Home > The Lean Post> Personal Kanban: You Can’t Manage What You Can’t See
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

Personal Kanban: You Can’t Manage What You Can’t See

by David Drickhamer
November 19, 2015

Personal Kanban: You Can’t Manage What You Can’t See

by David Drickhamer
November 19, 2015 | Comments (7)

Whether it’s a pull-based inventory control system for keeping the pantry stocked, or using an A3 to help our kids learn how to solve problems, every lean thinker has had a moment when they’ve thought, “If I applied this concept to my daily work or at home, just think how much simpler and more efficient and less stressful everything would be!”

For more than a decade Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry have been doing just that. Authors of the Shingo Award-winning book Personal Kanban: Mapping Work, Navigating Life, they help individuals and teams apply lean management principles to work, project and time management.

Benson comes from an agile software development background, which he characterizes as a batch and queue system for knowledge work. As a manager in the early 2000s, he was looking for other ways to manage such tasks and happened upon kanban concepts, which he first adapted and applied to his development teams, then later to managing individual work.

“Kanban does two things, it makes what’s going through a processing system visible, and it limits the number of things that can be produced at any given point in time,” says Benson. “That forces people to pay attention to what’s being done.”

We mistakenly believe that knowledge work is unmanageable, he adds, because it’s invisible. But the practical problems that managers are continually trying to solve are universal: How do I prioritize my work? How do I know what other people are doing? How do I know when to collaborate? How do I know which tasks to delegate?

Addressing these questions requires the right information to be available when it’s needed so that people can make good decisions. The two rules of personal kanban enable this information transfer:

1) Make your work visible because you can’t manage what you can’t see, and

2) Limit your work in process because you can’t do more work than you can handle.

Why “To Do” Fails

Knowledge workers often take on too much because they can’t see all of their work, and because they confuse capacity with throughput. To explain the difference Benson and Barry offer the analogy of a freeway. A freeway reaches maximum throughput at somewhere around 65% of capacity, and is a parking lot at 100%. To actually get things accomplished, work needs to flow, not be stuck in gridlock.

That’s why maximizing capacity (personal productivity) by filling every spare minute of time sacrifices quality (effectiveness). When we try to do too much, nothing gets done or it doesn’t get done well. Limiting work in process (WIP) also discourages multitasking, which researchers have repeatedly found to be counterproductive.

Applying a kanban approach to knowledge work enables an individual, team, group or company to see the work that they have to do, understand the work that they are doing, and appreciate the work that they’ve completed. It takes very little time to setup. The authors recommend using a whiteboard because it’s easy to adjust as your understanding of team and individual value streams deepens.

Example of a personal kanban board showing tasks in three states: Backlog, Doing and Done.

Example of a personal kanban board showing tasks in three states: Backlog, Doing and Done.

A long section of Personal Kanban is dedicated to the evils that to-do lists inflict on us. The primary failure of to-do lists is that they don’t provide context. Without context we approach tasks in a reactive or fire-fighting mode. What’s the biggest emergency now? As long-time lean thinkers will relate to, reaction isn’t prioritization. The personal kanban approach creates context and clarifies the causal relationships between tasks.

Like other visual management tools, personal kanban is relatively straightforward to implement because there isn’t a rote, external process that needs to be adopted and enforced. The immediate objective is simply to make the work that you’re already doing visible, which immediately presents opportunities for improvement and the impetus to do so.

“When we can’t see a problem, we tend to complain about it,” he says. “When we can see it, it drives us nuts and we have to fix it.”

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  personal kanban
Search Posts:
Management on the Mend
By John Toussaint, MD
Was this post... Click all that apply
44 people say YES
47 people say YES
39 people say YES
15 people say YES
Related Posts
7 Comments | Post a Comment
Matthew Robinson November 23, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Very useful approach, thanks. I've just created my Personal Kanban board on Trello (not sponsored by them!), will start using it today

Reply »

Rui Coelho November 23, 2015
2 People AGREE with this reply

This a a great "office tool" that I've been using for 2+ years.  I added a few columns:  Queue, (Do) This Week, (Doing) Today, Waiting (for others) and Done.   The Waiting helps becuse work does not always continuously flow.  Thanks!

Reply »

Paul Hodgetts November 27, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Big +1 on Jim & Tonianne's book. Short and to the point and well worth the read.

I also started using Trello for my Personal Kanban board. At first, I resisted going electronic, carrying around a little folio with stickies, but stickies lose their stick when going in and out of weather (even the super stickies).

On my PK board, I use a "prioroty seive" in the front end. It helps me limit WIP, with the WIP progressively getting smaller.

I have a "Backlog: Later" column at the front with unlimited WIP (well, I do scrub it out about once a month for stale items).

Then a "Backlog: Sooner" column with a WIP limit of 12 cards, and I refresh this when it gets down to 6 (or when a higher priority item comes in).

Then a "Next" column with a WIP limit of 4, refreshed at 2.

The a "Doing" column also with a WIP limit of 4. I primarily spend most of my time just pulling into here.

I also have a "Waiting" column. At first, I only marked cards as blocked, but with day-to-day life I end up legitimately waiting on things (usually people to respond, or a package to arrive, etc.), and these conditions seemed more "normal" than something truly being blocked. I reserve blocked for something that is truly stuck and needs attention.

And then my favorite "Done" column. I let this build up to 6 cards, and then I do a little retrospective to celebrate getting things done and see if there's something I can do better next time. After Done, they get archived in Trello so they're never lost.

I've been using this board layout for almost 4 years now, and it's served me well. I also create boards using this layout for special projects of mine.

Reply »

Abrão Garcia January 12, 2017

Very good, waiting is so usefull.

Reply »

Tim Grant December 03, 2015

We started using a kanban board to visualize and manage our Engineering process this summer. I am glad to see some information on it here.

Reply »

Deb December 04, 2015

This is something I had not thought of yet makes sense. Thank you.

Reply »

Gordon Pearson December 14, 2015

Thank you for an excellent piece.

I have been using a personal kanban for 2 years or so and find it extremely useful. The benefits of this system that I find are:

1. It forces me to reflect and prioritise instead of trying to do too much. The simple action of moving a completed task into the "completed" section is very satisfying. Being able to clearly see that you are going to have a bottleneck and plan accordingly is also great.

2. Team members know exactly what you are working on simply by glancing at your board.

3. It goes hand in hand with Leader Standard Work and is a great way to demonstrate to all that you are following LSW, something which can be a challenge in a more senior management/project based role.

Thanks again!

Reply »

Search Posts:
Management on the Mend
By John Toussaint, MD
Lean at Heart: Kanban
Six Personal Kanban Habits to Avoid
The 5 Diseases of Prioritization
Please include links as plain text URLs only. Do not copy and paste directly from a web page or other document. Doing so may pick up additional HTML that will not function here.
URLs will be converted to functioning links when your comment is displayed on the site.
Here's an example:
See this article for more details: https://www.lean.org/whatslean