What is Personal Kanban?

Kanban Method

The concept of Personal Kanban was developed as a way “for people to make conscious informed decisions about the actions they take” (“Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life”, Jim Benson). The system allows you to integrate all aspects of your life: work, family, hobby and helps you excel in each of these domains.

Kanban as an effective methodology

Although originating in the automotive industry, Kanban has been used in all kinds of businesses worldwide with great success. It has provided increased value to customers, clarity of operations, reduction of waste, and improvements in companies’ bottom lines all across the globe.

But what works in the industry, can also work in our personal lives. We often act as two different people, at work operating in a given way, which differs from the type of person we are at home. Personal Kanban seeks out work and home lives integration and a smooth flow of all activities - and it certainly does work!

At any given time you probably have a plethora of different tasks on your mind: complete that presentation for next Wednesday, make sure to purchase an anniversary present for the end of the week, remember to get back to the car dealer about a service you know your car needs.. the list goes on and on. Personal Kanban will let you easily manage and optimize all these activities.

The beginnings of Personal Kanban

Personal Kanban was created by Jim Benson, a co-owner of a software development company, who for years tried to use to-do lists, visual management tools, mind maps, etc. None of these methods provided him with clarity or encouragement to work. He felt that using these tools was making him demoralized by the sheer amount of work that was in front of him. He experimented with several electronic tools as well, thinking he could solve the problem with technology, but each time the result was the same.

The breakthrough came in 2008 when he was working with David Anderson at Modus Cooperandi, and they started to utilize Kanban to help their teams with their work. Benson utilized Lean principles to visualize his work, limit Work In Progress, and continually try to improve. Together with Corey Ladas, the other business partner besides Anderson, they worked to create a board to manage their team’s work, and that is when Personal Kanban was born.

How to start using Personal Kanban?

Step 1: Visualize your work

Have you found that if you write down what you need to do, you instantly feel better? Seeing your to-dos written down can give you a “that’s not so bad” feeling of relief. This is the first step! Simply write down all the things you need to do. At this point don’t seek to order the list, just get everything out of your head and onto a page, little post-it notes are ideal for this. Each post-it note signifies a discrete piece of work, such as picking up the laundry, doing taxes, finishing a presentation, etc.

Now, take it one step further and draw the steps and activities necessary to complete each piece of work: this will be your value stream. It’s important, as it will allow you to have a mental path of what you need to do to get each item done. Simply mapping this out - and it can be as simple as a few steps on the back of a piece of paper - will already be a large improvement over a basic to-do list.

Step 2: Start to prioritize your tasks

Sometimes it’s difficult to know which item to start with. A good prioritizing question can be: which tasks if left undone, will either get me fired or cause injury or harm? If you can identify those, then get them done first! Don’t try and get this perfect, just remember you will get better with time. Are there any time-specific items, i.e. pick kids up from school - you need to place them in your prioritized backlog in the correct place so that they can get done before the due time. For example, if a task “complete the presentation my boss wants” is number 1 on the list and it will take 8 hours to complete, then number two on the list will probably be picking up kids from sports, simple!

By now you should have two lists or columns: a To-Do or Backlog list, that holds all the items you need to do, and a Prioritized or Ready To-Do list, with selected items, set in an order you’d like to do them in. It’s important, that while you’re writing your items down, you don’t try to order them - doing that will only block the flow of to-dos from your memory, as you’ll be giving yourself the added challenge of prioritizing and remembering what needs to get done. So, first - write down what needs to be done, then write down some of the needed steps, then schedule the work into the Ready To Do column.

Step 3: Start to pull your work

At this stage, we suggest you create a Kanban board for yourself. To start, make sure you have 4 columns: Backlog (items to do), Ready To Do (items prioritized in the order they need to be done), Doing (items you have started to work on), and Done (for completed work).

Once you have your board set up, you’re ready to pull the first item into the Doing column - and get it done, before you pull another item. Sometimes people pull 2 or 3 items into the Doing column, but we would counsel against that. Only if you expressly have to, or you are blocked from finishing the item you’ve started, should you pull another item into Doing.

Lean methodology has taught us that there are no rewards for Work In Progress, nor for unfinished work. Pulling a new item into the Doing column only after you have pushed the completed item into Done will create a flow. The more you stick with it, the more inertia you will gather, and the quicker the large mountain of tasks will start to disappear.

Step 4: Reflect on your week, how did you do?

At the end of the week, it’s good to look back on your board to see how you did. At this stage, you should either have many items in the Done column, or have a full Doing column, or a To-Do column that has not changed. Whatever the result, it will be a lesson. By asking yourself these three questions, you can gather a lot of information:

  1. What went well, what are the things I am pleased with?
  2. What did not go so well, where can I improve?
  3. What 1 or 2 things can I do differently to improve next week?

Once you’ve answered these questions, congratulate yourself on your effort, you deserve it! Then start again next week - we promise, that after a few short weeks you will see a vast improvement, and after 3 months people will start to talk about how organized you are and - best of all - at the end of the year you may have even ticked off all those pesky new year’s resolutions!