Managing Sandy’s Aftermath: Emergency Response Personal Kanban

Jim BensonDesignPatterns, Expert2 Comments

Hurricanes do not respect WIP limits.

Despite our best efforts, there are simply some instances where we cannot limit our work-in-progress. Forces beyond our control seem to conspire to control us. Natural disasters are unfortunately well-suited for this – they have little or no respect for our carefully controlled WIP.

When we’re smack in the middle of an emergency like Hurricane Sandy, it seems all we can do is react to immediate needs: which windows to avoid crashing tree limbs, what doors to insulate against rising and rushing water, where to seek shelter should evacuation become imminent. Once the storm passes, we’re left to contend with a heretofore unimaginable trail of destruction – to our homes, to our businesses, to our mental well-being.

It is at the most emotional of moments that we find ourselves forced to make vital decisions. What do I do first? Where do I begin? Will I ever get out from beneath this overwhelming physical and psychological debris?

In the Personal Kanban book, we discuss a design pattern which doesn’t quite resemble a “typical” Personal Kanban. In the aftermath of an emergency, the “Emergency Response Approach” helps us:

  • Visualize all the work needed to respond to the situation at hand;
  • Understand the complexity of the situation;
  • Track the states of completion for most important and intricate tasks;
  • Compile notes during the completion of those tasks;
  • Keep a written record of how we dealt with the emergency;
  • Dynamically re-prioritize tasks based on shifts in need or context; and
  • Understand our options.

As you can see here, we created this matrix-style kanban with the goal of seeing all our work and ensuring that when we are finished we’ve lost no information in the process. We chose to go extremely low-tech – just flipchart paper and pen – not only because an online kanban would require electricity, but also because with a sticky note-based Personal Kanban the stickies could easily become detached, causing vital information to become lost.

In an emergency situation, this kanban becomes your war room.

Your “value stream” – the steps it takes to complete a task – might look something like this:

Task → Begun → Assembling → Assembled → Active → Complete → Notes

Begun: If it’s been started (you’ve begun to work on the task).
Assembling: If it’s being assembled (you’re gathering paperwork or other requirements).
If it’s been assembled (requirements are complete).
If it’s being processed (by you, or you’re waiting for someone else to act).
If it’s complete.

Use the Notes column for points of contact, policy numbers, additional resources etc.

One of the major elements of this design pattern is its tolerance for beginning some tasks while allowing others to remain incomplete. Why would we advocate not limiting WIP when that is one of Personal Kanban’s fundamental rules?

During an emergency, opportunities to begin tasks are actually valuable.

Ordinarily, we want to limit our work-in-progress and complete each task before a new one begins. In this case, there are way too many complicated tasks to undertake, too many coordination points, and too many things to do.

This is multitasking by necessity, but it’s controlled multitasking. With a to-do list, we’d have an accounting of the tasks, but we wouldn’t understand their state or be able to limit our WIP. The Emergency Response Approach includes includes a few helpful features that are designed to overcome the limitations of a to-do list.

It works like this:

  1. In the Task column, write down everything you need to do. For the moment, don’t worry what size the tasks are. Just get them out of your head and onto your kanban.
  2. Look at your Taskcolumn and begin working on the highest priority task.
    1. Note that you’ve started by writing a check mark in the Assembling column.
    2. Assemble all the items you need to actually complete the task (insurance numbers, phone numbers, pictures of damage, etc)
    3. When you are done mark with a check mark that you’ve Assembled everything and can begin working on the task in earnest. This task is now Active.
  3. Once a task is Active, take notes directly on the kanban in the Notes field (it’s okay to spill out). Our goal here is after everything is done, your emergency kanban is a one-stop-shop for what happened, when it happened, and how it happened.
  4. When the task is Complete, mark it and move on.

It’s important to note:

  • You’ll have many tasks in-flight at once;
  • You’ll be interrupted by other tasks constantly;
  • You’ll never finish them in priority order;
  • There will be many more tasks than you initially expected;
  • You’ll need to remember details later that don’t necessarily matter to you right now;
  • You are doing heroic things right now. This tool is here to help you keep track of what happened; and
  • There are things you will miss, and that’s okay.

Your goal right now is to get your life back to normal. We hope this tool helps you through this difficult time and invite you to feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Image from Hurricane Sandy courtesy of Casual Capture  whom we hope is okay.


Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS
Jim BensonManaging Sandy’s Aftermath: Emergency Response Personal Kanban

2 Comments on “Managing Sandy’s Aftermath: Emergency Response Personal Kanban”

  1. Benny

    I remember you talking about events in life like this (though not as drastic) at Agile2012. This is an extreme circumstance, but serves as a meaningful example.

  2. Fisher

    To me, this is a perfect example of why PK maps so well to cynefin. Amid chaos, there are a near infinite number of required actions – some of which will deliver value some of which won’t. In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, the context will vacillate between chaos and massive complexity where individuals have some sense of agency and control. PK helps to provide a structure that can help people stabilize their environment by visualize all of their potential actions – thus giving them more and more control over which ones they ought to perform now and which ones can wait.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *