A few weeks ago, I mentioned in my weekend reading post that I was looking at kanban ideas for project management. Kanban is a management technique that came out of Japanese manufacturing, and it is getting popular for software development projects. I am still learning about it, so I won't try to give a full description. It is a method that focus on the flow of work more than schedules, and has an explicit goal of limiting work in progress. The original reason for this was for supply chain management, I think, but it turns out to be a powerful method even for projects whose work products are produced primarily from peoples brains. The link in my weekend reading post will lead you to more information, if you're curious. I've started experimenting with it at work, in particular the idea of limiting the work in progress, and early signs are that it is going to be useful.
Before I implemented anything for my projects at work, though, I wanted to try it out. So I set up a personal kanban board for home, using KanbanFlow, a free online tool. I've been using it for about a month now, and I really like the results. I am using the default kanban board, which has columns for the backlog ("To-Do"), Do Today, In Progress, and Done. I rarely use the Do Today lane, so I may remove that. This is what my home board looks like right now:
The aspect of the kanban approach that I find most useful is the explicit recognition of a backlog, and the idea that you should limit the number of things you have in progress at any one time. I have never been the sort of person who was bothered by a long to do list, as long as I felt that everything I truly needed to do was captured on that list, and as long as I knew what needed to be done first. I had evolved a system of lists that helped with that- I had a global to do list, but then pulled out specific tasks for a monthly, weekly, or daily list, depending on my needs at the time.
Kanban takes this a step further, by encouraging me to think carefully about how many tasks I have in flight at any one time. The backlog can grow and grow, but I only move 2-3 tasks to In Progress at a time. At first, I did this just because I was trying out the system. But now I do it because it works. Moving a task to In Progress is equivalent to saying "this is my current priority." So if I have time to work on something, I can take a quick look at the board and I know which thing I should do. No more just doing what sounds most interesting, and having 20 things half done but nothing finished. Of course, I could still do that- but the visual reminder that the kanban board seems to be enough to keep me focused.
"Get the kids passports" has been on my master to do list literally for years. We've decided that we're going to New Zealand this year, though, so it was time to get it done. I moved it into my In Progress column, and it was done within a week. Same thing with "buy a new computer, " which had been on my to do list for several months. It spent roughly a week and a half in the In Progress column and is done now. Now I'm tackling checking into our options for refinancing our house and we're starting to plan our trip to New Zealand.
I also like how easy it is to throw something on the backlog, and how that is kept visually separate from my current tasks. If I remember to do something, I just pop open the board and type in a card. I can easily drag them around to prioritize my list later, if I want.
There are a lot of other features in KanbanFlow, but I make only light use of them. I've set up categories (the different colors for the tasks) and I use the subtask checklists (I love my checklists!) but haven't found it useful to try to set due dates on most things. It seems to be enough to just work on the flow of tasks. I've decided to go "all in" on this new method, and transfer all of my non-work items from my global to do list to the backlog on my kanban board. Mr. Snarky is still on the fence, but he has actually used it, which is more than I can say for the shared Google Doc that was our previous joint to do list. I think he likes the fact that he can make subtasks and also capture notes directly on the "card" for a task.
I've liked my home kanban board so much that I've set up a work kanban board, too. I'd actually prefer to have them mixed together, but my company's particular rules about putting data in the cloud preclude that. I've also given over my office whiteboard to a physical program level kanban board for all of my group's projects, and have been using that to prevent people from adding more projects to our In Progress lanes before we clear out the ones that are already there. I'm experimenting with ideas for how to use the board to avoid piling too many projects on one person at a time- we're far from ideal in that area right now, and it is showing in our productivity. There are some members of the department, most notably our director, who have a tendency to get a lot of things spun up at once. For some people on my team, that is no problem- they have their own methods for prioritizing projects and staying productive. For others, it is sapping their productivity to the point that they are practically paralyzed, as they try to move all of their projects forward at once. The board is helping us visualize the problem, and that alone is helping to solve it. I may come back and write more about that in a future post, once our use of kanban at work has had a chance to mature.
For now, though, I can enthusiastically recommend kanban to anyone who is looking for a little more order in their to do list, particularly if you find that things get started but not finished.
This is NOT a sponsored post. KanbanFlow is just one of many kanban board options out there. I've been happy with it, but as I say in the post, I haven't really given it a thorough workout. I also haven't investigated smartphone apps for kanban, but they are definitely out there. KanbanFlow doesn't have an app, but they have a mobile website. It seems fine, but I haven't used it much. I am not someone who needs constant access to her to do list, I guess.