My discovery of Personal Kanban

Mid-2014, after 25 years of uninterrupted professional commitment, I started a nine-month sabbatical. One of the fortuitous discoveries of that period was the Personal Kanban (PK) approach to time management. Here I republish a series of three blogposts that kept track of my experiences with PK. I will write two more posts that reflect on what happened with Kanban since I took up a regular work schedule again. This first post dates from 17 August 2014, about 6 weeks into the sabbatical.

„Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities and go to work” — H.L. Hunt, quoted in Benson and Barry, “Personal Kanban”.

One of the key ambitions for this sabbatical period is to experiment with different rhythms of living. It’s not a matter of being burned out, far from it. I have always enjoyed my professional life, and I still do. Being my own boss, not having to manage other people, and working on interesting and relevant challenges has been a real privilege. But it can’t be denied that my working routine has become rather polluted over the years. Particularly working on (too) many projects in parallel has been a spoiler. And then there is the drudgery (or temptation) of following up email and checking news feeds and social media. They’re wonderful resources but an undisciplined use tends to wear you down. It’s like being paralyzed in a gravitational field that makes progress toward long-term goals so much harder.

I have always been a ‚to do list’ junkie. The lists propel me forward, give structure to my day-to-day activities. Without a solid grasp on my do-list I find it hard to put my mind to rest. My agenda supports me in longer range planning. More sophisticated time management tools I have not used.

A couple of weeks ago I read 99U’s Manage your Day-to-Day. The book’s basic message is that mail and social media have pushed us in a reactive workflow that leaves scant room for creative work. Turning the tide requires us to build another routine that prioritizes important work and makes room for downtime. Fencing in email and internet consumption is a key element of that routine. I came away with the plan to organize my sabbatical days along the lines of a rigid and predictable daily order: morning hours: studying and writing; afternoon: riding, household chores and cleaning up my photography archive; evening: reading, music, film. On paper this seems like a pretty good idea. But I didn’t even manage to hold on to the scheme for a single day. My body and mind rebelled against the prospect of a monastic discipline. I felt tired and dispirited. I let it go.

Soon after this failed experiment I picked up a lead on Goodreads to a book on Personal Kanban. I decided to investigate. Wow, I simply devoured that book by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry. Its good sense and inspirational message made me giddy with anticipation. I have now experimented two full weeks with the Personal Kanban system and I think it will mean a breakthrough in the way I will manage my goals. Let me try to briefly capture the essential elements of the approach.

Personal Kanban is a flexible tool to dynamically visualize a workflow for an individual. The visualization is structured along a simple *value stream*. The most simple value stream is READY (work waiting to be processed), DOING (work-in-progress) and DONE (completed work). Tasks move through that value stream. They are picked out of a BACKLOG: the amorphous cloud of ‚things we have to do’, „the ton of bricks on our chest that prevents us from breathing.”

So the start is to populate the backlog with all the stuff that is on your mind: small and big tasks, personal and professionals to dos. I ended up with a cloud of 270 items. Realizing the vastness of our backlog is depressing, to an extent. But it’s also encouraging as finally we have all that stuff on the table. Realizing how many incomplete tasks remain gives our brain closure. Benson and Barry refer to the Zeigarnik Effect: we tend to remember incomplete thoughts and actions much better than those that have been seen to completion. So unfinished or unnamed tasks keep on nagging us, resulting in a psychic tension that undermines productivity, sleep and potentially health.

Another positive effect of being ruthless in populating the backlog is that there is room for everything that is on our mind. And that includes not only the productive but also the merely fun or instructive. For instance, I have a collection of music videos here, featuring concert performances and documentaries on artists’ lives. They have been languishing for years. I never took the time to watch them. But I do WANT to see them. So I need to make time for that. So ‚watching music video x’ is now part of my backlog. Knowing that at one point this will come out first out of the prioritization hopper gives me confidence and energy.

For the time being I have clustered the backlog in three groups, each of them marked by a different color of mini-post its: yellow for ‚reading, listening, meeting people’, green for ‚writing, photography, riding’, red for ‚work, household chores’. Obviously, I am keeping a running list of extra items for the backlog which, at regular intervals, is replenished with stickies.

Once the backlog has been scoped, tasks are pulled into the READY column of the personal kanban value stream. That’s effectively a prioritization step as only the ‚most important’ tasks move into the value stream. I have about 40 items in the Ready column. You might say that this is what would typically end up in my to do list. But that’s not quite the case as the Ready column is now populated by a mix of things: some are work-related (proportionally less as I’m in this sabbatical period) but many are culled from the yellow and green clusters in the backlog.

Then follows the crucial step of moving a task to the DOING column. Here another key principle of the Personal Kanban approach comes into play: limit your WIP. WIP stands for Work-In-Progress: the amount of work you can handle at any given time. A WIP is expressed in the number of items one can handle in parallel. Somewhat improvisationally I established a WIP of 3+3. That means that I have three tasks in the DOING column that I can finish in one go. I sit down, start the task and work on it until its completion. Then I move the task to the DONE column. Then I allow for three tasks that take more than one working session. For instance, ordering my professional archive is going to take me more than one afternoon. Same with reading a particular book. So, altogether I have a WIP of 6. Limiting the WIP creates clarity and commitment. It also resigns us to the fact that there is only so much we can do.

A task is moved into the DOING column by inspecting the READY column and asking questions like: Which is the most pressing task? What do I feel like doing now? Which task can I fit in these few hours before lunch? Are there any tasks that can be usefully batched together? And so on. It’s up to us to come up with the relevant prioritization questions. In that sense, PK is completely flexible. It’s only us who can appreciate the context in which we are working and the balance between our immediate needs and long-term goals. No algorithm can do that for us.

When a task has been completed it moves to the DONE column. I let the tasks accumulate there over a week and then archive them on the wall next to the PK sheet. My mind retraces the week’s trajectory. What went well? Where did I feel resistance? Over the weeks I may see patterns emerge from these sheets. Time will tell.

So that’s, in a nutshell, how this Personal Kanban system works. There are a few bells and whistles that can be added but I won’t dwell on that. Now, what’s so powerful about this approach? Here are a few pointers:

  • Personal Kanban provides kinesthetic, visual and narrative feedback. As Benson and Barry write: „Why you pull that sticky note into DONE, it’s brain candy. You’re satisfying you brain’s need for closure with three types of feedback.” I strongly believe that the simple, physical process of repeatedly going to the kanban sheet, taking a sticky and moving it helps us to tame the experience of working against a huge backlog. The narrative feedback emerges spontaneously from simple looking at the kanban sheet: it shows me what I want, what I do, what I accomplished in a given period of time, the tasks I want to work on and those that I tend to avoid.
  • Personal Kanban gives shape and rhythm to the work. Before I had visualized my backlog and value stream I wasn’t able to say what shape my work had. Well, it always had that looming, slightly menacing shape of ‚too much’. While it is arguably a big chunk to chew on, I have now a realistic grasp on the scope and shape of the landscape I will navigate in the next couple of weeks and months. Likewise, the process of moving tasks through the value stream provide me with a feeling for the rhythm of the work: „Linearly finishing one task before embarking on the next commitment becomes addictive, a pattern, and eventually a habit.”
  • Personal Kanban is flexible. Once we have mapped out the terrain we are planning to navigate, we are free to adjust the pace and orientation of the work depending on external circumstances and our own sentiments. In this respect, Personal Kanban is different from the organizational kanban in quality control processes. The latter seeks predictability, efficiency and waste reduction through standardization and visualization. But PK works from the assumption that personal work is extremely variable and even chaotic. „Personal kanban has to be endlessly flexible. It needs to be a system that abhors rules. It’s an enigma. A process that hates process.” This aspect certainly appeals to me.
  • Personal Kanban facilitates continuous improvement. The technique is based on a management concept known as ‚Lean’. „Lean is a both a philosophy and a discipline, which, at its core, increases access to information to ensure responsible decision making in the service of creating value.” Embedded in Lean is a ‚kaizen’ culture of continuous improvement where motivated people naturally look for ways to tweak poorly performing practices. Visualizing our work through Personal Kanban provides a canvas to actively seek out opportunities for improvement. I have been using the technique now for only two weeks but ever since I haven’t stopped asking myself whether I’m doing the right thing and, more importantly, whether I’m truly working in PK’s spirit of ‚pull’.
  • Personal Kanban helps us to switch from a ‚push’ to a ‚pull’ experience in work. I’m aware of the fact that over many years I have largely thrived on will power, on ‚push’, in keeping up with the many demands of work, family and personal ambitions. But the armor may be getting a little rusty. No doubt it is this subliminal feeling that has prompted me to embark on this sabbatical experience. Push systems cause bottlenecks by ignoring natural capacity: „In a push system, capacity problems are discovered after the fact. Work begins to pile up and, as it grows, can easily escalate into an emergency.” In a pull system we take on work only when we have the capacity to do so. „Personal Kanban makes our obligations explicit and transparent. As a physical manifestation of our workload, it gives us the ability to say ‚Look, this is my reality. I want to do a good job for you, but with all that’s on my plate how can I possibly take on any more work?’ Recognizing what your reality is and accepting work as you are able to complete it is the essence of pull.” Benson and Barry are realistic enough to acknowledge that there may be points in time where some pushing is necessary to get through the thick of things. But the goal is at the very least to establish a more effective and pleasurable balance between push and pull.
  • Personal Kanban weans us from the numbing addiction to ‚to do lists’. To-do lists induce anxiety. They lack context. They consider accomplished tasks as waste. PK is proactive, liberating, creates clarity and visualizes completed work as options to enable future decisions. Benson and Barry’s discussion of how PK differs from merely keeping to do lists is illuminating. Here is a somewhat longer quote that reveals an important aspect of PK:
„Personal Kanban respects our humanity and the way we process work. Not only do we see priorities and the ‚done-ness’ of our tasks, but we see how completing tasks impacts our options for future action. By using Personal Kanban, we begin to set our own boundaries around the ‚games’ of work and living. Games require actions in context. They are goal driven. There is a primary goal (to win) and several supporting goals (steps to complete in order to win). In a similar sense, Personal Kanban created a defined, simple, yet rewarding game of our work. We have a primary goal (to live effectively), and supporting goals (to complete projects, to move sticky notes). We play this ‚game’ on an ever-changing board (reflecting one’s life and context) which impacts outcome. In contrast, the to-do list ‚game’ entails little more than completing tasks as quickly as possible: no flow from one action to the next, no suspense and ultimately no reward. Games should be energizing and evolutionary. We make a move, thus opening a series of options. Our opponent makes a counter move. Some options close while other present themselves. Being able to visualize our work like this — as a system, as a game with intermediate and ultimate goals — enables us to become passionate about work itself. Life’s trade-offs become explicit.”
  • Personal Kanban makes bottom-up systems innovation intelligible.I’m going here beyond the scope of Benson and Barry’s discussion. The relevance of PK may transcend our personal goals and lives. Over the past year I have been thinking, reading and lecturing about how communities can realize significant breakthroughs without relying on a plan, on a fixed blueprint of where they want to go. The two case studies I usually put forward to anchor that discussion are the building of Chartres cathedral and the development of the ATLAS-detector of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva. Max Boisot and his co-authors have likened the construction of the LHC’s ATLAS-detector as a process of „putting together a non-linear, multi-dimensional puzzle of interdependent pieces brought together on the basis of fluid and changeable concepts rather than stable and delineated patterns.” David Turnbull has made very similar claims about the way in which Chartres cathedral has been built. Personal Kanban shows how this kind of construction ‚game’ works in the context of our own lives. Most of us will have a some general idea of our long-term goals. It will likely not be a precise image. As we go we take decisions we feel will lead us in the right way. (Or we don’t, and then we’ll feel guilty about it down the road.) PK makes this process intelligible and tangible. It provides a canvas for the intense question-and-answer review process that provides the backbone of the „non-sequential, decentralized search process based on provisional choices” that these hugely ambitious engineering (or transition) projects turn out to be. This also helps to understand how we deal with the ‚baroque’ conception of complexity that I discussed in a previous blogpost. I will continue to explore this theme in the coming weeks.

While technically the Personal Kanban approach is simple, it is not quite so straightforward to adjust our habits to it. The lure of multitasking is powerful. I have noticed how easy it is to start compromising with a task here, a task there. I still tend to rush through one thing in order to tackle the next. Benson and Barry discuss how striving for quantity (productivity) instead of quality (effectiveness) is a self-defeating strategy. Eventually we achieve neither. At least in an initial phase it requires considerable self-discipline to maintain the true Personal Kanban spirit of ‚pull’.

Another question that is lurking in my mind is how well the PK system will hold itself against the onslaught of a real work regime. Now I have the ‚luxury’ of experimenting with Personal Kanban in the relative shelter of my sabbatical. But will it work equally well once I’m confronted with client demands and deadlines? I may be asking the wrong question here. Nothing really is going to change when I will get ‚back to work’. There will be tasks, there will be a backlog, a value stream, a WIP. That’s it. The idea is to get into a pull regime. The hope is to get into a way of working that will feel like a quasi-sabbatical all the time. One of the ‚intentions’ that I made explicit for myself with the help of my writing coach Noor Bongersis that „my desire is a permanent state of sabbatical in which I create value for myself, my family and my environment”. I want to do that „by devoting attention at all times to my process, to everything I am doing, in order to move from will power to affirmation and acceptance”. The goal is to „rely on my profesionality to be able to relax in the here and now, at each moment in time”. Finally, I acknowledge that it is necessary to „consciously create for myself moments and experience of pure pleasure and relaxation”. I notice a significant degree of fit between these intentions and the spirit behind the Personal Kanban approach. What a fortuitous discovery …

The process of discovery goes on. Soon I will write how well the Personal Kanban approach meshes with the ‚time surfing’ technique introduced by stress coach Paul Loomans.