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What is a Kanban board and how can it help me be more productive?

Last post I discussed using sprints to organize my goals into themes and short timelines. In this post I will share a tool I use to keep track of all of this. It’s called a Kanban board. There is a picture of my Kanban board at the top of this post. You can refer to that picture to understand how I use this system.

Kanban was created by Toyota for use in lean manufacturing. Basically it helps to limit Work-In-Progress by using cards to indicate whether someone is ready for the next step in the process. Software development teams have taken Kanban and adapted it for their use too. It allows members of a team to understand what is being worked on and what still needs to be done. Two of the big benefits of a shared Kanban board are to visually provide status to others and to balance work.

Here is a short description of the parts of my Kanban board:

  1. I use a physical board and sticky notes as my cards. There are software boards, and Trello is an app that basically uses the Kanban method. I like a physical board to easily add and move things around. I also like the feeling of moving things to the done column. I find that more satisfying than a mouse click.

  2. My board has 4 columns – some only have 3 (no backlog) or they can have several other columns.

  3. The first column is the Backlog – the place for me to gather all of my outstanding actions. I try to stick to different colors for different themes, but often I just use whatever I have. It’s not meant to be pretty, just functional.

  4. To Do is like the on deck circle. I try to limit the number of cards there to just those I plan to do in the next several days.

  5. WIP typically holds only a couple cards – those things I am actively working on.

  6. And Done is self-explanatory. I like to clean this off every so often, enjoying the progress I am making.

Here are a couple other guidelines. First, I try to make the comments on the sticky sufficient for me to take on as an action in a single setting or two. That means nothing like “write book” but “write 5 pages” would be OK. Second, if I know something has multiple steps I may list those on the sticky, moving it back and forth as makes sense. Third, if something sticks around on the backlog long enough for the glue to get weak, that is a good indication I need to rethink it. Maybe I don’t really want to do that, or maybe I need to break it down into smaller parts.

The big rule for Kanban though is to limit WIP. You might have a couple of things you are working on at one time, but realistically you can only have a couple of things that you switch between. It’s perfectly fine to move something back to To Do; some people have another column for Waiting On. This WIP limitation has forced me to get clear on what I really want or need to be doing.

I find Kanban boards really useful at work. If you keep getting tasks piling up, you can use your board to discuss priorities with your boss or coworkers. Since WIP can only be a couple of things, you can decide together which things you should be focused on. It allows for quick comparison of the items you have on your list. A visual look at all your tasks and an understanding of WIP is a great basis for a chat on what is really important.

A team board is also helpful when you have different people working a larger project. In this case, you might want to add names of who is working on an item to improve communication. A quick team session in front of the board will give everyone insight into who needs help or who can take on more work.

I still carry my small notebook around and make lists as things come up. If I can take care of those items quickly, great. If not, I transfer items to my Kanban board to help stay organized. There are some great Youtube demonstrations on how to use these boards, but the best way to learn is to get some sticky notes and try this yourself.

Now go make it happen -- Tom

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