Using Personal Kanban To GTD

In this post, I want to review something I have been using for a few years to stay productive at work. Before we get to that, however, there is something I need you to accept - you cannot multitask. Okay, maybe you can breath and chew bubblegum while working, but when it gets past some of the bodies basic functions, you simply can’t do more than one thing at a time. If you have manager who expects you to multitask, what they really mean is for you to be able to have multiple different projects or technologies in your work queue at the same time, but you can only ever do one of those things at a time.

So, what is Kanban; it’s history stems from Toyota and looking to maximize inventory so production cycles are not wasted. If a plant doesn’t need mufflers, why should production make mufflers? For folks who have read the Phoenix Project this probably is starting to sound familiar (and if you haven’t please do so now!). In the Phoenix Project, the team uses Kanban to organize the tasks of several departments but it is very easy to start using Kanban for your own personal work. There is a few things this does for you.

  1. Gives you a visual aid to know what you should be working on (we'll look at that visual in a bit), especially when squirrel runs by your desk.
  2. Helps you complete the task without constantly changing context with what you were/are working on
  3. Gives your manager a visual aid to know what you are working on
  4. Allows you to prioritize work easily and

A Kanban board can be either physical or virtual; I prefer a physical Kanban board to interact with as digital or web based ones often lead me to squirrel hunting. All you need to get started is a whiteboard or cork board and some post it notes. A post note would be the task you are working on, often also referred to as a kanban (note the lowercase k) as well as other tasks in your backlog. You organize your Kanban board into something like backlog (your to do list), doing, and done. Here is an example I modified from leankit.com (the leankit.com example was built for teams, I want to show what a personal example would look like)

At any one time you can only “do” a single task; so make sure your task are small enough that they can be worked through to completion. When I was working on a DR project, I knew I wanted to develop PowerCLI scripts to do the heavy lifting, so my kanbans were generally related to the script I was writing - “Write Create VDS script”, “Write Configure VDS with Port Group script” etc…

When its done, move it to the done column and move a new item from the to do/backlog into the doing column. Your kanbans should have enough detail to be useful, especially since you may not get to it for a few hours/weeks. List ticket numbers (bug tracking or otherwise), related project, who the deliverable is for if necessary so you have the information you need. Yes, from time to time an item may have something blocking you from completing it, as you get more comfortable with this process you could add a blocked column or tag so you know you need to come back to it. For now, focus on just the 3 simple columns we have.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the benefits of using personal Kanban. I’ve always know what I needed to get done, but constantly switching from task to task because I thought I could multitask often left me thrashing on the same set of tasks. When you setup a personal Kanban board, you identify the task you need to complete, within the scope of a project you would have several tasks that make up the entirety of the project. In my previous example when I was working on the Create VDS script, that is all I was working on, when I was done I could move to the next item in my backlog. This helped me focus on what I needed to do, and I removed sloppy errors from my work because of that focus.

Your manager also knows exactly what you are doing. I have had several occasions where my manager has walked over and asked me to do other work, I would ask them to help me prioritize it in my backlog. Most times, the visualization of my work helped my manager as well and we decided if this new work should take precedence and what the consequence of stopping current work might be, like not having the DR site ready because the scripts to build it would not be complete.

If you do not like the idea of a physical Kanban board, maybe you travel often or have different working locations (home/remote/main office etc) then there are several tools which you can use, however my favorite is Trello. It is simple, and easy to use, though does lack the more enterprisey reporting type capabilities that in the long run you may find you need to keep management happy. Give it a try, and remember you can only do one thing at a time! Work that item through to completion and move on to the next task. I think you will find the quality of your work, and eventually quantity of work you can complete will both go up.