Personal kanban is a simple concept: systematically make your own work visible and use that visibility to improve how you work. Personal kanban is related to other personal productivity systems like Getting Things Done or Pomodoro Technique, and could even be considered compatible with them. However, personal kanban is simpler than those systems. Therefore, you can start personal kanban quickly and easily.
Examples of Personal Kanban
After learning about Scrum, OpenAgile and Kanban, Darin, a superintendent at Suncor, established a personal kanban board in his office. It was a simple application of the basic principles of real agility: make the work visible. He also established a simple review and improvement cadence of one week. Here is a photo of his board:
The basic layout is in the center, with the three columns on the whiteboard: to do, doing, and done. Darin added lots of contextual information around his basic kanban board as well.
I have also recently used personal kanban. During my sabbatical last fall, I used personal kanban to keep track of all the things that I wanted to do as a list of options, and then when I was committed to working on something, I moved it into the main part of the board. I also had a space for expedited items. Here are two photos that show the initial setup and the board near the end of my sabbatical:
The boards for both Darin and myself had the additional benefit of making work visible to our stakeholders. In Darin’s case, his direct reports, his peers and his boss. In my case, my family members, particularly my wife.
Principles of Personal Kanban
Personal Kanban works on some pretty simple principles. These principles are a subset of the principles and practices of the “full” kanban methodology. Like the full methodology, you don’t have to start will all of these in place right away. In fact, you need only the first principle to start:
1. Make Work Visible
Clear a large space where you could easily fit dozens of PostIts or 3×5 note cards. Start by writing down all the things you are currently doing (partially done) and all the things you know you have to do. Each card should have only one activity written on it. Keep the descriptions extremely short. You only need enough information to remind you of the activity. Arrange the cards on your space so that there is a group for the work that is started (“doing”). Create a clear separate group for the work that you have to do but isn’t started yet (“todo”). Then your “board” goes into operation: as you complete things, put the corresponding cards into a third “done” group. As you start things, move them from “todo” into “doing”. And, as you find out about new things you must do, create a card for them and put them into your “todo” group. Try to arrange your cards so that all of them are visible. Avoid overlapping cards if you can. If you don’t have enough space to avoid overlapping cards, then try to only stack “done” cards.
2. Keep the Board Simple:
Three groups of activity cards are sufficient for most purposes. You might consider adding one or two more groupings. The most common are: a) a grouping for options that aren’t yet committed (kind of like a Scrum backlog), b) an expedite group that identifies urgent “do now” priorities, or c) a group for activities that are blocked by dependencies outside your control. However, all three of these groups are often unnecessarily complex. Try handling these concepts with other visual signals. For example, blocked items could be turned to 45 degrees to make them stand out visually.
3. Keep the Board Physical:
Your board should be in your physical space and positioned such that your stakeholders can see it at a glance at any (normal) time they are interacting with you. An electronic board makes everything invisible – don’t do it!!! It is tempting to try to find a solution that works online or on our handheld devices. These tools sacrifice visibility for convenience. The power of personal kanban is generated by others seeing your situation. At Suncor, Darin’s physical board actually catalyzed many important discussions about capacity, and quality. The physical board eventually led to many others in his department adopting varying levels of agility. (NOTE: if you are working with a team and anticipate eventually merging your board with a team board, you may consider an electronic tool like Kanbanize. But electronic tools are harder to get started with so I don’t recommend them at first.)
4. Set WIP Limits:
The hardest part of personal kanban is to set a limit on how many items can be in your “doing” group at any one time. This type of limit is called a work-in-progress or WIP limit. You may find this principle hard to apply because many people don’t think consciously about the effect of having many things on the go at the same time. But, in fact, having lots of stuff going on at the same time is one of the greatest sources of stress. To ease your way into WIP limits, start by counting the number of things in the “doing” group right now. Decide that that number is the current WIP limit. Now, in order to start something new, you must first finish something and move it to the “done” group in order to make space for the new activity. Keep this up. Every once in a while, lower your WIP limit by getting two things done, but only moving one new thing into the “doing” group. If your limit is down in the range of 3 to 5 items, it’s probably okay, but you could try to push it even lower.
5. Show the Right People:
Some people depend on the things you are doing. Make sure that you have a regular cadence for making sure those people see your board. It could be a daily check-in with your family, or it could be a weekly meeting with your boss, or it could be a monthly meeting with your volunteer group. Regardless of the frequency, you design that cadence to create an opportunity for feedback, improvement and open discussion about your work and how you are serving the needs of the people who depend on it. This is the start of a service-orientation that is required for greater levels of agility, personal or otherwise.
6. Have an Options Area:
As you limit your WIP and show the right people your board, you will quickly accumulate a list of requests that starts to grow beyond the limits of your ability to commit. At this point, creating a space on your board for “options” is a must. This group of cards represents work that someone has requested (could even be yourself), but you don’t have any idea when you will start it, nor if any given request will take precedence at any given time. At the same time that you create your “options” group, you can also apply a WIP limit to your “todo” group. Visually demarcate the fact that options are uncommitted, and todo items are committed. Gradually reduce the WIP limit on “todo” items in the same way you reduced your “doing” WIP limit.
7. Granularity of Activities:
As you set WIP limits, you will find that occasionally something sits in your “doing” group for a long time. In my own personal kanban board, it was the two MATH classes. They were really really REALLY big amounts of effort compared to most of the other items on my board. What I should have done, and would have if I had continued my sabbatical, is to instead break a class into many smaller activity cards such as “Assignment 1”, “Assignment 2”, “Study for Midterm”, etc. These smaller activities would have flowed through my board in a prompt fashion and would have been much closer in size to the other activities. By creating a consistent and relatively small granularity to the activities you list on your board, you will derive a great deal of satisfaction seeing things “done”… and you will have much more flexibility (agility) to adapt what you are working on while staying within your WIP limits. If your items are not granular enough, you will struggle to reduce your WIP limits lower than 6 to 8 items in the “doing” group.
8. Help Others Make Their Own Boards:
Everyone can use a personal kanban board! As you bring others to see yours, some of them will be inspired to start their own. Share this article with them, offer them feedback in the form of sharing your own experiences (good and bad), and if there are enough people interested, consider forming a personal kanban group that meets regularly to discuss learning and techniques.
Extending to a Team:
Much of this article focuses on your own personal use of a kanban board. However, a natural next step is to use similar principles with a group of people working towards a common goal: a team. This is a high-level suggestion on how to gradually adopt a team kanban approach:
1) everyone on the team establishes a personal kanban board,
2) all the boards are visible to everyone on the team, often in a common space,
3) converge on a common level of granularity (agile estimation techniques might help with this),
4) as people have dependencies between each others’ activities, move activities between boards,
5) merge boards such that each person’s board is laid out horizontally one below the other in “swim lanes”,
6) eliminate individual “swim lanes”, by merging the “options”, “todo”, “doing”, “done” groups of activities, possibly creating new groups of cards based on common activities, and making stickers for each team member that go on the activity cards, and finally,
7) establish team-level WIP limits for the “todo” and “doing” columns.
You can learn much more about team-level Kanban at our Kanban for Scrum Masters and Kanban for Product Owners learning events which can be found publicly or which you can arrange to be delivered in-house to your team.
Team-level Kanban represents a new stage in your maturation towards Real Agility. Personal kanban is the first step that you can take without needing permission from anyone else, can be done easily, and leads to significant reductions in stress, increased feelings of accomplishment, and collaboration with your stakeholders. Start there, and you are planting the seed of Real Agility in your environment.