Why Limit Work in Progress?

Jim BensonFeatured, Primers14 Comments

Too many things in the air at once can be dangerous.

Too many things in the air at once can be dangerous.

Posts about WIP.

You have two hands. You can only juggle so many things at a time. The more you add, the more likely it is that you will drop something.

When we promise work – we agree to juggle it.  When we start it – we start juggling.  Even if you stop working on it, you’re brain keeps juggling it.  You see, when you have an unfinished task, your brain starts thinking about how it will be completed, why you have to do it, when the deadline is, the person for whom you are doing it and all the emotional baggage that might go with any of those. Your brain doesn’t stop thinking about these things until they are “done”.  Even if you set it aside, it still creates existential overhead.

Forgetting work you’ve started is much like forgetting a flaming torch you are juggling. If it falls, it’s likely to catch more things on fire.

How do you handle this? Simple. Do less at a time, do things more efficiently, and end up doing more overall by doing less right now.

Do you need another metaphor?

Traffic at 100 percent capacity does not move

Traffic at 100 percent capacity does not move

We feel like if we have “free time” we have “capacity” and therefore can fit more work in. We are not unlike a freeway.

A freeway can operate from 0 to 100 percent capacity.  But when a freeway’s capacity gets over about 65%, it starts to slow down.  When it reaches 100% capacity – it stops.

So capacity is a horrible measure of throughput.  Multitasking is a horrible way to manage your synapses.  If your brain is a highway and you are filling yourself with work, after a time you start to slow down.

Your rush hour gets longer and longer. You find yourself struggling to get out simple tasks.

Simply because you think you can handle more work-in-progress does not make it so.  Simply because we can fit a few more SUVs on the freeway does not mean it’s a good idea. So-called “idle” time is vital for a healthy brain – and it is a misnomer. Time when you aren’t forcing your brain to pump something out is when it’s doing background processing on things you “aren’t” doing.

See all the posts about WIP.

Juggler Photo: cc. Matthieu

Traffic Photo: cc Lynac

Jim BensonWhy Limit Work in Progress?

Combating Existential Overhead

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JimBenson_03 Aug. 23 19.38

Overload is Overhead

Existential Overhead – the cost in distraction and stress of uncompleted tasks.

A few years back I started shopping around the concept of existential overhead. The concept is fairly straightforward.  There simply is no such thing as out of sight, out of mind. When you have a workload, you are always thinking about the individual elements of that workload. In the back of your mind, you know what you haven’t done.

When your backlog is an amorphous bunch of tasks, all things are psychically equal. Cleaning the cat box and saving for retirement and getting married all have the same weight. The lack of definition is like waiting for news from someone and they don’t call, people start to fill in the blanks with their fears.

Your brain not only thinks about this undifferentiated backlog, it hates it. It wants it to go away. Hate is heavy and negative.

What’s the best way around this? Understanding.


Microsoft’s Bing ads are selling Bing as a filter for “search overload”.  We have so much information flying at us, search engines need to get better and better at filtering the information so we get what we need. We get the information of value.

Kanban is similar, kanban is a visual filter for the work we have taken on. Kanban helps tame our workload and thus make it cognitively manageable.  When we have more understanding of the work we need to do, its impact on our time, and where value lies – our existential overhead diminishes.  We have less negative or fear-based thoughts of work and replace that with positive and understanding-based thoughts.

Kanban is a metacognitive tool. Your tasks themselves are pieces of understanding about actions you need to take. The kanban takes those bits of uncoordinated understanding and puts them in a framework of systemic understanding.  To the human brain, this is the best chocolate soufflé in history.  Your brain eats this stuff up.

A few posts back I talked about how kanban helped your train your brain. This is the training. Kanban’s visual nature gives work a logical flow and a set of evolving, flexible and powerful rules under which to operate.  As your understanding of your work evolves, your kanban grows with it.  As you understand more, you filter better.

As you filter better, your overhead diminishes.  Overhead is where most waste lies.  So if your existential overhead diminishes the time you spend consciously or subconsciously thinking about your undone work dissipates – freeing your brain to think, to do, to learn, or to simply take a break.

Jim BensonCombating Existential Overhead

Building Your First Personal Kanban

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The basic kanban: Waiting, Working, Done

The basic kanban: Waiting, Working, Done

A quick trip through personal kanban design patterns demonstrates how they can be created using any number of materials. This tutorial illustrates how to build the most common personal kanban.

Step One: Establish Your Value Stream

Value Stream (vly strm): The flow of work from the moment you start to when it is finished. The most simple value stream possible is Backlog (work waiting to be done), Doing (work being done), and Done (yes, that’s right, work that’s done).  While you can set this up on a white board or even a piece of paper, a white board is preferable. Why? Because as you grow to better understand your value stream, you will want to change your kanban. You will add steps, or refine how you think about work. A white board provides permanence, yet allows ultimate flexibility: you can always erase and draw something new.

Step Two: Establish Your Backlog

Backlog (bklg, -lôg): The work you haven’t done yet. All that stuff you need to do that you haven’t done – that’s your backlog.  Everything you need to do, start writing it down onto Post-its. Big tasks, small tasks, get them all down. Write them onto post-its and start populating your backlog. Don’t sweep things under the rug. Don’t lie to yourself. Your first backlog-fest should be a painful experience. You should, at some point say, “god, there’s way too much of this.”

Step Three: Establish Your WIP Limit

WIP (hwp, wp): Work in Progress Limit – The amount of work you can handle at one time.  We have a tendency to leave many things half-done. Our brains hate this. Part of what makes kanban work is finding the sweet spot, where we are doing the optimal amount of work at the optimal speed. Set an arbitrary number in the beginning, let’s say no more than 5 things.  Add this number to your Doing column.








"Pull" tasks from one kanban stage to the next

“Pull” tasks from one kanban stage to the next

Step Four: Begin to Pull

Pull (pl): To take completed work from one stage of the value stream and pull it into the next. You’re ready to go! That’s right – step four is Begin Working.

Beyond Step Four: Prioritize, Refine, and Reduce

Past step four, it’s all about prioritization of work, refinement of the value stream, and reduction of waste.

Jim BensonBuilding Your First Personal Kanban

What is a Kanban?

Jim BensonPrimers19 Comments

A kanban is a tool to visualize, organize, and complete work. The first official use of kanban can be traced to Taiichi Ohno’s work at Toyota. He needed a way to quickly communicate to all workers how much work was being done, in what state it was, and how the work was being done. His goal was to make work processes transparent – meaning he wanted everyone, not just managers to know what was “really” going on.  The goal was to empower line workers to improve how Toyota worked. Everyone had a hand in making Toyota better.

Work moves across a kanban

Work moves across a kanban

In the image to the right we see two work flows with work flowing through them.  The top part of the board shows three states: Backlog, Doing, and Done.  Tasks move across this simple workflow.

In a subtle way, this is doing three main things:

  1. Showing us the work we have in progress
  2. Showing us all the work we haven’t gotten to yet
  3. Showing us how efficiently we work

That’s it! That’s all there is to a kanban physically.

For personal kanban, we take the simplicity of this system and use it to help us understand how we do what we do and how long it takes to do it. Simply having clarity around our workload is a tremendous psychological gift.

Jim BensonWhat is a Kanban?

The Five Somethings of Waste.

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Waste should be discarded.

Waste should be discarded.

What is waste?

For personal kanban, the Five Somethings of Waste are:

  1. Something that reduces your performance
  2. Something someone else could do much more efficiently
  3. Something that takes more time than its worth
  4. Something that isn’t your strength
  5. Something you don’t like or want to do

What can you do about it?

  • Identify it
  • Understand it
  • Re-orient yourself to it
  • Outsource it
  • Delegate it
  • Automate it
  • Eliminate it

Well, that’s easy.  Except there needs to be a “how” part.

Identify It – Notice the Five Somethings as they occur.

Understand It – Watch for patterns in tasks that satisfy any of the “Five Somethings.”

Re-Orient Yourself To It – How do you and that piece of work relate to each other? Is it truly necessary? Do you have to do it? Can it be modified to not be waste?  What’s causing the waste? Can you do any of the following to it?

Outsource It – Contractors are everywhere. Use them.

Delegate It – Inside your team, find someone else who is better-suited.

Automate It – Spend some time making sure that a machine does it right, and never do it again.

Eliminate It – Find a way to never need to have that work done in the first place.

Your time is sacred, you only have a finite amount of it.  I am willing to pay bookkeepers to do even the smallest amount of work simply because I find bookkeeping a fate worse than death.  Other people pay me to do things they aren’t good at.  We all have our strengths and things that fulfill us. Let your personal kanban help you uncover the good, and get rid of the waste.

Photo by: Simen Svale Skogsr

Jim BensonThe Five Somethings of Waste.

Orange Days – Batching Unattractive Tasks

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Orange Means Administration

Orange Means Administration

I am famous (perhaps too famous) for hating administrative work. I’ll let it pile up like nobody’s business. So in my personal kanban on Agile Zen, I colored my administrative tasks bright orange. That way if I dynamically deprioritized them because I hated them, I would be confronted daily with them piling up in my backlog.

Being able to visualize them, showed me the weight of their existential overhead until finally I had to give up and just do a bunch of them en masse.

Use a little creativity to call out certain kinds of tasks that may require special attention – either they need to be grouped or you just need a little extra reminder about their importance.

Jim BensonOrange Days – Batching Unattractive Tasks

Mission Based Kanban – Personal Kanban for Small Teams

Jim BensonDesignPatterns2 Comments

Mission Based Kanban for Small Teams

Some days you get together with a colleague and you need to run through a project quickly.  The project is of short duration, and requires the creation of a set of “things.” Pictured here is a Mission Kanban I created in about 3 minutes on the 19th of July when my collaborator and I needed to quickly populate the web site for my book with fairly uniform content.

The green list down the side represents specific blog posts that needed to be written.  In blue and red across the top are the actions that needed to happen for each post.  The blue tasks were mine, the red tasks were hers.

As we worked through each task, we would draw a box to show the one we were currently working on. A line through the box meant the task was completed and could be “pulled” into the next item in the value stream.  (The value stream here is Draft -> Edit -> Accept -> Publish).  Due to the directed nature of this project and the uniformity of tasks, we had a WIP of one. Each of us worked on one task until it was done, and then we’d move on to the next.

In a very simple pattern, this method establishes a value stream, limits WIP, assigns tasks, and provides a visual control for the project.

Jim BensonMission Based Kanban – Personal Kanban for Small Teams

Kanban is Workipedia

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Taiichi Ohno, Kanban Pioneer

Taiichi Ohno, Kanban Pioneer

A wiki is a website anyone can edit.

A kanban is a workflow anyone can edit.

A wiki entry is always able to be improved upon.

A kanban card is always able to be refined.

In wikis, there is a constant reification of ideas.

In kanban, there is a constant reification of work.

In wikis, incorrect information is identified by the group and excised.

In kanban, waste is identified by the group and excised.

A wiki stores and displays information to make group effort available to all.

A kanban stores and displays information to make group effort available to all.

A wiki stores and displays information to make personal contribution explicit.

A kanban stores and displays information to make personal contribution explicit.

Jimmy Wales

A wiki draws on the natural human drive to complete a task.

A kanban draws on the natural human drive to complete a task.

A wiki is self healing through social editing.

A kanban is self healing through social management.

A wiki is a fundamentally simple concept with massive social repercussions.

A kanban is a fundamentally simple concept with massive social repercussions.

Kanban is Workipedia.

Jim BensonKanban is Workipedia

Personal Kanban for Authors

Jim BensonDesignPatterns2 Comments


Writing is a Process

I can say with confidence that I am intimately familiar with the complexities of writing a full-length book. Having a life while working on a manuscript is a challenge, ask any author. So much of your self goes into those pages and, as an author, you tend to obsess over every chapter, section, paragraph, and word. There’s a tremendous amount of energy expended on a labor of love such as this.

Many authors I’ve spoken with have shared that during the writing process, there have been times where they’ve actually hated their book. One explanation for this is that a book is literally millions of individual tasks that are undifferentiated.  As I’ve said before, undifferentiated tasks cause stress. For authors, stress detracts from the creative process. I would hazard to guess that thousands of amazing books were never published because they crumbled under their existential overhead.

While writing Instant Karma, Tonianne and I have truly benefitted from having a kanban. The first one (pictured below) was on a white board in my office in Seattle. Note that our workflow is clearly defined on the kanban and what we are moving across are chapters. Each chapter of the book goes through the same overall process.


Final Kanban for Instant Karma

The items in the work flow are the way Tonianne and I work, not necessarily the way you should work. You can develop your own system. The key is to figure out what that system is, and make it explicit, then to figure out the best logical breakdown of work to visualize and move it through your system.

For us, the best way to visualize value was in the chapters. We have the the following steps:

  1. Pre-Writing – Jim writes initial text for a chapter. Jim writes very fast.  He has three chapters going at any given time.  Why?  Because he writes so fast that he would overwhelm Tonianne because she is very detail oriented and focused. So we have step two.
  2. Scrutiny – Tonianne takes one chapter at a time and runs it through the ringer. Editing and re-editing sections. Research and re-researching vignettes Jim has added to the book. Making sure that Jim’s sources are accurate and the best ones possible. And giving Jim directed re-writing assignments as finely grained as a “pick a new word here” or “re-write this sentence.”
  3. Internal Review – The chapter is then sent to another editor who gives it a once over.  The scrutiny phase is intense and both Tonianne and I get to close to the material. The initial review generally doesn’t take the reviewer all that long, but returns some incredibly high value feedback.
  4. Crowdsource Prep – Jim and Tonianne take the reviewed chapter and address any comments, accept or reject changes from the internal review and release it to crowdsouring.
  5. Crowdsourcing – All of the chapters go to a very large group of commenters who provide yet another round of feedback. Assuming the feedback doesn’t kill the chapter, we then go into final production.
  6. Through 10. A final edit of the chapter makes it ready for inclusion into the book, when the book is assembled it goes to pre-press. If everything looks nice, it’s ready to sell.

As always, your kanban should evolve over the course of your writing project.  To prove the point, here’s the initial kanban for Instant Karma:


First Kanban for The Book Instant Karma

A major point of doing a kanban is seeing how you conceptualize your workflow and reconciling that with what actually happens in real life.  There’s almost always a disconnect between what we think is happening and what is actually happening. So first we see our workflow better.  Then, once we understand it, we can articulate what is actually happening.

Then, we can make things happen even better.

For smaller writing projects, such as what might happen within a specific chapter, see Mission Based Kanban.

Jim BensonPersonal Kanban for Authors

Kidzban – Personal Kanban for Kids and Why it Works

Jim BensonApplications, DesignPatterns, Featured, Primers1 Comment

Games Have Actions and Symbols of Completion

Games Have Actions and Symbols of Completion

The developing brain hungers for knowledge and understanding. The world is filled with bewildering systems that include contexts, value judgments, responsibilities, and outcomes. Systems are fascinating to kids and their developing brains.

Building blocks, board games, and video games are systems that often require a lot of work to master. All of them have outcomes that are cumulative, lots of little achievements that ultimately lead to the big gain. They are systematic; the achievements logically combine to affect a goal.  As you work through a systematic game, gathering your achievements, you find there is a flow.

Games that have a flow are fun.

Games – even video games – are also generally tactile. There are specific body movements to make, controllers to hold, buttons to press.  This kinesthetic feedback reinforces the conceptual exercise of goal attainment. The kanban has this same kinesthetic feedback. You move a tag to “done,” you feel the achievement.

Games Have a Flow

Games Have a Flow

Games are also rewards based.  If you do something in a game and get nothing from it in return, you tend not to do it again or, wind up hating that part of the game simply because it is wasting your time.  While tangible rewards are up to parents, the marker that you’ve reached a point of achievement is highly desirable for children. If they move five tasks to “done” and will get allowance / TV time / a rocket sled in return, they will do whatever it takes to move those tickets to “done.”  Remember, moving tasks 1,2,3 and 4 have a tangible kinesthetic reward because you can actually see your progress.

It therefore came as little surprise to me when I started getting reports that people were using kanban with children.

Patty Jennings Beidleman is using it for her daughter’s confirmation coursework:



David Anderson has told me how at his daughter’s school they use a kanban to decide who can use what play equipment at what time.  There are finite resources and each kid has a card.  They can use a card to show which piece of equipment they will use. This limits the WIP of each of the individual toys, and ensures those kids who are playing get the best experience possible.

Others have set up kanbans for tracking chores. I set up “fridgeban” below as an example of how you might do this with … um … traditional infrastructure. Chores start on the front of the fridge and are moved to the side when complete. Rock simple, very effective.


_Media Card_BlackBerry_pictures_IMG00610

Kanban works with a kid’s brain. Cause and effect of chores and rewards is clearly laid out. Imagine never having to ask again “did you do your chores?” You may still have to quality check the work, but you won’t have to nag them to action.  The kanban will do the nagging for you. And, oddly enough, it’s fun!


Jim BensonKidzban – Personal Kanban for Kids and Why it Works