Personal Kanban Pathologies

From the way many people (myself included!) sometimes laud Personal Kanban, you’d think it’s a perfect system that ensures that you stay 100% on top of everything. Alas, there is no such system. The best system is only as good as the consistency and diligence with which you apply that system. Where humans are involved, 100% consistency and diligence is not a realistic expectation. We are human, after all.

So for my first post in a while, I thought it would be quite appropriate to focus on some of the pathologies that I’ve seen at play in both my work kanban and at home.  Now most of these are not specific to Personal Kanban, but rather the manifestations of well-documented patterns of human psychology and behaviour, from procrastination to fear of the unknown.

But if you’re paying attention, you’ll see them exhibited more clearly on your Personal Kanban board, simply because you’re visualizing your work and the patterns associated with the way you work. And it’s precisely that seeing that gives you the power to expose and confront these pathologies within yourself as you navigate work and life.

Finishing the last 1%

How many times have you heard somebody say something is 99% done? You know what I’m talking about –  those tasks  in “Doing” that are dragging on, almost done, except for some last aspect of the execution, e.g. mailing the letter you wrote to grandma. Or getting the stamp for the letter. Eventually the letter spends two weeks in your car until you eventually get around to stopping at the convenience store late one night to get a stamp. If you’re lucky, that is. If you’re unlucky, the guys at the car wash toss the letter out because it fell on the floor and they thought it was trash. And behold, you’re back to square one!

I’ve noticed that this seems to happen most often if the task in question was actually too big to be a single task or if it’s something with an unknown element that’s making it seem bigger than it is.

Which brings me to …

Ignoring Blocked Tasks

I’m sure nobody else is doing this, just me, right? These are those tasks in “Doing” that are officially receiving your focus according to your board and WIP limit, but that you are stubbornly/subtly/passively aggressively ignoring by continually pulling new tasks into your last remaining WIP limit slot. And you’re feeling great, because you’re getting some stuff to Done.  But it’s not the right stuff. And it’s certainly not that card with the red blocked cross that’s sitting on your board like a big red zit.

Even worse, you’re doing things on the backlog and not even putting them in “Doing”.  Because you don’t have an open WIP slot. Because you have more than one of those pesky blocked things that you’re not taking care of. Because … you’re fooling yourself, and not addressing the problem on the board, you procrastinator with your head-in-the-sand, you!


But wait, there’s more.

Not Adding Work to the Board

The point of visualizing your work through Personal Kanban is, well, just that: to SEE  your WIP. If you don’t add the work to your board and you’re feeling good about how well you’re keeping to your WIP limit, you’re simply deluding yourself.

And eventually,  natural system constraints like the hours in a day or your need for sleep will catch up with you. Again, that defeats the purpose of having an early warning system like Personal Kanban. If you’re honest and show all your work on your board, it will show you when it’s time to dial things back without you having to come to a complete stop.

Stale Tasks on the Backlog

Too often, your backlog can become a dumping ground for plans and ideas that you had on the spur of the moment, but that have long since become irrelevant to your current context. Yet they hang around, like clothes in your cupboard that you haven’t worn for years,  and you know in your heart you never will. But who knows, maybe, one day … ?

So you leave them in your backlog, and with every passing day you get a little bit more panicky when you see the numbers of tasks in your backlog barely dropping, or maybe even trending upwards. By leaving them in your backlog, you’re putting even more pressure on yourself, because it looks like you have so much more work to pull once you finish the current tasks in “Doing”.

Too Many Boards

And here we have the grand daddy of all pathologies. You created your board in the first place to bring your multiple projects and work under control in a single visual dashboard.  And now, for some reason, you’ve created a whole row of them for all the projects you’re working on, splitting your attention and productivity across all these boards and investing energy in their upkeep.  This is no better than the days of having 10% of your time attached to one Gantt chart and 30% of your time to another. It all adds up. But you don’t see it, because it’s not all together anymore. Need I say more?

Dealing with Personal Kanban Pathologies

I could go on about a few more pathologies, but at this point I’m keen to hear what you do to deal with this kind of behaviour effectively? If you use Personal Kanban, and recognise some of these patterns, how do you prevent them from disabling your productivity? Are there other patterns we should add to the list and discuss? What do you think?

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2 Responses to Personal Kanban Pathologies

  1. This rings so true. Especially the “Stale Tasks on the Backlog”. Having used Getting Things Done for many years before discovering Personal Kanban, I now try to pay a special attention to those stale tasks when I review my Kanban board and I am (trying to be) ruthless about pruning them, either by putting them in the recycling bin or to the “Someday-Maybe list” I keep if it is something I may still want to do in the future. This is the only element of my effectiveness system for which I still use a list as it really would really not fit in my Personal Kanban. When I conduct this exercise, I actually think in terms of “lets’ do a little pruning” now — the gardening metaphor is indeed very appropriate here — Decisions made about what you decide not to do are as important, if not more than those you make about what to do. This is crucial to go beyond productivity and strive towards effectiveness.
    I came across your blog through the #pkflow hashtag on Twitter and as yourself I love reading about how others practice Personal Kanban. I find it very useful to get new ideas which are useful to improve my own practice and fine tune my system. Setting up a Google alert is a great idea and I have already created one for “Personal Kanban”. Keep up the good work.

    • Hi Pascal,

      Thanks for taking the time to tell us about your disciplined pruning. And I’m glad your enjoying my blog. 🙂

      I also really like that you referred to effectiveness, rather than productivity. That’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. In life, and in work, there will never be enough time or money to do all the things that we think we might want to or need to do. So you have to make it count, right? Because every minute or every dollar you spend on something that does not make your dreams move forward is wasted.

      Regarding GTD – I think it complements Personal Kanban very well. PK doesn’t teach you how to prioritize, only insists that you must by applying Work In Progress limits. If you add elements from GTD, or maybe Covey’s quadrant, you find yourself with an arsenal of tools to help with prioritization.


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