing else enters that column until something moves to “Done”, at which point an item is pulled from the “Backlog.”

Example Personal Kanban, from Jim Benson’s website

As you get more comfortable with the process, you can rename or customize the phases to your liking. For example, if you are a blogger, you may want to put your upcoming topics on your sticky notes. The value stream, or phases, for your blog topics could be “Backlog, Research, Outline, First Draft, Second Draft, and Published” which depicts the workflow of a topic from creation till publication. Anything between Backlog and Published would be work in progress, and you would set limits on the amount of work in each of these phases.

In order to visualize your work, most practitioners of PK recommend sticky notes and a whiteboard, a corkboard and note cards, or some other system that remains visible at all times and allows for easy movement of work between phases.  This methodology also lets you reprioritize work, moving items between phases as demand requires without overloading the amount of work being done at one time.

Focused Intensity

Think about your to-do list and how you manage it. If you’re like most, it consists of a bunch of half-done tasks, each getting a little bit of attention as required by the loudest customer or closest deadline. Add to this the walk-up and impromptu requests that we get each day, and it’s easy to see why we can’t seem to get anything done. We think we are multitasking, but in fact we are just switching back and forth between tasks as the interruption mechanisms kick in. Dr. Marlene Maheu writes in Self Help Magazine “Multitasking or switchtasking reduces efficiency (doing things right) and effectiveness (doing the right things) because it constantly requires a switch of cognitive (mental) focus.” (3)

By following Rule #2 of PK (Limit your work in progress) we can avoid some of these dangers. While we may not be able to eliminate all of the distractions to our work, by focusing on fewer tasks at one time we are able to get more done. Plus, the quality of our work will be much better because of this concentrated effort. Wouldn’t we all like a tool that will help us be more effective, productive, and turn out high-quality work? If the answer is yes, then you might give PK a try.

How this applies to Agile and Scrum

The Kanban approach can be an effective information radiator, which is a highly visible depiction of work in progress displayed prominently. During your Scrum meetings, this visual tool shows them the amount of work in the backlog, the work presently being done, and the amount of work completed. Seeing work move from phase to phase is highly motivating for an Agile team, whereas simply piling up work in a huge to-do list can be frustrating for all.

Your Experiences and Where to Learn More

Hopefully you now know a little more about PK and how it might benefit you. It is both simple and powerful at the same time. So tell us about your experiences with PK. Is this the first time you’ve heard about it? Are you a user of this system? If so, how have you applied this methodology? Has it helped you in work or at home? Are you using it within your Agile teams? Have you found any drawbacks?

To learn more, Jim Benson has a great website on PK at and he has published a book entitled “Personal Kanban” that is available on Amazon. Contact us here to learn more about how Braintrust Consulting can help you incorporate Personal Kanban into your daily life.