The Task Based Personal Kanban Approach in Detail

Jim BensonDesignPatterns1 Comment

Imagine you have a number of tasks that need completing, and you need to visualize the state of each task. Let’s say that each of these tasks is going to involve several days of information exchange with others. Now let’s suppose that each of these tasks needs to be completed by a certain date, and if you did them in serially with a WIP limit you would spend most of your time waiting for responses. You simply don’t have time to fully “complete” each goal and tracking individual subtasks like “bug Bob to send paperwork AGAIN” is a waste of your time.

In a traditional kanban, you’d have a problem. Tasks started but not completed would be “blocked,” and you’d need to solve that blockage before you could move the card. Until you moved that task, it was considered WIP.

But here we have tasks whose very nature require us to wait for others to acheive completion. These tasks are messy.

The task-based personal kanban approach changes the tasks into swim lanes, and allows for a large number of simultaneous tasks.  Your actions should still fall into a WIP limit, but the tasks themselves are unbounded.

Task Based Personal Kanban Approach

I’ll retell the story from the original post:

In the beginning of June, I was suddenly faced with a large number of items that had to be done in a very short period of time. All of them involved interactions with others. So I built I task-based kanban where each swim lane was a specific task and the adjudication of the tasks was “Assembling,” “Assembled,” “Processing,” “Completed,” and “Notes.”  I knew that my WIP was toast; there was simply no way I could limit WIP when the tasks were so dependent on others.  I need to be able to launch things quickly and then let them resolve naturally.

Context required me to rethink the nature of WIP.  WIP needed to be my personal action state, not the completion of the whole task.

Each project had objects that needed to be assembled. I allowed myself to have a WIP of three for assembling.  So at any given point in time, I’d have three tasks with stars next to them. I would then gather all the background materials I needed for those things.  When I had all the background information, they would be “assembled”.  As items were assembled, I would start the process to complete the task (calling people, emailing them, etc.) – that put a check in the “processing” column.  I would take notes and place text reminders in the “notes” column until the matter was settled.  Then it would get a “Completed” and I could ceremoniously draw a big line through the whole task.

This helped me visualize the full project on a task basis without feeling guilty that I had more than a certain number of tasks active at any given point.  The task based approach helped me track and complete about 35 simultaneous responsibilities during a very stressful time.

Jim BensonThe Task Based Personal Kanban Approach in Detail

GTD & Kanban: Series Overview

Jim BensonApplications, DesignPatterns, Expert, Featured12 Comments

For a long time I have been a Getting Things Done (GTD) advocate in both my personal and professional life, starting from the basics and working my way up to a full blown implementation in various paper and electronic forms over the years.  GTD has been a huge help, yet I have always felt there is something missing in my implementation that helps me better manage prioritisation and focus around work, which led me to explore the use of Kanban as a form of GTD list.  Over a series of posts I intend to explore a number of aspects of GTD and how I have applied Kanban to limit my work in progress, adopt a pull based system, and overall, increase the flow of completed actions in my key areas of focus in life and work:

  1. GTD & Kanban: Similarities, Differences & Synergies Between The Two
  2. GTD & Kanban: Managing The Relationship Between Someday/Maybe & Active Projects
  3. GTD & Kanban: Work In Progress Limiting GTD Next Actions Within A Context
  4. GTD & Kanban: Inboxes, Lists, Calendars, Kanbans & Mind Maps Working Together In Harmony
  5. GTD & Kanban: An Example Of It All Coming Together
Getting Things Done Workflow

Getting Things Done Workflow

I am getting value from the changes I have made to how I work, yet still experimenting to improve.  Any suggestions or questions, please do comment or email in the interest of moving all of our understanding forward.

Jim BensonGTD & Kanban: Series Overview

On Time Sheets: Personal Kanban and Life’s Little Annoyances

Jim BensonApplications, Featured, Primers2 Comments

Some Managers Have to Resort to public humiliation to get time sheets

Some managers have to resort to public humiliation to get employees to submit their time sheets.

“Where is your time sheet?”

I’ll get it to you.”

“But it was due two hours ago.’”

Look, I’m really busy, okay, and I just don’t have time to figure out all that I did the past week.”

“Do you want to get paid?”

Of course I do. Look  – I’ll get it to you … I just have to finish some things.”

Perhaps the single most annoying task for most workers is filling in their time sheet. Having worked for some of the largest consulting firms on earth, I have seen truly monstrous time tracking systems.  Painful, horrible, soul crushing, and pointless.

No one likes time sheets.

A recurring time sheet question goes something like this:

“Hey Jim, what did we do on Wednesday?  I’ve totally forgotten.”

Think about that. We blow through tasks so quickly that all too often what we’ve accomplished becomes a blur. We lose entire days, weeks, months of our lives to “work” we don’t even remember doing. I would call days you can’t remember waste.

How easy it would be to use a personal kanban and write the date of completion on each task when it’s done.  Place it in the “Timesheet” column.  At the end of the week, pick those tasks off the board, and record them.

Using a personal kanban for tracking those tasks:

  • increases the accuracy of your time sheet,
  • reduces the amount of time you spend completing the timesheet, and
  • leaves you with a sense of accomplishment for actually having completed those tasks.

This transforms the time sheet into an opportunity for a quick retrospective. With the key word being quick.

Also consider: some tasks (like time sheets) seem like personal waste when they have no context. Sometimes you can mitigate waste by changing the context of the activity.

Photo cc. Charlee Brown

Jim BensonOn Time Sheets: Personal Kanban and Life’s Little Annoyances

The Time Capsule Personal Kanban in Detail

Jim BensonDesignPatternsLeave a Comment

Individual work is a real PITA. Over time, we invariably amass a lot of small tasks that are necessary but not urgent.  We end up with a number of things that aren’t high priorities but, the longer we put them off the more they will eventually eat up a lot of our time.  Such tasks are waste-in-waiting. They are the five minute nuisances you never got to, that in the end will cost you 10 minutes to apologize for not doing.

The Time Capsule approach is to approach the kanban, notice that there are a multitude of little tasks, pull them all off the board, go to your desk, and start doing them until they’re done or your day is over.  And if you have 8 hours of small tasks, well, that’s a learning event for you.

image whiteboards 051

Move them across the desk through 3 stations. Backlog, In Process, and Done.


This is now a speed tasking exercise. Don’t spend a lot of time prioritizing, you already know your backlog.  Prioritize on-the-fly. You will most likely game the system by doing some or all of the following:

Sweat the small stuff: Very small tasks can be done very quickly.  Doing 20, five minute tasks quickly fills up the “done” column with a satisfying number of post-its.

Launch all missiles: Tasks that require a quick email are easy to get into the “active” column. Today, completion is the goal. Having many active tasks is okay, so long as you know it’s moving toward completion. Remember: You are the only judge of the effectiveness of the time capsule.

Play for Pay: You want to move those tickets to the done side of your desk. Screw convention, screw the Agilistas, screw the WIP monsters – you are only interested in those tickets moving to the right.

Focus after Fast: Tasks that require a bit of your time and focus should be done after the fast things and after the missiles are launched.  While those emails are out-reaping rewards, you can work on the more delicate tasks.

Remember this is a strategy for coping with clutter in your backlog. The mess will happen from time to time because personal tasks are unruly. If you find yourself de-cluttering more than once a month, then it’s likely you have too many commitments, or aren’t prioritizing well.

Jim BensonThe Time Capsule Personal Kanban in Detail

One Kid’z Kanban Board

Jim BensonApplications, Featured, Primers12 Comments

Sometimes I tell my 6-year old daughter to clean her room. Then she argues, maybe runs to the next room, or she starts to clean up but gets bored, overwhelmed or distracted. Pretty soon she is playing or reading a book. The nagging starts again. This cycle is not fun for either of us.

There are plenty of “chore charts” on the market. They list full projects like “Clean Room” and give you a place to mark when the project is done. While they provide visual tracking, they otherwise do not ease the process. I use kanban at work for software development so I thought I would give it a try at home. Kanban can be used to break down big projects into manageable chunks — sub-tasks within the project. It requires that you finish one chunk before moving to the next.  Kanban has made “problem chores” easier and fun.

How it works
-White board or chalk board. Our phases are:
Ready – Total backlog of tasks. No limit.
Set – Tasks selected to do next. Limit 3.
Go – Tasks now in progress. Limit 1.
Done – Finished!
-Sticky notes.   We use one large sticky note for the Project and smaller stickies for Tasks within the Project. Can be shown as words or pictures.

Morgan first moves 3 tasks from “Ready” into the “Set” queue. She then pulls one of these into “Go” when she starts it. When the task is complete, she moves it to “Done,” replenishes the “Set” queue and pulls the next task into “Go.” When all tasks are done, move the large Project sticky note to Done.  That’s it!

kidzban chore board

kid with kidzban chore board

Keys to Success
1) The child should have some control. Maybe the parent can specify priorities but let the child pull tasks independently.
2) Involve the kid in the process. They can help come up with the tasks, create the board and the sticky notes.
3) Visible limits. Draw “slots” to show task limits.
4) Tasks should not be too easy or too hard. Set the child up for success.  Each task should be fairly quick. Manageable tasks and a clear completion goal mean the project is not so overwhelming.

-My daughter loves to race the clock. Use a timer to time each task and/or the whole project.
-For multiple kids, use colored flags or write initials on the board to show who is tackling which task. Joining forces is allowed! Up the limits as needed.
-Multiple projects (Bedtime Routine; Going to Grandma’s; etc) can be handled by adding horizontal lanes.
-If “quality control” is an issue, add a Gold Star lane for stories accepted by mom or dad. Or, put a sticker on the tasks in the Done lane to show this acceptance.

Does it always work?  No.  Sometimes she is tired of the kanban game and just wants to draw on the board. Still, between the traditional system of nagging and the new system of kanban, she typically prefers kanban.

Note: See also the Kidzban section of this web site.

Jim BensonOne Kid’z Kanban Board

The Throughput Approach to Personal Kanban in Detail

Jim BensonDesignPatternsLeave a Comment

In the previous posts we looked at the Time Capsule workaround to having a backlog cluttered with small tasks of varying importance.  This throughput approach might help mitigate the need to use that approach.

Kanban tends to have swim lanes – or lanes through which value flows. In your personal kanban, it is possible to have a WIP that takes into account varying sizes of tasks?

Let’s say you set a WIP of 5 items: two of these can be large tasks, while three are small.


In the throughput approach, the small items are placed daily, and addressed first. The larger items can be handled throughout the day, and will remain on the board as long as it takes to remove them.

The goal here is to make sure that at least a minimum amount of small tasks are done regularly, to help avoid the pain of a marathon Time Capsule day.

When I’ve done this, I’ve tried to take into account that there will be “flares” – tasks that arise and are completed during the course of a day that don’t make it onto the board. Say your lawyer calls and asks you to track down an email and send it to her. That takes you maybe 15 minutes, but it never makes it onto the board.

This is why I don’t move completed tasks off a throughput board until the end of the day.  If you keep moving them and placing new tasks up there, you really haven’t limited your WIP.  You aren’t maximizing for throughput in the number of cards you are moving with the throughput approach, as much as you are maximizing your productivity.

With this approach, you will get a number of small tasks done but also devote time to the larger tasks and, hopefully, have the bandwidth to deal with flares.

Jim BensonThe Throughput Approach to Personal Kanban in Detail

The Sequestering Approach and Personal Kanban

Jim BensonDesignPatterns1 Comment

Personal tasks are often repetitive or open-ended. Daily phone calls with your kids, an on-going email thread with your college roommate, or follow-up with potential clients are tasks that need to be carried out, but that don’t fit neatly into a kanban. If you have a CMS and need to check in with 3 customers on a daily basis, putting a card on your kanban every day that says “check in with 3 customers” is foolish. Repetitive tasks like this – while they may create value – can also be seen as overhead.

What you can do with these types of tasks is sequester them in a “repeating tasks” category.  On the white board you can list these in a sequestered box, simply checking them off when complete. Then, erase the checkbox when they need to be done again.

JimBenson_02 Jul. 17 23.53

Why bother having the sequestered elements on your board at all?  Because the kanban helps visualize your overhead, which your brain will use as input when you are prioritizing and scheduling. Like it or not, the recurring elements are part of your personal work and they do provide value. One of the main goals of kanban is to kill off out-of-sight-out-of-mind management. It behooves you to visualize as much as you can on your personal kanban.

Jim BensonThe Sequestering Approach and Personal Kanban

The Subproject Approach to Personal Kanban in Detail

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The Subproject Approach

Problematic for personal kanban is that its task-based nature undermines lean’s value-tracking goals. Kanban, not even personal kanban, is not a to-do list.  Personal kanban tracks tasks because that’s primarily how individuals measure work and value.

Your personal kanban can have multiple swim lanes, and they in no way need to be coordinate.  A task based swim lane can rest above one or more subproject swim lanes with a full value stream.

This allows you to see your current work simultaneously in both a task view and a project view.

The more you can move large projects into work-flow based subprojects, the more control you will have over them, and the more insight you will have into their flow.

You have some choices with the subproject approach when its combined with the personal kanban.

Roll Up: The subproject approach can be a roll-up task, tracking the progress of the large project while individual tasks still move through your personal kanban. This lets you see how quickly value moves through your subproject when you are working on other things. Here the roll-up task is the purple ticket that refers to the subproject.


Active Engagement: The subproject is actively used as part of your WIP. If the nature of your work is that you are paying even small amounts of attention to the subproject each day, making tags in your subproject part of your overall WIP may be more honest. This conceptually integrates all your subprojects into your daily routine.  This integration could lead to more meaningful introspection.

In this photo, there are 5 tasks in the WIP.  Three are in the top part of the kanban under “doing”, the other two active for me personally would be under “pre-writing” in the project area.


Jim BensonThe Subproject Approach to Personal Kanban in Detail

Making Waste Explicit

Jim BensonApplications, Expert, FeaturedLeave a Comment

Reducing waste can save more than time.

Reducing waste can save more than time.

Noticing waste serves no purpose. Understanding it does. Whether we seek to manage waste or attempt to eliminate it entirely, we need to know how much of it exists and what form it takes – what’s its volume, its shape, its weight.  So we monitor it. We watch it. We learn from how it grows, how it spreads, and what its impacts are.

On an idyllic spring day on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, in the crisp fresh air I stood rapt as people heated rice over an open fire. With huge mallets they furiously pounded the grains in a mortar, turning the hot steaming mass into a glutinous paste that is life’s most perfect confection – what the Japanese call “mochi.” With apparently heat-resistant hands, they grabbed and worked the steaming paste, transforming it into the fluffiest mochi balls imaginable.

This scenario took place at the 2008 Mochi Festival at IslandWood. IslandWood is an educational facility situated in the heart of a forest in the middle of an island in Puget Sound.  In their carbon-neutral environment, IslandWood’s stunning 255 acre campus embodies an ideal. In this setting, students of all ages can spend a few days or even an entire university term studying sustainability and culture.

Making Mochi Naturally in Ecotopia

Making Mochi Naturally in Ecotopia.

Me? I was there simply for the mochi.

While waiting in line, however, I passed IslandWood’s own low-tech waste monitoring system.

It’s name is “Wade.”

Wade measures IslandWood’s food waste. Diners place their meal remains into one of three buckets for weighing: Non-compostable food (like meat), compostable vegetable, and liquid waste. Wade’s goal is simple: leave diners cognizant of the amount of food waste they create, even if it is going to be composted.

The added benefit of Wade is the visual control of waste. At all times, the amount of waste from previous meals is visible. This keeps diners mindful of the goal and conscious that their actions impact it.

This message translates well for setting up a personal kanban. Whether it is for one person, a family, or an entire group at work, keep in mind that once a type of waste is identified, over time it will continue to need managing and we will continue to need reminding.

Wade Measures Food Waste

Food Waste Monitoring at IslandWood

Making Waste Explicit

Making Waste Explicit

Jim BensonMaking Waste Explicit

Recognizing Waste – Pattern Recognition and Outliers

Jim BensonPrimersLeave a Comment

The patterns of the game govern.

The patterns of the game govern.

  • Kanban’s primary weapon: visualization
  • Kanban’s primary tool: limiting WIP
  • Kanban’s primary goal: reducing waste

By visualizing our workload, we limit work-in-progress and focus our resources.  We reduce waste by having a more efficient and effective work experience through understanding and prioritizing our work better, and selecting tasks better.

Personal kanban is like the ancient Chinese board game Go. Often caveated with, “a few minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master,”  Go Masters will tell you they are constantly uncovering strategies and finding new ways of interpreting the patterns on the board. Similarly, while it is simple to track your work and limit what you’re doing at any given point-in-time in personal kanban, the implications of tasks and workflow run deep.

One of those implications is waste reduction via pattern recognition, or outlier identification.

Pattern recognition: What tasks or types of tasks repeatedly create waste?

Outlier identification: That weird task took a long time to perform and produced little value. Why?

The human brain is wired for both of these tasks, and the kanban highlights them. Outlier identification is a one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other exercise. Outliers are tasks that you either can’t seem to get off your board, or ones you become upset by when you move them into “doing” or “done.” My choice of the word “upset” is purposeful here. Your work should not upset you, and your visceral response to a task is a valid indicator of whether or not that task is waste. We’ll revisit this issue in an upcoming post.

Pattern recognition is a little trickier, and should not be confused with “pattern matching.” Pattern matching is the act of noticing objects or events that conform to a rigidly defined pattern. Leaves turning brown in autumn is a normal and predictable pattern.  If trees begin to lose their leaves in June, you recognize that something is askew simply because the pattern matching is wrong.

You can then walk amongst the trees and start a process of pattern recognition. You are looking for a pattern that wasn’t there before or that exists in relation to the healthy trees.  Upon first glance, you don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. The trees have been there for years; there’s no sign of infestation, what could it be?

Then you notice that tree with brown foliage in a corner of the yard, and then other brown-leaved trees, more-or-less in succession.  You recognize the first pattern.  You aren’t an arborist, you don’t know what it might be but still you recognized a pattern that will help you articulate the problem.

Personal work is always going to give us epiphanies. It’s going to take a while to notice the patterns and even more time to then understand what to do with them.  Outliers can be identified and dealt with, patterns often need to be adapted to.
When we run our work history through some rudimentary filters, we begin to discern patterns such as what actions or what tasks lead us to the greatest success? Sure we may notice patterns and not fully grasp what they mean, but if we are cognizant of those patterns over time, at some point we may see correlations and eventually be able to identify true causalities.

Later on in this series we’ll discuss actual measurement tools that can illuminate where waste resides. Tomorrow, we’ll address waste discovery and mitigation.

Jim BensonRecognizing Waste – Pattern Recognition and Outliers