Personal Kanban: Bringing Focus to Chaos- Part 2

As a project manager, I’ve got a ton of things I have to worry about. The devil is often in the details and there are a LOT of details. How do I keep track of them all? How do I know which to tackle first? How do I know how much I can do in a day? Thank the project management gods for the personal Kanban board. This is my go-to tool for personal time, priority, and energy management. In my last post I described the basics of the personal Kanban board and how it works. In this post I’ll describe how I determine what I can do in a day.

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Notice that each of the post-its have a number in the top right corner. This is an idea I got from Scrum. These are velocity points.

In a nutshell—velocity works like this:

Each item I have to do is given a certain number of points. I use the Fibonacci sequence. For me, the numbers are a combination of time, effort, complexity, and uncertainty. They are not precise time estimates, such as “this task will take me 15 minutes.” They are relative. To give you some type of idea of time, though—a 1 point item takes about 5-10 minutes. A 2 point story is about 10-25 minutes. A 3 is about 30-45 minutes. I may assign a higher point for an item if its hard or exhausting or if I’m not certain how long it will take. Like I said—its relative, but if I keep to my rules, I find it to be pretty darn accurate.

Over time, I keep track of how many points I can accomplish in a day. This will tell me how much I can get done in a day. My average is 36.5. So, when I plan my day, I put up @ 37 points worth of work.

 

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38.5 points ready to go. I have one in WIP–ready to go when I walk in to start work in the morning.

IMPORTANT: 37 points is NOT my target. My target is to do as much quality work I can in a day by staying focused. Time and energy is limited. I know with all things being equal, I can produce in the 37 point range. At the end of the day, I don’t fret if I don’t hit 37 points, and I don’t celebrate if I go over. The reason? Variation.

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Here’s a graph of about two months of work on a control chart. You can see this is a stable system with an average of 36.5 points with an upper control limit of @ 50 and a lower limit of around 24. If I go outside those limits, I will look at what went wrong. If I see a downward trend, I will investigate; if I see an upward trend I will investigate. None of these have ever happened.

If you think about it, this is actually a pretty amazing amount of predictability when you consider how crazy work can get. THAT is what brings order to the chaos.

Tips

  • Break down big items. I won’t go beyond an 8 (that’s about an hour and a half worth of work). Anything larger needs to be broken down. Small tasks keep you focused and keeps things progressing. If I have a large item to work on, I write “Epic” in the corner and put it in the “To Do” box. When its time to work on it, I break it down into smaller items.
  • When you complete an item, re-evaluate its points. I find that sometimes I was wrong in my initial estimate. It may be higher or it might be lower. I cross out the old number and write down the new. This gives me a more accurate total when I count up total points.
  • If something unexpected comes up during the day, I create a new post-it, stick it in the “To do” box and remove equivalent points from the “To do” box. Example– My supervisor unexpectedly comes by to get some information about the project. In the end, this was the equivalent of about 2 points of work. To stay within my daily velocity, I add 2 points for my supervisor visit and remove 2 points from my “To do” box (preferably, the lowest priority should be removed).
  • I use different colored post-it notes to represent my different projects. This helps me understand where I’m putting my efforts and helps me to better plan out my days.
  • Related: This is a great way of collecting personal data. For example, I can track how often I am interrupted or how much time I spend on reporting or in e-mail. I’ve also used it to track how much of what I do is adding to customer value. This helps me understand what I’m actually doing and what I can do to improve.
  • Some items have a specific time associated with them. For example—meetings. I put the time associated with this task in the top center and place it approximately where it will fall during the day (not necessarily by its priority). For example, an 8:30 phone call will be toward the top and a 4:00 meeting will be toward the bottom.
  • Related: Some items may be high priority, but take place in another time zone. For example, I may need to schedule a high priority appointment with one of our California sites, but because they are three hours behind my time zone, I won’t be able to reach them until mid day. I place them in the center of the day’s priorities (about the time they will be arriving to work so I can hit them up first thing).
  • Create a post-it for stopping to review what you’ve accomplished, plan for the next day, think about what you can do differently, and review and prioritize what all you have coming up in the “To Do” box (they call this a retrospective and backlog grooming in the Scrum world. This is represented by my “Wrap-Up” post-it). This is VERY important for this process. Its the last item on my list of things to do, but always takes priority over anything if I hit the 3:45 pm range.
  • As the day winds down, I will re-evaluate what all I have left to do in the “Today” box. I may add or remove items depending on how much time is left in the day.
  • I mentioned Jim Benson in my last post and I’m going to mention him again. While I came up with this idea independently, Jim is the trailblazer for Personal Kanban. I look forward to reading his book to get some ideas on what I can do better. I recently discovered a podcast interview he conducted with Mark Graban over at LeanBlog. I highly recommend it.

 

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