Personal Kanban: Bringing Focus to Chaos- Part 1

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If you walk into my work space, you are going to see post-its all over the damn place. If you didn’t know what it all meant, you’d probably just think I was just messy, but there is actually a sophisticated system to my madness.

Central to my personal organization is my personal Kanban Board. I began fooling around with this at my old job back in the summer of 2015. Our scrum team had experimented with one. It didn’t stick, but I started thinking I might be able to use it myself. Right away, I fell in love with it.

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My first board. Picture taken with my old phone. Sorry for the poor quality.

By far, this is the best tool I have EVER used for time, priority, and energy management. The benefits blow me away sometimes: it keeps me sharply focused, allows me to understand how much work I have to do and if I’m getting overwhelmed or too far behind, gives me data on my own performance, allows me to understand how much work I can complete on any given day so I can plan better, and gives me the feeling of accomplishment. It also allows me to sleep better because I’ve emptied my head of all the things I need to do by writing them down and keeping them in an organized fashion. Perhaps best of all– it allows me to be creative and as a result, work becomes fun. I always brighten when I see it and it makes coming to work more enjoyable (even on Mondays!!).

Materials:

  • For the board, all you really need is a flat area and something to divide sections off with. I used the front of my cabinet and masking tape for the board at my old job. For my current board, I use poster board (I use two or three so I can expand it in any different directions as need be) and cut up post-its to create the lines.
  • Post-its
  • Thumb tacks (or command strips)
  • Sharpie

The Board Set Up

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At its basic, the board is divided into four areas. Working from left to right:

  • “To Do” (far left): This is everything I need to do. If I need to do something, I write it on a post it note, and place it in this area. The higher it is on the board, the higher the priority.
  • “Today” (the middle): This is the stuff I plan to work on . . . well . . . today. I work from top to bottom, right to left.
  • “WIP” (Work in Progress): The most important area. This is what I’m working on at the moment. I don’t work on anything else outside this box. Notice it has room for only two post-it notes. This makes me limit my work in progress, reduces multi-tasking, and increases focus.
  • “Done” (far right): This is what I have completed for the day.

Extra Areas.

These are areas I have experimented with. I wouldn’t call them necessary, but they have helped me.

  • “Waiting” (bottom): These are items where I have solicited others to help me complete a task and I’m waiting for compliance. For instance– if I sent an e-mail to someone and I’m waiting for a response or I’ve called someone on the phone and left a VM. Lately I’ve taken the rule that if this area fills up, I won’t work on anymore tasks relating to needing someone else to help me complete something. The reason– it increases my overall WIP, i.e. too many things started and not enough finishing. If I don’t get a response from the person after a few days, I put the post-it back in the “To Do” area and start over again.
  • “Help Boxes” (Top): This is my latest experiment. I often have needed conversations for my supervisor, our tech lead, or our partner. I put these on post-its and place them in the appropriate box . When I get the chance to talk to them, I address the box. Often, these conversations turn into action items and go into the “To Do” box afterwards. If it was just something I needed to know, I just toss the post-it.

It works like this

  1. Things I have to do are accumulated over time. These go in the “To Do” box.
  2. Once a day, I pull items out of the “To Do” box into the “Today” box. I’ll discuss how I determine how much I know I can do in another post (hint—it has to do with those numbers in the top right corner).
  3. Starting from the top right and working my way down right to left and top to bottom, I work my way through the day, pulling post-its into the WIP.
  4. When completed, I put them in “Done” or they go into “Waiting.”
  5. By the end of the day, my “To Do” and “WIP” box should be empty. The “Done” box will be full. There may or may not be post-its “Waiting.”
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This is my board at the end of the day. My “”Today” area is empty, my “WIP” is wrapping things up. My “Done” area is full.

Tips

  • The “WIP” box is the most important box. This is your focus. Set a work limit for it. I do this by making the WIP box the same size as my WIP limit. In this case—two post-its sized. Don’t work on anything else until what is in the box is finished. You will decrease multi-tasking and get more work done.
  • Keep the board within arm’s length from where you work. In my case, its right next to my computer. I think I might be less likely to use it if I had to keep getting up to move post-its all the time.
  • Keep post-its and a sharpie close by. Things come up all the time. If I think of something I need to do, I quickly write it on the post-it and pop it on the “To Do” area.
  • Keep poster board putty nearby for when the post-its begin to lose their stickiness.
  • Keep the WIP box near eye level. When I lose my train of thought or am interrupted, the box snaps me back into focus.
  • Make it bright and colorful. Post-its have a World of Colors collection. I like the Rio di Janeiro. It makes the board look more fun and as a result makes work fun. I personally like having a black backboard. It makes the colors pop.
  • In the beginning, you may change your board a lot as you get used to what works for you, so don’t be afraid to try something or fret if your board keeps changing. Heck, I still change mine to accommodate my needs. You should do the same for your board. Its meant to evolve. If it doesn’t, there might be something wrong.
  • You are going to go through a lot of post-it notes (and sharpies). Make a budget for it. Staples has a sale @ October/November when they get rid of all their back to school supplies. You can get some good deals then.
  • Jim Benson is an expert with Personal Kanban, but I’ve yet to read his book. I’ve kind of grown this idea on my own. Jim has been doing this a lot longer than I have and I’ve seen a couple of his presentations. He’s a smart dude. I’m sure I would get some good ideas from reading his book. Its certainly on my list. You may want to check it out.

In my next post, I will talk about how I determine what all I can do in a day.

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