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Personal Kanban and two simple rules to manage knowledge work

1) Limit your work-in-progress; 2) Visualize your work. These are the two simple rules that are suggested in a very enjoyable book I read by Jim Benson and Tonianne De Maria Barry titled Personal Kanban. Mapping Work, Navigating Life. When I first came across the book, I found the second part of the title a bit too similar to the tiles of the books that are blossoming in the ever-growing self-help section of airport bookstores. While reading it, however I changed my mind and got really engaged with it, finding myself thinking about how to apply what I was reading in my work and, I have to admit, my life.
The origin of kanban (Japanese for signboard) is with Taichi Ohno at Toyota. He wanted to find a way for line workers to be empowered to make decision without unnecessary management oversight. In order to do so, workers needed to have a clear understating of the context of their task. He created signboards where the flow of tasks and activities could be seen and followed and which could use to improve quality by detecting errors in the assembly line.

Kanban board

The Personal Kanban described by Benson and De Maria Barry in their book follows the same principles. In its most basic form it is three columns drawn on a white board that can be populated with Post It. The first column on the left, READY or BACKLOG, contains all the Post It of work that is waiting to be processed. The central column, DOING, contains the Post It of work in progress, the third column, DONE, gradually populates with Post It of completed work. There can be variations of course. Next to the READY column there can be a TODAY column, which contains and shows the tasks for the day. Another could be of an IDEA column located on the left side of the board, before the READY column, and where, like in a wine cellar, ideas are stored and wait to be picked up and developed further.
The middle column is at the center of one of the two Personal Kanban key rules: limit your work-in-progress. No matter how motivated or skilled we are, there is a limit of how many tasks we can handle at the same time. The main consequence of too much of multitasking is unfinished tasks to which our mind tends to return since, as noted by Benson and Barry, who quote psychological studies, our brain needs closure. The suggestion is to also add a number next to the word DOING, which may change with time, but which also reminds us of the maximum number of tasks that we want to handle at the same time.
Visualization, I think, is the aspect I like the most with kanban and is also the second key rule. Too many Post It in the READY column can be a sign that prioritization is required. Too many Post It in the DOING or TODAY columns should ring a bell that its is time to make a step back from the board and have a broader view of our work flow and reduce the number of tasks at hand. The visualization of the flow of tasks and activities from the left column towards the right end column where the completed tasks, little by little, accumulate and give a sense of accomplishment and which tells the story of a day, or a week or work, or of a project.
Benson and DeMaria Barry make a good point in that this visualization is more effective that depressingly long to-do-lists which do not provide sufficient view of the context of a project or a team activity or, as it is in the intention of the two authors, of one personal life where work and personal life are seen as part the same individual context.
But can a kanban be applied to teamwork and to knowledge work such as development research? In my opinion, the answer to both questions is yes. The white board pictured above could be used in projects where team members are responsible of different outputs. The board provides therefore ongoing snapshots of the progress of the various tasks and the linkage between them. This is particularly relevant when, as in my case, team members are in different geographical locations or even continents. With regard to the second question, Benson and DeMaria Barry argue that knowledge work such as research requires a management environment that is flexible and adaptable and that provides the necessary freedom for ideas and innovations to flourish. This is what an approach such as the Personal Kanban does. It avoids rigid processes and for task to become chores. Post It, after all, can be moved freely between columns if the context of the project changes.
The popularity of kanban is shown by the fact that it is harder and harder to find free online kanbans. Fortunately, kanban can be developed using white broad, papers, flipcharts, or a spreadsheet. It is left to one imagination how to develop it and adapt it to specific projects, tasks or teams. In this, it follows the principle embedded in one of my favorite quotes in the book, which I will keep in mind in my future trainings: Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Let me do and I understand .

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