Personal Kanban; Taking Back Control of Your Life

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Personal Agility - Level 1 Practice
Personal Agility – Level 1 Practice

How many of you have a to-do list that you dread looking at? Is it loaded with so many items that you don’t even know where to begin? Do you get one thing done and still feel overwhelmed by what’s left? If you like me, you answered; yes, yes, and yes!

There is a solution to the chaos, implement a Personal Kanban. Jim Benson in his book named after the concept, talks about how he needed help. He and his team needed a simple tool to visualize their workflow, limit work in progress, and show all tasks needing to be completed. From his work at Modus Cooperandi, Jim honed the ideas behind Personal Kanban and published his thoughts in 2011.

So what is a Personal Kanban? Well, Kanban is a Japanese word that literally means “billboard” or “signboard”. The original Kanban came from Taiichi Ohno, at Toyota who was looking for a Lean way to maximize car production. Applying Kanban to our personal life, results in the creation of a visual representation of our to-do list that is dynamic, flexible, and simplistic.

As a super-organized nerd, I used a to-do list for years. I found value in having a place to keep all of my tasks organized, but it felt like I spent more time managing my list than actually accomplishing anything. I was always writing and re-writing my to-do list. I spent a lot of time searching for what to do next and trying to keep track of what all I was working on. After some time the list got messy and confusing to look at.

To-do List
To-do List

A few years ago I found Jim’s book and I immediately implemented my own Personal Kanban. Writing each item on its own post-it note was great because, I could prioritize and re-prioritize as needed. By keeping what I was working on in neat columns, what I needed to do was instantly recognizable. At the end of the day seeing all those post-it notes done is very rewarding and helps me have a deep sense of accomplishment. Ready to get started building your own Personal Kanban?

Here is what to do:

  • Step One – Build a backlog
    • Take each item that you have on your to do list and write each one on its own individual post-it note

    Backlog
    Backlog
  • Step Two – Prioritize your backlog
    • Arrange the post-it notes from most important to least important

    Prioritized Backlog
    Prioritized Backlog
  • Step Three – Build your personal Kanban board
    • There are so many ways (tools included) to build your board, for now let’s focus on the basics. Grab a piece of paper and divide it into three columns: To Do, Doing, Done. For the nerds in the room, this is called mapping your value stream

    Personal Kanban
    Personal Kanban
  • Step Four – Decide on work-in-progress (WIP) limits
    • It’s easy to get overwhelmed when we try to tackle too many things at one time. Think about your capacity and decide the most number of items you will allow in each column. I like no more than 3 items in To Do and no more than 2 items in Doing

    Personal Kanban With WIP Limits
    Personal Kanban With WIP Limits
  • Step Five – Pull items from your backlog into the To Do column
    • Pulling post-it notes from your backlog fill the To Do column. Remember to respect your WIP limit and not bring more items into To Do than you can handle

    Personal Kanban With To Do
    Personal Kanban With To Do
  • Step Six – Use your Personal Kanban
    • Pull an item from To Do into the Doing Column. When you complete this item move it to Done and bring another item from your backlog into the To Do column. If you get stuck, blocked, or bored with the item that you are working on, you can always bring another item from To Do into Doing (As long as you do not violate your WIP limit). Repeat this process until you are ready to call it a day

    Personal Kanban With Doing
    Personal Kanban With Doing
  • Step Seven – Admire your progress and give yourself praise
    • At the end of the day take a look at all the items in the Done column. You will be amazed at how much you have accomplished. Pat yourself on the back and spend a minute admiring your progress, it’s quite motivating.

    Personal Kanban  With Done
    Personal Kanban With Done

If you found this post interesting then you will be glad to know that there will be more to come on the topic of Personal Kanban. I am collecting stories of people using these boards in their personal lives and will frequently be posting case studies of what they have done. Not only that, but expect additional articles on how to geek out your Personal Kanban as well as electronic solutions for those of you who prefer tools.

Have a Personal Kanban story that you would like to share. Tell us about it in the comments section.