Notes on Personal Kanban

2014-07-09 17.22.08

If you follow me on Twitter you’ll have noticed the recent appearance of regular (if fortunately not frequent) photos of a whiteboard full of post-it notes. Welcome to the world of Personal Kanban – a personal-scale version of the kinds of systems in common use in trendy software development offices worldwide.

What is Kanban?

I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to describe. There’s a nice explanation over at – but for me (because these things are personal) it’s a board showing what I’ve got waiting to do (my Backlog), what I’ve got on at the moment (WIP or Work in Progress), what I’m blocked on (“The Pen” where I’m waiting for a reply to an email, something to be delivered etc.) and what I’ve finished.

There are 2 simple rules to running the board:

  • Visualise your work
  • Limit your Work in Progress (WIP)

I first encountered Kanban while reading The Phoenix Project – a book which came up so many times on Twitter in ITSM circles that I had to take a look. I found myself wondering if there was a way that Kanban might work on an individual level. Fortunately Jim Benson had had the same thought and helpfully wrote Personal Kanban – the book that persuaded me to give it all a go.

Making a start

Working in IT I was tempted to find (or make) an electronic Kanban Board, but two things held me back.

Firstly, the recommendation to start with a physical board resonated with me – there’s research, for example, that writing things down helps with memory – so I figured there would be a similar benefit to physically writing out tasks and moving them across the board.

Secondly, like anyone else with an interest in technology, I have left a trail of unused website accounts across the Internet. I didn’t want this to become either an exercise in “setup and no content” (ref every website I’ve ever made) or to languish because it seems like another website that needs attention.

So I went to it with a whiteboard and a stack of post-its.

Early findings

And as I’d imagined, doing this physically did feel quite good. A lot is made in the PK book about the “existential overhead” we experience when we have a lot of work to do and the benefit that comes from visualising it and I can confirm that it’s not waffle. I found that while there was a lot (I filled my backlog column easily!), there wasn’t as much as I’d convinced myself there was.

I wasn’t sure how limiting my Work in Progress was going to work. The overlaps between The Board, my email and our ITSM tool were fuzzy to the point of conflicting. But then I stumbled across this helpful blog which made the point “use your closest board”.

So my email (where I’ve always assiduously sorted messages anyway) became a board – at least where the email wasn’t about an existing Kanban card, or spawned a card. And Our ITSM tool became a board (and if you think about it: Queue = Backlog, Responded = Doing, On Hold = The Pen, Resolved = Done!).

Rather than potentially dividing my focus (I generally work better with one way of organising) I actually found I was able to focus more. And I put this down to limiting my WIP. Email in particular became less of an immediate distraction – and while I don’t completely ignore email (you never know what might come in) I’ve felt far more able to file messages and deal with it in batches a couple of times a day.

So by visualising my work I reduced the existential overhead that came by not having a visual (and physical) representation of what I needed to do.

By limiting my WIP (currently at 5, but I’m pondering making it 4 to allow for the volume of distractions I face elsewhere) I was able to choose more effectively what was worthwhile and important to do, with a smaller number of tasks on the go meaning I was “context switching” (i.e. skipping between tasks) less frequently.

And moving my tasks around the board physically felt like a positive activity – and especially satisfying when moving to Done!

A month in

I’ve been running my board for a productive 4 weeks and it’s the first time in a long while that I haven’t felt intimidated by the amount of stuff I have on. Our new Vet School in particular has created a lot of new work and it’s been interesting to have a record week-to-week of how many tasks it has created (44% of my current job didn’t exist 12 months ago!). On occasion I’ve been travelling to the office in the morning excited to see what the board has for me next. It’s weird.

There have been wobbles – things blow up, systems break, people are ill and it doesn’t matter how well organised and structured your world is, you just have to react. And I’ve already made tweaks, like getting magnetic photo frames to use for recurring tasks and changing my task categorisation (the colours/shapes of the post-its) to acknowledge realities and the number of “Other” tasks I was seeing. But overall the exercise has been a very positive one.


I haven’t taken the board much further than the basic 4 step process. The potential is still there for it to evolve to include specific value streams, but they haven’t made themselves obvious yet. I think the barrier may be the nature of my role (this video just about covers it) where not much of it is structured in a way to suggest that…

But who knows what the future will bring? In the next 18 months we’ll have our first batch of Vet students, we’ll be recruiting 5 new staff and then getting settled in the Vet School’s 3 new buildings – that’s just what’s coming from 1 of our 3 academic Schools. And from the end of September I get a new boss!

So like my work, my board will evolve.


2 thoughts on “Notes on Personal Kanban

  1. Jim Benson says:

    I like the part about 44% of work being for the new venture. We tend to see new work as somehow independent of what we’re already doing – like project work is different than daily work flow. Then we resent the existing daily work for impinging on our precious new project. But, no matter how cool the new idea is, dishes still need to be done and accountants still need to spoken to.

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