Visualizing Interactions in Complicated Work

Jim BensonCollaberwocky, DesignPatterns, ExpertLeave a Comment

A construction team planning work openly and honestly.

A construction team planning work openly and honestly.

When we look at a Personal Kanban, its simplicity belies its power. Visualizing our work as individuals and as teams and even as teams of teams creates trust, reliability, and understanding. When we want to co-ordinate work, these are serious prerequisites.

The image above is from a construction trailer, they are engaged in a Lean Construction exercise known as a “pull-plan”. Each color is a different contractor, each diamond is a delivery or a milestone.  In this case we have five different contractors whose daily work relies on the completion of daily work done by the other contractors.

To spell this out, their work directly relies on people in other companies–every day.

Historically, this had led to predictable delays with different companies working at different speeds for different reasons. You might recognize this from different departments in your company or different people in your family.  Our work often relies on other people who are often simply ignorant to our needs.

Not surprisingly, when they are ignorant of our needs they don’t give us what we need.

This makes it seem like they are “out to get us” because so often the work we receive is lacking. We attribute malice where the fact is those other busy people have different things to worry about every day and need to see their work in your context and vice-versa.

The pull-plan concept takes this head-on by looking at the backlog of work (your options column) for the next six weeks and sees who needs to do what, when, and in what way in order for the schedule and budget to be met in a safe and quality way.  The teams meet and on each ticket list each activity (option) they need to do to get their work done, the number of days the work requires, and then the trigger that makes that work happen (sometimes this is from another contractor, sometimes this is just their work progressing).

This allows each contractor to self-report how long they would like the work to take and then compare the total production time to the schedule and figure out what can be done the meet the customer’s expectations. Often, very often in fact, this is simply having the contractors discuss with how they need the space prepared for a clean hand-off.

I’ve noticed almost all in-office conflicts and “culture problems” end up coming back to hand-offs, which basically means they come back to an understanding of what quality work really entails.  We need to ask some serious questions: Do I know how to provide you with work?  Do you know how to provide product to me? Are we talking to each other or past each other? Do we really understand how our individual work leads to a quality end-product?

Very simply, the image above has professionals come together, make visual what they need and when they need it, and then find the best path to mutual success. They learn quickly the challenges the other contractors have and get to inform them of their own. This makes many of those challenges lessen or outright disappear.

Consider, in your Personal Kanban or that of your team, that there might be opportunities for these kinds of conversations. Be open, be honest, and work things out.

Remember: No one creates a quality product alone.




Jim BensonVisualizing Interactions in Complicated Work

How Do You Handle Daily Tasks?

Jim BensonGeneralLeave a Comment

Daily tasks confound people.  How do I put them in my Personal Kanban? How do I visualize work that I do every day?  Many people actually make new tickets each morning and move them into Done during the day, adding to the monotony-not learning from it.

Someone on Quora recently asked how to deal with ‘Dailies’.  Here is my response:

There are a variety of ways to do this in Kanban apps, even ones like Trello with few features.

The design of your system will of course depend on several factors like:

  • Are your every day tasks all or mostly all of your work?
  • Are you the only one who does these every day tasks or are they shared?
  • Are the every day tasks ones you learn from or are they … mindless?
  • Are the every day tasks fully repeated or do they change with context?
  • Do the every day tasks involve customers?

To answer the question for how I personally do it,

I travel a lot, so I do use Trello.

I have three inbound columns that track the High, Medium, and Low priorities of tasks I need done. (A priority filter).

To the right of that, I have a column called “Dailies”. That has several tasks that require regular attention. Each day I’ll have one or two pomodoros that focus specifically on those tasks.

Nothing special there.

The trick is…turn your daily grind into something actually helpful.

On the other side, kill your “Done” column and create two new ones.

“Task Complete” and “Learning”.

Especially from your Dailies, you should have some learning. How long it took, what the response was from the customer, ways to do it better, information it kicked back at you, etc.

If you don’t learn from your dailies and they aren’t the reason you are there…delegate them.

If you do learn from them, do it explicitly.

When “Done” with a daily task, the marking of “Done” isn’t mindlessly moving a ticket to the right. It’s actually noting in the learning column what you learned that day, data you gathered, etc.

General pro tip: If your work becomes mundane so do you. Make your dailies a growing experience.

Jim BensonHow Do You Handle Daily Tasks?

Do More Things Right

Jim BensonGeneralLeave a Comment

Don’t focus on the negative. The board shows us successes to replicate.

I love to cook.  When I make good food and share it with others, they will take a bite and look as excited to eat it as I was to create it.  They might not understand the subtleties that went into it, but they understand the product. Satisfied eater, satisfied chef.

When we do something and are happy with it, we get excited.  We want to show it to others. We are proud of what we’ve done and want to see the world interact with it.

In the world of Personal Kanban, we teach that we want people to use their boards to see what is happening and continuously improve.  This doesn’t only mean that you look for everything bad and make it go away, you also look at what’s gone right and make sure you do more of that.

Marcus Buckingham, years ago, urged us to build on our strengths, but right now team retrospectives and annual reviews focus on the negative.  “Improve” becomes synonymous with “how can you stop doing bad things.”

That’s not improvement, it’s rehabilitation.

It is popular now to look at “plus / deltas” after meetings or when something happens.  After witnessing about a million plus/delta exercises, it is clear that the only thing that’s improved are the deltas.  More often, however, there is no improvement at all. People go through the exercise and fill in the columns, then they leave.

That’s not improvement, it’s filling in plus/deltas.

While you are using your Personal Kanban, either by yourself or with your team, look at improvement opportunities like this… What can be improved?

Pro tip: Improvement does not mean “fix”.

Look for things that go well that you can improve to be the norm.  Look for things that don’t go well that can be improved to bolster things already going well. Look for things you can stop doing.

When you find them, that’s not the end of the mission.  This isn’t merely discovery.

Now you need to actually do things to improve.  That means making a plan for the improvement, figuring out what needs to be done, making the tickets for your personal kanban, and then doing them.  Doing them, in turn, means you have to Do Them. Make time for them, make the improvements collaborative (we’re more like to elevate an improvement task if we are working with others), and set a goal date for the improvement. Then measure and discuss the impacts of the work you’ve just done. Make the improvement a system to both complete and learn.

Sound like work?  Maybe it is. But in the end, you get to do more of the work that is rewarding, work will be easier, and you’ll spend a lot less time complaining.  It’s an investment.

Jim BensonDo More Things Right

Learning to Climb: Metacognition is Freedom

Jim BensonGeneralLeave a Comment

Human beings are good at placing roadblocks to success and building plans that cannot be followed. We tend to fall back on our “common sense” or “snap judgement” which often makes us feel like our cavalier decisions were actually thought-out.  Yet, time and again, we find ourselves in deadline crunches, worried about upset customers, or angry with others because we didn’t get what we want or got it too late.

This is because we take on too many tasks, stick to already failed plans, and don’t steer around obstacles we later say “if only we …” about.

At a time in the world where we are fully engaged with snap decisions, Personal Kanban users have the opportunity to understand and show other people how we actually learn.  In learning, we can actually take control of our work.

Personal Kanban is a Metacognitive system.   When we move stickies through our PK we are seeing (with our eyes) how our work … works….

  • What work is important?
  • What do we enjoy doing?
  • How do we change how we write stickies over time?
  • How do we change the columns or sections on our board?
  • What do we do when the DONE column fills up? (Hopefully we’re learning what went well).
  • What tasks do we work with others on?
  • When do we clean tasks out of the OPTIONS column when they’ve aged out?
  • What tasks did we do that we didn’t put on the board?
  • What tasks did we choose not to do that were important enough to create a sticky?
  • What tasks changed in their product between writing and finishing?
  • What do we learn?

Which leads to:

  • How does this change our ways of working or living?

As we become comfortable with these questions, we realize that life is about creating things, working together, and being proud of our work. As we see the tickets flow across we learn what is right – for us, for the person we’re delivering work to, for the people we are working with.

Jim BensonLearning to Climb: Metacognition is Freedom

Work Not Chosen

Jim BensonGeneralLeave a Comment

“What if there’s a task in my options column that just never moves?”

This question comes up in almost every class we teach.

And we ask, “What if that happens?”

We get answers like, “You have to make time for it” or “We need to find out why we didn’t start it.”

Maybe.  Maybe that was something really important and you just happened to do 200 other stickies.  But more likely there are a few other options.

  1. You don’t want to do it. You can then ask yourself, do I really need to do this?
  2. The task is poorly defined. You can then ask, what needs to be better defined? Do I have the understanding to flesh it out? Do I need help?  (Hint: most tasks are poorly defined and that’s okay.)
  3. It’s not really necessary. Does this task really need to be done?
  4. It’s better suited for someone else. Can I delegate this or move it to someone else’s options column?

  5. IT IS HUGE! Is this task so big that it would monopolize your time.

  6. The task has no victory conditions. With no definite end-state, a task is a time sync.

If in doubt, just ask the questions in the box.  Assess the risk.

The point of the options column is to give you the primary option of not doing or changing the nature of the tasks.  Our understanding of our work is emergent. You don’t start out knowing what your real finished product is. Be bold, change your options column often.

Jim BensonWork Not Chosen

What? You Say You Have Too Many Projects and Can’t Limit WIP?

Jim BensonGeneralLeave a Comment

Tonianne and I run the Personal Kanban, Modus Institute, Modus Cooperandi Corp-o-plex pretty much duo-handed. There’s a lot of work. The rules of Personal Kanban apply to us too. We are constantly experimenting with new ways to visualize our work and limit our Work-in-Process.

Right now, we have five proposals out, are discussing potential work with four other organizations, are supervising another translation of Personal Kanban, have a major client with seven concurrent internal projects, are putting out a new product (coming soon!), have two other clients that require touch, a new project of Toni’s, group classes for Modus Institute to track / schedule / lead, eight conferences to speak or teach at, and the usual biz dev / taxes / paperwork … oh and we’re redesigning web sites, making marketing collateral, and having interviews with the press or conversations with people.

So … how do you limit your WIP when it takes a paragraph to list just the types of work out – not even the tasks.

Well, the answer is simple … ish.

I’ll write about how we schedule out our weeks in a week or so, when I have more data about how our current shared board is working. But for this post, I just want to talk about this board.

This is my personal In-Flight board that is keeping track of all things Modus for me.

Blue column headings note client work, business operations, or speaking / open classes.

Green Big Bet stickies track my big bets (work I expect to take more than a month to complete or are the entire project).

Orange stickies are either the upcoming value delivery package or event (proposal, call, class video, etc).

Red stickies are highlights that the Big Bet needs action.

Purple are Today’s WIP.  (It’s Sunday, so I’m just getting two things out and writing this blog post).

The columns tomorrow will be joined by our week’s Big Bets – Toni and I select two or three things each week to “knock out.”  Last week it was to get a prototype design of our new product to the producer. Which, I’m happy to say we did.

We pick a few big bets each week that can live in the flow of the work you see here. That way we make sure that company goals and needs are both met.

Actual tasks are not tracked on this board.  They are on my pretty eternal “Immediate Personal Kanban” which has been up long enough for the title stickies to be faded and the “Options” column to actually say ready.  (Let this be a testimony to super sticky post its).

The two items in doing are the two items in the purple ticket.

Mea Culpa – While writing this I “remembered” three other things to put on the portfolio wall and two more things on this board.

So … the important thing to remember is that Personal Kanban is always an exercise to keeping track, keeping honest, and keeping control.  We lose track, we lie to ourselves, and we surely lose control all the time. Don’t lose heart, just know that this is part of being human and busy.

The Exercise:

  1. Take several colors of Super Stickies
  2. Decide colors for title, big bet, active work (what you need to do), status (what is in flight and you don’t need to act on right now), and current WIP.
  3. Start writing down all your responsibilities as projects / big bets
  4. Ask yourself as you go along, “Is this how I want to spend my time?”
  5. Note big bets, projects, or tasks that you answer “no” to.
  6. Begin to strategize how to make that work improve or go away.
  7. Systematically and calmly do the rest.

My goal at the end of any day is to get those red stickies to disappear.  In essence, turning the board into active tasks I’ve let fly.  In this way, I’m able to keep multiple responsibilities in flight while limiting my WIP.

Over time, I’ve asked myself that question a lot.  It’s led Toni and me to select customers carefully and extract ourselves from situations in which we were personally invested, but didn’t lead to a healthy company or healthy Toni and Jim.

So, be busy … but be busy right.

Jim BensonWhat? You Say You Have Too Many Projects and Can’t Limit WIP?

A Christmas Story of Care, Family, and Healing

Jim BensonGeneralLeave a Comment

The holidays are wonderful times, but also difficult ones.

I was interviewing Deb McGee, a client, colleague, and friend about how our time spent working with her team went. At the end, she turned the interview to the fully “personal” side of Personal Kanban. During a holiday season, Deb suffered a profound personal loss, but was determined to give her family a holiday season.  She could have done this through denial or burying her feelings. She chose, instead, to meet the holiday’s head-on and realistically decide what she could do and what was “too soon”.

I’ll let her tell her own story in the interview.  I hope you find it as inspiring as I do.

Happy Holidays, everyone.


Jim BensonA Christmas Story of Care, Family, and Healing

For Context, Clarity, & Continuous Improvement, Get Rid of That To-Do List

TonianneFeatured, General, PersonalKanban, Project Management, Projects1 Comment

Make list.

Become overwhelmed.

Cross off low-hanging fruit.

Feel good (momentarily).

Tackle next easiest task.


Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But why simply optimize for productivity, when you can shoot for effectiveness?

Those seemingly interminable, anxiety-inducing to-do lists – we’ve all been beholden to them. But if context, clarity, and continuous improvement are what you’re looking for, there just might be a better option.

For something with such a staggering amount of information, to-do lists fail miserably at providing the context necessary to effectively prioritize our work, understand and communicate our capacity, or surface issues so we can address them in real-time, preventing them from recurring.

Rather than create a static, task-focused, prescriptive inventory of your to-dos – inviting little more than an opportunity to react – visualizing your work on a flexible, flow-focused Personal Kanban transforms those to-dos into a narrative of your work that promotes cognitive ease and invites informed action. Tasks are situated in context, options and priorities become obvious, and emergent patterns (like recurring bottlenecks) give us the necessary feedback to invite discussion, collaboration, and/or improvement.

TonianneFor Context, Clarity, & Continuous Improvement, Get Rid of That To-Do List

Design: The Status Column

Jim BensonDesignPatterns, PersonalKanbanLeave a Comment

The Problem: Sometimes we are waiting to hear the status of something. That status could come at any time and from any type of communication (email, phone, mention in the hallway, etc.). But we are waiting. If we wait too long, not knowing will cause us problems – but waiting isn’t a task. We lose track of time and suddenly we are under the gun.

The Solution: Build the Personal Kanban to specifically track status items and let us know when they require action.

The Narrative: We’ve all been there. That day when someone says to us, “How’s that thing going?” and we realize “Oh crap! I don’t know!” Then we have to scramble to find out.

Someone else or some group of “someone elses” are responsible to getting something done, but it directly impacts us. We can’t call them every day and say, “Are you done yet?” because that’s micromanaging. But we do need to have an idea of where they are at.

At Modus, we’ve found specifically calling out items we are waiting for status on (things outside our group and therefore not on our Personal Kanban) allows us to treat them as potential tasks. If someone reports in on time, it simply moves to DONE and never required us to act. If it sits too long, then it becomes a task.


Jim BensonDesign: The Status Column

5 Ways to Focus and Finish

Jim BensonExpert, Neuroscience1 Comment

Focusing on our most important work (so that we can get it out the door and create value) is hard. It’s harder still when work suddenly picks up, is unfamiliar, or arrives with immediate deadlines when we are already busy.

The tyranny of the urgent often distracts us from what is truly important. We lose focus on the important and end up doing a lot of “busy-work”. By then end of the day we are frustrated. The real value wasn’t created, but the business was satisfied. We need to understand what “most important” means. It’s not always easy to just “know” what task out of the hundreds we have on our plate is the best to jump on right now.

When we visualize our work and limit our work in progress, we can see beyond the urgent and find what’s the best use of our time.

We can then sit down with our brains and have an honest chat. What do we need to do? What relies on others? What is stopping us from doing that one task that just sits there in our OPTIONS column and doesn’t move? Why do we promise we’ll get those things done today, but at the end of the day it is still just sitting there?

You’ll see that our latest newsletter is on this theme of finding focus in a world of noise. Focus isn’t a “light” topic, we all struggle with it every day. Below are five of our top ranked posts on focus. If you have a story about how Personal Kanban has helped you find focus, please leave it in the comments and let us (and the community) know!

1) The Overhead of Overwork

In our work, we take on more and more because the task seems small and we don’t understand our actual capacity. We take on more and more because we can’t see we are already overloaded. One day, we burn out, we break down, we snap. Read more.

2) HOW TO: How to Limit WIP #3–Reducing Interruptions

The fact is that interruptions are part of knowledge work. We seldom do it alone, which means we have colleagues. Colleagues require information. Information requires communication. Communication requires attention. Read more.

3) Finishing Feels Good

In order to complete, we need some help. We need something to ground us, something to focus us, and something to propel us. Once we have these elements, projects at work become easier, communication becomes smoother, and motivation is easily found. Read more.

4) Time to Completion

What if the game of work was to continuously improve the quality and rate of delivery of your work? The game becomes ways to discover how you can work most effectively, most innovatively. The game stops being how close to an arbitrary deadline can you complete something. Read more.

5) On Focus: Conquering the Shiny Squirrel

Task-switching begets more task-switching, not completion. This is often attributed to “the Zeigarnik Effect,” a phenomenon in which information and tasks left incomplete don’t leave our mind. Instead, we dwell on those incomplete tasks, and those intrusive thoughts render us vulnerable to distractions. The energy that consumes–the metabolism task-switching requires–drains our cognitive capacity, causing frustration, burnout, impeding focus and inviting error and rework, preventing us from realizing our optimal potential. Read more.

Focus Deep

What does it take to focus? When we teach or work with clients, the need to focus is always the base of any board or system we create. We are all distracted. We’ve directly addressed this in the Personal Kanban online class. Sign up today and join the hundreds of other PK students from around the world. And stay in touch.

Jim Benson5 Ways to Focus and Finish