Notes on Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life by Tonianne DeMaria Barry & Jim Benson


ISBN: 1453802266
READ: 15 Jan 2015, REREAD: 28 Dec 2015
RATING: 9/10

I’m on a quest to improve the way I understand and do my work. I’ve read several books on Productivity: Getting Things Done by David Allen, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, and the Pomodoro Technique to name a few.

This book, Personal Kanban, is the one I have adopted in 2015 as my main productivity system. I first read it back in January 2015, and with 2016 just around the corner, I decided to reread it and tweak/improve my productivity system.

Here are my notes from the book:

Chapter 1: The Basics of Personal Kanban

Tools should give you control and not take anything.

Personal Kanban is a visual representation of work that makes the conceptual tangible. It shows what needs to be done, what is complete, what is being delayed, and what is going on at this precise moment. (loc 217 of 2222)
We were visualizing work, limiting our work-in-progress, pushing decision-making to the last responsible moment, and continuously striving to improve. We learned that understanding our work is the key to controlling it.
Premature prioritization was ultimately a waste of my time. Prioritization for personal work is highly contextual.
Personal Kanban has to be endlessly flexible. It needs to be a system that abhors rules. It’s an enigma. A process that hates process.

Key Concepts: Throughput and Work-in-Progress

The Two Rules of Personal Kanban

Rule 1: Visualize Your Work.

“Visualizing work gives us power over it. When we see work in its various contexts, real trade-offs become explicit.”

Rule 2: Limit Your Work-in-Progress (WIP).

“We cannot do more than we are capable of doing. This should seem obvious, but it’s not. Our capacity for work is limited by a host of factors including the amount of time we have, the predictability of the task at hand, our level of experience with the task type, our energy level, and the amount of work we currently have in progress. Limiting WIP allows us the time to focus, work quickly, react calmly to change, and do a thoughtful job.”

Think of Personal Kanban as a dynamic, interactive map that surveys your personal landscape for what excites, worries, or amuses you. It reveals what lies ahead (your goals, your upcoming tasks), where you are currently (what you are doing now), and where you’ve been (what you did, how you got here).

“Mapping our work allows us to navigate our life.”

“Personal Kanban gives us context and shows us how that context impacts our ability to make decisions.”
Innovation relies on inspiration through exploration and experimentation. Innovation requires improvement.
Lean is both a philosophy and a discipline which, at its core, increases access to information to ensure responsible decision making in the service of creating value. With increased access to information people feel more respected, teams are more motivated, and waste is reduced. Much of this waste reduction comes from Lean’s goal of a “kaizen” culture. Kaizen is a state of continuous improvement where people naturally look for ways to improve poorly performing practices.

Personal Kanban’s psychological elements:

Kinesthetic Feedback 1: Learning
Kinesthetic Feedback 2: Pattern Recognition
Existential Overhead (The explanation of the authors here point to the importance of ‘capturing everything’ ala GTD to reduce mental/willpower fatigue).
Narratives and Maps

PKFLOW TIPS (Chapter 1 Summary)

1. Personal Kanban is an information radiator for your work.
2. Existential overhead mounts when work is conceptual.
3. Visualization makes the conceptual tangible.
4. We can’t do more work than we can handle.
5. Limiting WIP promotes completion and clarity.
6. Flexible systems adapt to changes in context.

Chapter 2: Building Your First Personal Kanban

Step One: Get your stuff ready.

The authors recommend whiteboard, dry-erase pens, and a pile of sticky notes.

Step Two: Establish your value stream.

Value Stream: The flow of work from beginning to completion.
“The most simple value stream is READY (work waiting to be processed), DOING (work-in-progress), and DONE (completed work).

“Personal Kanban helps you understand context. It helps you appreciate what you’re doing and why. Need additional steps to complete a task? Not a problem. Personal Kanban’s flexibility (and those dry erase pens) make it easy to modify your value stream.

Step Three: Establish your backlog.

Backlog: Work you have yet to do.

Mighty’s Note: Trace this to GTD’s “capture everything” mantra.

“Start populating your backlog by writing down everything you need to do on sticky notes. Everything. Big tasks, small tasks, get them all down on paper. Don’t sweep things under the rug. Don’t file them in a folder labeled Tomorrow. Don’t lie to yourself. Wallpaper the room with sticky notes if you have to. You must confront your work beast before you can begin to tame it.”

“Now decide which tasks need to be completed first and pull them into your READY column. You can set a limit on your READY column if you wish.

Step Four: Establish your WIP limit

“…our brains crave closure.”

Zeigarnik Effect: “adults have a 90% chance of remembering interrupted and incomplete thoughts or actions over those that have been seen through completion.”

“The closer you get to reaching your capacity, the more stress taxes your brain’s resources, and impacts your performance.”

Research consistently shows we cannot reach our maximum effectiveness while multitasking. Instead, maximum effectiveness results when we limit our WIP and focus on the task before us.

Personal Kanban helps us find the sweet spot, that point where we do the optimal amount of work at the optimal speed; where our work is manageable and enjoys the slack necessary to deal with other areas of life.

“To find your work’s sweet spot, start by setting an arbitrary WIP limit, let’s say no more than three tasks. Add this number to your DOING column.”

Mighty’s note: The WIP limit recognizes the limit of our capacity, and helps us prioritize the tasks that we need to accomplish first.

Step Five: Begin to pull.

Pull: To bring a task into DOING when you have the capacity for it.

Each time you pull a task from READY into DOING, you’re prioritizing based on your current context.
Questions you should ask:

Which is the most pressing task? Which tasks can I fit into this half hour before I leave for my meeting? Which tasks can I batch together?

Get post-its filled with tasks from the BACKLOG and pull them to READY, then if you have the capacity, pull them into DOING, taking into account your WIP limit. As soon as the task is done, pull it into DONE.

Personal Kanban is a pull-based system.

Step Six: Reflect.

Consider the following:

* Which tasks did you do particularly well?
* Which tasks made you feel good about yourself?
* Which tasks were difficult to complete?
* Were the right tasks completed at the right time?
* Did the tasks completed provide value?
* Then ask yourself WHY?

Mighty’s Note: The Personal Kanban Value stream could be modified: A PENDING section can be inserted for those tasks that require action from other people. A TODAY category could also be inserted. The Reflection part is something I need to add to my own Value Stream.

PKFLOW TIPS (Chapter 2 Summary)

1. Let your context be your guide–change your Personal Kanban as needed.
2. Be honest about your backlog.
3. Your value stream may be adapted for specific projects.
4. Visualizing the nature of your work is the key to seeing what is really happening.
5. When WIP limits are exceeded, stress results.
6. Expect the unexptected.

Chapter 3: My Time Management is in League with the Freeway

Capacity: How much stuff will fit
Throughput: How much stuff will flow.
They are not synonymous.
Capacity is a spatial relationship, while throughput is a flow relationship.

All too often we equate “free time” with “capacity.” We assume that if we don’t have an activity scheduled, we can fit in more work….

Capacity is an ineffective measure of throughput, and a horrible way to gauge what we can do. It doesn’t measure how we actually work, or at what rate we actually work. Capacity is merely a brute force measure of what will fit.

Like traffic, work does not fit. Work flows.

When we don’t acknowledge or respect our work’s flow, we fall prey to multitasking. We rush through one thing to get to the next, striving for quantity (productivity) when we know quality (effectiveness) will surely suffer. In the end, we achieve neither.

Throughput is a flowbased system. It measures success by the amount of quality work flowing from READY to DONE over time, not just the volume of work we can cram into our schedule.

Personal Kanban gives us insight into how our work flows–where flow is optimal, where flow is blocked. The rate at which work moves from READY to DONE is our throughput–our real throughput, not our guess at it. Throughput is something we can measure, appreciate, and use to make informed decisions. We can begin to manage our work by our ability to thoughtfully complete tasks.

Look for ways to reduce the flow of unexpected work.

Setting WIP Limits

We need to control our workload. We need to divide it into manageable chunks and finish what we start. We need a WIP limit.

start limiting what you’re doing and take care to finish what you begin.

Mighty’s Note: In the DOING part of the VALUE STREAM, increase or decrease the number of Work-in-Progress. Reduce or increase as you feel comfortable without overwhelming yourself.

Living the Days of Our Lives

  • Critically assess your actual work.
  • Compare past actions and future opportunities to discover the most effective and the most meaningful.
  • Make decisions that are aligned with–and balance out–your immediate needs and your long-term goals.
  • Decide whether energy at any given moment is best directed toward any task…
  • Personal Kanban helps you assess the risks and rewards of specific tasks by showing you:

* What is your true investment of time and energy.
* What pitfalls may accompany a particular task.
* Whether certain tasks are equally predictable or unpredictable.
* Which tasks involve people you like.
* Which tasks you enjoy or excel at.

You are never given a dream without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however. ~Richard Bach

To-Do Lists: Spawns of the Devil

An unyielding mashup of the pressing and superficial, to-do lists overload us mentally. They foster a mechanical, boring, dehumanizing approach to work… We need context, something to-do lists don’t provide.

Personal Kanban transforms our work into a narrative giving us the context, the flow, and the decision points of a story.

Personal Kanban fosters a creative and collaborative environment, where the measure of quality is effectiveness: doing the right work at the right time.

Flow: The natural progress of work Cadence: The predictable and regular elements of work Slack: The gaps between work that make flow possible

PKFLOW TIPS (Chapter 3 Summary)

1. Manage work with flow and throughput, not time and capacity.
2. Like traffic, work doesn’t fit, it flows.
3. Capacity is a spatial relationship, throughput is a flow relationship.
4. WIP limits can change with context.
5. Thoughtful prioritization and completion beats rigorous up-front planning.
6. Understanding our options is liberating.

Chapter 4 Nature Flows

Pull is essential for stability and sustainability.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. ~Philip K. Dick

PKFLOW Tips (Chapter 4 Summary)

1. Life is a balance of order and chaos.
2. Patterns and contexts are often emergent. Don’t lock yourself into plans before you have enough information.
3. Our actions today impact our choices tomorrow.
4. Pull, flow, and cadence give clarity to how we work and which options are appropriate to select.
5. Push is a blind act. Pull is informed.
6. Pulling is optimal, being pushed is inevitable. Semper gumby. Always flexible.

Chapter 5: Components of a Quality Life

Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities and go to work. ~H.L. Hunt

Metacognition: A Cure for the Common Wisdom

Focusing on productivity is myopic. Effectiveness is our goal, and for that we need clarity. Clarity through visualization gives us the ability to choose the right work at the right time.

Productivity, Efficiency, and Effectiveness

Productivity: You get a lot of work done, but is it the right work?
Efficiency: Your work is easily done, but is it focused for maximum effect?
Effectiveness: You get the right work done at the right time… this time. Is this process repeatable?

Personal Kanban is:

  • A productivity tool: limiting our WIP helps us accomplish more.
  • An efficiency tool: focusing on our value stream encourages us to find ways to do more while expending less effort.
  • An effectiveness tool: making our options explicit leads us to make informed decisions.
  • Mere productivity is never a good investment. Effectiveness is far more valuable.

PKFLOW Tips (Chapter 5 Summary)

1. Visualization dispels fear.
2. Clarity lets us improve not only our decisions but our decision-making processes.
3. Productivity without effectiveness is waste.
4. Notable bursts of effectiveness are the heart of a peak experience.
5. Repeatable peak experiences enable kaizen.
6. Understanding our work and how we prioritize allows us to find balance between push and pull.

Chapter 6: Finding our Priorities

If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the result a hundred battles. – Sun Tzu
Maximum clarity. Maximum prioritization.
Some clarity. Some prioritization.
No clarity. No prioritization.

Smaller, Faster, Better: Controlling Task Size and Limiting WIP

Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

Planning should occur with minimal waste; it shouldn’t become overhead.

A project’s context, tasks, and subtasks are subject to change. Plan, estimate and break down tasks at the last responsible moment. We want to time our planning for when it can be the most effective–when we have sufficient information, or when we have no other choice than to begin work.

Prioritization in Theory and Practice

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. ~ Carl von Clausewitz

Urgency & Importance
Different ways to organize backlog: Covey’s Time Management Matrix VS Personal Kanban
Important & urgent
Important, less urgent;
less important, urgent;
less important, less urgent.

Mighty’s Note: Personal Kanban can tweak these quadrants and help provide perspective and review.

Live Your Own Life

Value drives how we prioritize: we choose tasks with higher value first. Sometimes our priorities become apparent through flow and not through fixed quadrants.
Visualizing work combined with metrics provides a full understanding of the current situation.

Expert: Metrics in Personal Kanban

You can observe a lot by just watching. – Yogi Berra

Visualizing work combined with metrics provides a full understanding of the current situation. Well chosen metrics test hypotheses, allowing us to track past events and foresee potential outcomes.

Metrics gathered but not used are waste, so choose them with care. Ensure they are actively and thoughtfully proving an hypothesis.

Metric One: Your Gut – don’t downplay intuition. Part of kaizen is creating positive change without over-thinking it.
Metric Two: The Process Laboratory – look at the process and which areas of the process has some bottlenecks.
Metric Three: The Subjective Well Being Box –

Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions. – Dalai Lama

Doing things you don’t enjoy reduces your effectiveness. Unenjoyable tasks increase existential overhead. When it comes time to do something you dread, you become anxious, irritable, and less thoughtful. There arlegitimate opportunity costs to doing things you don’t enjoy.

“Subjective Well-being” is a psychological concept and a qualitative measure that gauges an individual’s mental state by asking them.

In the Value Stream: Rate each task completed according to enjoyment or not, and this rating will lead to some decisions: 1. Do more of one thing; 2. Delegate this; 3. Is this necessary or not? 4. If you hate doing something, why? What to do next?
Metric Four: Time

A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way. ~ Mark Twain

Include the time of when the task has been created, the time it is pulled into the READY column, and when it gets done. This could also help me understand the timing, the delays, and other factors that could contribute to the efficiency or delay of a task/project.

Gut, Process Laboratory, Subjective Well Being, and Time: “These four data points can be used to analyze your work’s “lead time” and “cycle time.” Lead time for Personal Kanban is the amount of time it takes a task to travel from your backlog to completion. Cycle time is the amount of time it takes a task to travel from READY to DONE.

PKFLOW Tips (Chapter 6 Summary)

1. Expertise is no substitute for observation and measurement.
2. Clarity drives prioritization, completion, and effectiveness.
3. Metrics don’t have to be difficult.
4. Visual controls remove guesswork.
5. Real-time flexibility beats rigid up-front planning.
6. Happiness may be the best measure of success.

Chapter 7 Strive for Improvement

A-listers were successful not because they had superior programming skills, but because they took the time to learn why they were building the software in the first place. They sought clarity from the onset, gathering vital information and incorporating it into their design. If the pertinent information wasn’t readily available, they used deductive reasoning to devise a plan to obtain it. Once they found clarity, they had the freedom to innovate and the ability to outperform their colleagues.

Genius is personal, decided by fate, but it expresses itself by means of system. There is no work of art without system. ~ Le Corbusier

But no matter how well-thought out or well-funded they may be, projects are seldom precise.

Course corrections are not project management failures, nor do they suggest a loss of control—quite the opposite in fact. Rigid plans with fixed definitions of success limit our options and invite failure.

What good is experience if you do not reflect? ~ Fredrick the Great

At the moment we make them, pragmatic decisions and emotional decisions are often indistinguishable. We need to revisit our decisions after the fact, because while we may know the outcome, do we really understand the motivation?

May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been, the foresight to know where you are going, and the insight to know when you have gone too far. ~ Irish Saying

We want to focus on the context that led to success or to failure—not necessarily the success or failure itself.

Retrospectives are regular and ritualized moments of collective reflection.
what went well with their project, what didn’t go as expected, and what could be improved going forward.

It’s helpful to feature a RETROSPECTIVE column as the final column of your Personal Kanban. As tasks are cleared from DONE, put them in the RETROSPECTIVE column. At the beginning or end of each week hold a retrospective and quickly examine completed tasks. Acknowledge what went well and what could be improved next time. Celebrate victories. Learn from defeats.

The root cause of any problem is the key to a lasting solution. ~ Taiichi Ohno

The human brain finds it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to fake randomness. ~ Alex Bellosh

The Five Whys

To escape the tyranny of push, we must complete what we start, exercise options for effectiveness, and increase the occurrence of what brings us joy. To achieve these objectives, we need to understand both our work and our relationship to it. A wonderful, circular and self-perpetuating system, Personal Kanban creates a narrative map of our past, present, and future actions in which to identify patterns and innovate. In the end, Personal Kanban enables us to reduce fear and make better choices.

We generate our own emergencies by overextending ourselves and then addressing those tasks only when they become dire.

Work unseen is work uncontrolled and We can’t (and shouldn’t!) do more work than we can handle.

“Future in Progress” or FIP limit.

Pomodoro is a perfect complement to Personal Kanban, helping you process your WIP in 25 minute bursts.

If you pick one thing to do, and do it completely, people will notice. ~ Trevor Blakensh

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