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The Ubiquitous Need for Kanbanfor1

It is four years since I started experimenting with Kanbanfor1 and two years since I first presented the concepts and Snapper’s story of adopting Personal Kanban at Agile 2012. I have been using, coaching and presenting Kanbanfor1 and have run a number of workshops with people within and outside of IT. In this article I will tell you about the top 5 Kanbanfor1-related insights I have had during the last four years.

Personal Kanban is a philosophy of self management – of tasks and time – developed by Jim Benson, that has emerged from the Toyota Kanban system to manage workflow in large projects or organisations.

Kanbanfor1 is a personal Kanban tool. Based on the understanding that multi-tasking is, if not exactly evil, at least majorly inefficient, Kanbanfor1 helps you to tackle one thing at a time and to track the progress of your work or tasks from start to finish. Kanbanfor1 helps you stop starting and start finishing! 

Here’s an example of a Kanban board:

If you’d like to know more about Kanbanfor1 check out my talk “The Evils of Multi-tasking and How Personal Kanban can help you” on InfoQ. You can also read Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry and Personal Kanban in a Nutshell - The Practical Guide to Personal Happiness by Jurgen De Smet and Erik Talboom.

Kanbanfor1 works for everyone, in every context

For everyone

I have never come across anyone who doesn’t have a problem managing their time. Everyone wishes the day had more hours and that they could squeeze more things into it. We can’t just extend the time available and we all seek the answers to how to be majorly more effective with the time at hand. Experience and research show that the way to do this is to stop multi-tasking, keep focus on the task at hand and achieve a state of concentrated flow.

Kanbanfor1 first became popular amongst IT professionals but I quickly noticed that it also appealed to colleagues, friends and acquaintances outside the IT field. During dinner conversations this was probably the first time that I could talk about Lean concepts without people switching off and hoping I’d stop "talking about computers”.

People in all fields of work and in life in general share the same desires and face the same problems managing their time, and personal productivity concepts seem to strike a chord with everyone. My friend Lou co-ordinates the marketing for one of New Zealand’s biggest dating sites from a  Kanban board, Emma manages her research for the national radio station with Kanbanfor1 and Brenda coordinates the funding of TV and films. Kanbanfor1 is useful to people from a wide range of professional fields and during the last year especially I have noticed that most people who attend my personal productivity courses come from outside IT. Interestingly, while Kanbanfor1 seems to appeal particularly to people in management positions at any level, many people working in accounting seem to dislike it.

Kanbanfor1 is also used in many contexts. People often have Kanbanfor1 boards at work and at home and the range of usage is fascinating.

At work


People manage their own workflows and tasks but Kanbanfor1 also proved to be a great talking tool for one-on-one meetings. Good managers meet with their direct reports at least every couple of weeks for a one-on-one conversation but often those meetings can feel a bit forced and hard to get started with. People have told me that one-on-ones with their managers have become a lot more relevant and focused since they have started bringing their Kanbanfor1 boards to these meetings.

Tasks on a Kanbanfor1 board can be a great conversation starter and can provide great talking points. It is important though not to use the board as a control instrument to micro-manage people and a pre-requisite is a good and trusting relationship where transparency won’t be abused. If you have that, try bringing your Kanbanfor1 board to your next one-on-one; it’s a very powerful conversation guide.

Shift work

One of my clients runs a major consumer website and their customer service is available 24/7. People usually work in pairs where one works during the day and the other during the night, and when the night person comes to work they need to know what cases are in the queue for their shift and what has happened during the day. This used to be done with an Excel spreadsheet until the team discovered personal Kanban. Each pair now share a Kanbanfor1 board which they use alternately: the night person leaves it in an updated state with the upcoming work defined on sticky-notes in the “Things To Do” and “Next” columns and the day person happily takes over and starts working on the queue when they come to work in the morning.

Lean coffees

Lean coffee is a structured, but agenda-less meeting. It’s a bit like a time-boxed unconference on speed: People get together, decide on an agenda and start talking.

A Lean coffee starts with people populating a personal Kanban board with topics or items they want to discuss. This forms the agenda.

They then discuss one item at a time, timeboxing the discussion of each. People move a sticky-note to “Doing” and discuss the topic for the agreed amount of time (I like 3-5 minutes).

Once the time box has run out the group decide whether to keep discussing the topic and add another timebox, or to move on to the next topic. The meeting ends when the agreed time is up or when there are no more topics left to discuss. If you’d like to learn more check out this 2-minute video.

Since my clients provide a Kanbanfor1 board in every single meeting room use of the Lean coffee meeting format has sky-rocketed!

Keeping track

I have seen various different approaches to clearing out the ‘done’ stickies. While some people just throw them away at the end of each week, others keep them, put them into a notebook or stack somewhere, and use them as a record of what they’ve done. If you’re doing monthly reporting, it’s incredibly helpful to be able to refer back to your list of tasks to identify what you achieved. Or if you use colour streams for different projects or types of work, you can very quickly get an idea of the balance of your workload across different areas.

At home

Most people who get into Kanban at work love it so much that they also get a Kanbanfor1 board for their private lives.

We all have things we want to get done in our non-work lives and I have seen people use Kanbanfor1 to plan holidays, weddings, move countries and plan their marathon training. A friend of mine whose goal it was to run the New York marathon dedicated a Kanbanfor1 board to her specific goal where she tracked everything from her training, to entering the event and organising the trip.

My partner and I often temporarily share a Kanbanfor1 board to plan what we want to do during the weekend: It usually contains things like shopping groceries, doing invoicing, booking flight tickets, mowing the lawn and writing a blog post. We also plan our trips with Kanbanfor1.

Even the kid has gotten into Kanbanfor1 managing her homework and home chores (It worked wonderfully as long as we resisted the temptation to add tasks to her board).

Quirky Usages

In the beginning I used an expedite lane on my Kanban board as I had read that this was what I was supposed to do. It turned out though that this really isn’t necessary with Kanbanfor1 as personal tasks are usually small enough to just reshuffle what you’re up to next. I quickly repurposed the expedite section on my board to a notes section that I found useful for reminders.

I have since observed people using the notes section as an area for reminders to build habits. One of my colleagues has a big sticky-note with the words “Be on time for meetings” and I currently have one with the words “Random acts of appraisal” as I want to get into the habit of letting people know when I think they have done something great.

It could also be the place for reminders of regular, date-driven tasks such as monthly reports. They can be ‘stored’ in the Notes field, and moved into the flow when it’s time to do them.

Kanbanfor1 gives me insight into an organisation

As a coach, the process of getting people into Kanbanfor1 facilitates insights into how an organisation works, how a team works, and how people work. It gives me insight into an organisation’s culture and mindsets and based on people’s Kanbanfor1 boards it is often possible to find out more about how people in an organisation work.

Just like looking at an organisation’s Scrum/Kanban team or Portfolio Kanban boards, having a glance at people’s Kanbanfor1 boards allows me to get an impression of the following:

  • Do people multi-task? Do they stack post-it notes in the doing column? If so, why? Is that a personal or organisational issue?
  • Do they or their organisation allow for slack in their planning (days, weeks) or is every hour of the day planned? Is people’s idea of what they can achieve realistic?
  • Is there a fundamental belief that utilisation, i.e. being busy all the time is the best approach?
  • Do people work at a sustainable pace? Or do they just have too many things on their plate?

It tells me about an organisations beliefs and values and helps me ask the right questions. It also helps me determine which behaviours might be driven by the organisation and which ones are personal. It often is a good indicator to figure out whether people are in an environment where they can develop good habits such as working on one thing at a time.

Kanbanfor1 can give me visibility and as a consultant and coach it helps me determine what to work on or look into and to decide what to coach/teach next. It also helps me determine whether I want to work with an organisation at all. (I can often tell after one Kanbanfor1 presentation)

From a coaching perspective Kanbanfor1 has worked very well for me and also for people who aren’t directly part of an Agile team. Product Owners and other management roles are usually a lot less well defined and more fluid than the role of an Agile team member and there’s usually no team board with tasks to provide visibility. I found Kanbanfor1 extremely valuable in providing this visibility and it has helped me to tailor continuous coaching processes and conversations. Clients have told me they have found Kanbanfor1 very valuable - in addition to managing their work it has provided great talking and discussion points and over time it produced an achievement log that we could use to adjust and focus the coaching. It is important to note though that this worked because my clients and I trusted each other and had a very clear coaching agreement. I’d never force this on a coachee and I always back off if people aren’t comfortable with the visibility.

Some people might find the visibility and transparency of Kanbanfor1 at work controversial and the potential for micro-management and control does exist and should be taken seriously. I recommend only using open Kanbanfor1 boards at work if there is a culture of trust, openness and collaboration and if people feel safe to share the nature and progress of their work. I always make sure that there are working agreements in place about whether it is acceptable to look at each other’s boards and I’d never go as far as to mandate Kanbanfor1. Also, I always make sure that my Kanbanfor1 board is visible!

In general, I have found Kanbanfor1 has supported the adoption of Agile at an organisational level through better coaching opportunities, increased visibility and shared understanding and through making it possible for people within an organisation to collaborate around individual tasks and to help each other if someone has too much or too little work to do.

A Gateway into Organisational Change

One surprising side-effect of Kanbanfor1 was that people gain a lot of insights while improving their personal productivity which are often not related to personal habits but to organisational issues. I found that with Kanbanfor1 people often begin to see their organisational problems and start solving them.

Two years ago I gave a presentation on Kanbanfor1 for a major eCommerce company. I talked about the ideas and principles of limiting work in progress (WIP) and visualising work; something that seemed to resonate with many of the attendees. Many started their own Kanbanfor1 boards and after a while some people started sharing boards across their teams. People also realised that the ideas were very useful to manage the entire company’s projects and introduced Portfolio Kanban across the organisation (You can read about this in my Agile Alliance paper “Portfolio Kanban - Seeing the Bigger Picture” or watch a video of the talk from Agile Australia 2014 on InfoQ).

It was a interesting Agile adoption as it didn’t start on the team level. It started on a personal level amongst developers, testers, designers, product managers and managers across all levels of the organisation. We never officially decided to introduce Agile but rather had it grow organically. Something that has started small has led to an organisation-wide adoption or Agile and, while I helped as a coach and consultant, people took the initiative themselves to push for a wider adoption.

Going from Personal Kanban towards a wider adoption of Agile wasn’t just a single incidence but turned out to actually be a useful pattern. I have since introduced Agile into several other organisations either starting with Personal Kanban or introducing team level Scrum/Kanban and Kanbanfor1 at the same time. In all cases it worked extremely well for two main reasons:

  1. It is a very non-threatening way to try out ideas and principles. People can learn and develop new habits in their own time and at their own speed and use as much or little of the concepts they want. Working with Personal Kanban is not a big decision and no approval process is needed. People can just try things on their own, and if they like they can start thinking about applying them to the organisation together.
  2. Kanbanfor1 is an excellent training ground for everyone on a team, in fact everyone within the organisation. It provides a sandbox for developing new habits and trying out new ideas and increases people’s understanding for how Agile and Lean work. Even people who might be nowhere near a delivery team such as people in sales, marketing or finance know the principles for how the delivery teams work and what they are talking about when they talk about Agile and Lean. It creates a shared frame of reference and language for everyone in the company and it is so much easier to explain how Agile works when people have tried Kanbanfor1 first.

Kanbanfor1 can get you to a jumping point, to the starting line to become Agile and to solve organisational issues and to take the next steps when the organisation is ready. And even if they never take the next step, improving personal productivity and flow is already a great success!

Kanbanfor1 works with partner tools

Kanbanfor1 is great on its own but can be enhanced by using supplementary techniques and tools. Here are a couple of my favourites:

Kanbanfor1 and the Pomodoro technique

While Kanbanfor1 helps us with finishing what we have started the Pomodoro technique helps us get started. The Pomodoro method is a personal productivity technique which helps us to stop procrastinating and get on with our work. The idea is to focus and work hard for 25 minutes at a time and then to have a short break to refresh the brain.

Although we usually can’t complete complex tasks in 25 minutes the Pomodoro technique can help us cheat our inner procrastinator: No matter how complex the task, the important thing is to get started. Soon we find we have accomplished something after 25 minutes and the task at hand seems a lot less daunting.

A Kanbanfor1 board and the Pomodoro Technique are a match made in heaven. Kanbanfor1 lets you keep an overview, provides context and minimises your work in progress and helps you to achieve a good flow of tasks through the system. The Pomodoro technique is a great complement to Kanbanfor1 that helps you focus on the task in your “doing” column. Kanbanfor1 and the Pomodoro Technique perfectly combine the advantages of flow with the benefits of time boxing.

You can read more about the Pomodoro technique in Staffan Nöteberg’s book “The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated” or on the Pomodoro website.

Kanbanfor1 and focus flags

Interruptions happen, they are a reality of life but we still want to improve our ability to focus. To make sure other people know whether we’re working on something where we can be interrupted and aren’t deep in the flow and focus of creative work, focus flags have proven to be immensely useful.

Focus flags are little paper flags that show people whether you are interruptible or not. People blue-tak them to their Kanbanfor1 boards: If the flag is up it means please don’t disturb, if it’s horizontal you can interrupt if it’s important or urgent and if it’s pointing down it is okay to chat about non-urgent stuff or the weather.

It is important to find the right balance between focusing on a task and being interruptible by other people though. Sometimes helping someone else at work is better for the overall project or a nice social interaction can take precedent over your own productivity. Make sure to optimise the whole!

People like pretty things

There is an elegant simplicity to the Kanbanfor1 board that stands on your desk. The A3 size is large enough to be significant within your workspace, but it’s really just a piece of cardboard, so it’s not so imposing that it takes over your desk. The standup boards are stable, they can’t be clicked away, they stand as a constant reference of what you’re doing and what you’ve done. People love the visibility but also the tactile nature of Kanbanfor1 boards - there is an innate satisfaction that is derived from physically moving a sticky note into the ‘done’ column.

We have found that ultimately people like pretty things, and having a nicely designed board, whether it’s plain black or columns of graduated colour, makes people happy. Organisations love to get sets of branded boards or individual designs for their teams and also for their clients.

People who do ‘knowledge work’ ultimately arrive at roughly the same workflow. We have found that the printed boards work across a range of roles and industries and the workflow is applicable to many different people - although occasionally someone wants to rename the columns and that’s okay.

Everyone everywhere has some kind of todo list, Kanbanfor1 is a simple yet powerful way of tackling the overwhelming pile of tasks we face on a daily basis. It’s not right for some people, but for those who do work with it, it’s exactly what they need.

Through coaching, training and working with Kanbanfor1 I have not only learned a lot about my own work practices, but have been surprised by how useful it has been in all my client contexts. If we take away the lingo of Agile, Lean and the IT world, then Kanbanfor1 is relevant to everyone.

And one final piece of advice: there is a right way and a wrong way to peel sticky notes. If you peel from the side, they don’t fall off the board. Who knew!!

About the Author

Sandy Mamoli living proof that love will make you do crazy things, moved to NZ in 2007 to follow her heart and has been trapped in the wilds of Wellington ever since. From working with Sony Ericsson's global enterprise website in Amsterdam and Copenhagen to being one of NZ's leading Agile coaches and Chair of AgileWelly, the Southern Hemisphere's biggest per capita Agile community, Sandy brings her practical European flair and passionate advocacy of all things Agile to NZ businesses. She's a former Olympian, a geek, a gadget junkie and an emerging triathlete. She is one of the owners and co-founders of Nomad8 and one of the brains behind Kanbanfor1. She knows quite a lot about Agile. @smamol

Editor's Note: This article was updated on the 13th January 2015 to address concerns raised on the comment thread and elsewhere.

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