After a very long hiatus on the Scrumfamily blog, I’ve decided it’s time to kickstart things again with a focus on my use of Personal Kanban for work. Our family is still going strong in its use of kanban for managing life, but a lot of my learning about flow and focus in the least year has come from my use of it for work purposes.
A big part of this learning has resulted from my decision to move from an analog, desk-based kanban to an online board. Although I initially resisted this change, it has resulted in powerful and meaningful insights into my work habits.
The simplest effective solution
Until about a year ago, my work kanban was a simple matter of stickies on my desk. I liked the idea of having it front and centre, and since I had a habit of creating stickies as reminders for things already, formalizing their use was simply the next step of process improvement.
I didn’t go overboard with the formal aspects, though. I had the three standard To Do, Doing and Done columns, with a Waiting column for things that I couldn’t work on right away for various reasons. I added a little bit of monitoring in the form of a simple Excel sheet to track Cumulative Flow, work produced in different value streams (distinguished by the colour of the sticky) and cadence patterns. This is what enabled me to identify my personal work rhythm back in 2010.
But then I changed jobs in 2012 and my life changed dramatically.
Different solutions for different contexts
My new job requires me to travel quite a bit, and I found myself adding cards and notes in different places to keep track. My work was literally all over the place – in the iKan app on my iPad, on a Trello board and even a ToDo text file that I could use offline on the plane. After almost three months of this mayhem, I acknowledged that I had to adapt properly and move my work to an online board that would be accessible from everywhere.
The thing is, I had waited this long to adapt because I didn’t think I had the time to do so. I was busy – very busy. The thought of taking a few hours to redo my entire productivity system seemed like a luxury. (Of course, it wasn’t. But then, that’s how we often justify not making changes we know are needed to address the system, not just the symptom. ) And if I’m entirely honest, it also felt like a rather drudging chore that I didn’t relish at all …
Rome wasn’t built in a day
I realized that I had to manage the transition in a way that would not feel like it was a “big thing”. It struck me that I didn’t have to move everything at once. I could in fact start using an online board right away for new work and move existing work over piecemeal, as and when I picked up a new card from To Do or Waiting.
With psychological peace of mind achieved, I took the plunge. I upgraded to the paid version of LeanKitKanban so that I could add a second board for my work, in addition to the board my husband and I were already using to track personal admin. I based the new board on the built-in CEO template as it most closely resembled the way I work. I didn’t want to spend time on crafting a board from scratch.
That same day, I started creating all new To Do cards electronically, and added my Doing cards to the board as well. As I finished tasks and slots opened up, I steadily migrated my sticky inventory to the online board as well. Within two to three weeks, I had moved everything from my desk kanban, and most of the other lists that had proliferated.
Deeper insights from greater visibility
I now wish that I had made this move sooner. My LeanKit board has enabled me to see patterns in my own work habits and unblock long-stalled tasks. I also feel more in control of my day and time than I have ever before. Because it’s so easy to change the board layout, I have been able to evolve it regularly as my context has continued to change. And of course, I no longer deal with the overhead of keeping track of different kanbans and to-do lists.
Here are just some of the insights that have made a significant impact for me:
- Improved Email Management. The CEO template comes with a Daily column. I have added cards for morning, midday and afternoon email checks. This has helped me to keep up a steady email habit, without spending too much time in my inbox. I’ve also found that reading email related to the card I’m working on ties my email directly to the work I’m doing. Some of the kudos goes to Gmail though. I’ve also implemented my email triage rules as circles and filters, helping me to focus on email from key people.
- Clear Impact of Meetings. I had always struggled with the impact of meetings on my productivity. I suspected that I was losing a lot of productive time to meetings, but I didn’t know how much. By quickly adding a swimlane to my LeanKit board for Meetings, dividing my WIP limit between work and meetings, and using the “face-to-face meeting” card type, I could start to get a handle on this. After a few weeks, I could see quite clearly that 60% of my day is being consumed by meetings and email. Yikes.
- Waiting for … me? Another eye-opener came when I split my Waiting column into two swimlanes for Waiting for Others and Waiting for Me. It quickly became apparent that I owed a lot of people answers to things or feedback, and that I was in fact the bottleneck. It made it really easy to prioritize which of the Waiting items needed to be chased up first. It also suggested that I was using my Waiting column as an undercover way to have more things going on in WIP …
- Old habits die hard. I’ve still been holding on to my Excel CFD (Cumulative Flow Diagram) all this time, though. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps because the act of completing the number of items Done each day forces me to acknowledge any lack of progress. I have made my life easier, though. I initially counted cards to update my Excel CFD, until I realized that you can see the card counts if you hover over the column heading in LeanKitKanban. This was why, for a long time, my Backlog figure just showed 20+. Now it’s up to date, actually. And it’s not good. Although I did recently eject a large number of very stale items from it. The way I use my backlog is something that needs some reflection and attention.
- Keeping things simple. In the first few weeks of using my new online board, I went a bit overboard with columns. I added Monthly and Weekly columns in addition to the Daily column, all with ToDo and Done columns. I dropped Monthly eventually I never paid attention to the cards in there. These were items like “Check monthly budget update“. I now rather use triggers from calendar reminders or automated emails to create cards in my main swimlanes. I only keep Weekly now as a reminder to check in with scheduled meetings to ensure I’ve spoken to everybody in my team, and Daily is my personal routine. Neither columns add to my cumulative flow, but keep me honest in terms of limiting the time I spend in email and making sure I follow up on tasks & actions twice a day.The latter reflects a bit of a GTD (Get Things Done) pattern, something I’ve found to be quite useful. I have recently noticed that I’m seldom following the Daily pattern anymore. This is something I need to look into as well.
- Making more work myself. For a while after starting my electronic board, I created cards for everything, just because I could. I quickly realized that this was unnecessary admin in many cases. I now have a personal rule that any tasks and actions that I can do in the 10 minutes after a meeting (and before the next one), or in my “Tasks and Actions” check at the end of the day, don’t get cards. This has removed the space things rent on my board – and in my head!
Some areas that need attention and improvement
Of course, when you start making your work habits explicit and visible, you also discover things about yourself that are a bit uncomfortable to acknowledge. Then again, I think that’s the point of making work visible. You can only address problems if you’re aware of them. And it’s hard to be aware of them if you can’t see them.
These are some of my uncomfortable truths:
- Making the most of my time. As I mention above, I’ve found that meetings and email take 60% of my time. This leaves me with little time to really move ahead on key projects. I’m considering adding a column for Goals and Strategic actions. Perhaps I also just need to spend less time in meetings.
- Learning to let go. This is related to the point above. I’ve started delegating some meetings to people in my team. I don’t have to be in everything myself. The same goes for some of the email that comes my way. It very recently starting occurring to me that I’m “attracting” email in an unproductive way. There are some things that can go straight to my team, and certainly don’t have to come through me.
- Being honest with myself. My backlog is too full, and things that go in there often die there. Most of the time, I add work to my Next column directly, completely bypassing the Backlog. I think this is because the Backlog in LeanKitKanban is a hidden view that you have to toggle on/off. Out of sight, out of mind. I’m now trying to put “nice to have” ideas on my backlog only. But what’s the point of that if I almost never check the backlog to see if there’s something there I’d like to do? I either need to kill the backlog, or make a point of reviewing it regularly.
Is it all worth the effort?
Using and applying Personal Kanban at work takes discipline. Some days, especially those that start with an early meeting and just keep rolling with more of them without breaks in between, I don’t get to update my board until late afternoon. And then it’s tempting to skip it, because there are so many other things waiting for my attention. But without it, my centre would not hold. Those 10 or 15 minutes a day spent on creating and moving cards, or updating my CFD, are essential to keeping my work on track.
And more importantly, I would probably keep doing things the way I’ve always done them. There would be nothing helping me to see past the work. As a busy professional, it’s very easy to become trapped in the doing rather than thinking about what you’re doing – and why. Thanks to my board, I have a constant visual reminder to always ask “why”?