Building Your First Personal Kanban

Jim BensonPrimers28 Comments

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

28 Comments on “Building Your First Personal Kanban”

  1. Rebekah Robson

    my husband has been trying to talk me into this forever! thanks for laying it out in a simple, understandable way. he’s putting up our white board right now 🙂

    1. ChrisB

      My understanding is that it isn’t important to manage a certain number of tasks as WIP – this isn’t a system set up by your Teacher or Boss, with certain targets, expectations or SLAs you have to be able to manage. Instead I think that the amount of WIP is “optimised” for today when you feel you’re working efficiently. You learn to notice when you have too many things on the go at once (or not enough), and deal with that situation. The number of things which is too much/too little right now isn’t important. That’s how it seems to me, anyway.

      1. Jim Benson

        That could be true. For most people, however, we recommend that there is a hard number there. You can use your judgement at any time, of course, but if there is no number or target then there is no control at all.

        When that happens, you’re back where you started. You can’t communicate your burden or workload to others.

        So, the number is flexible – you can change it – but it should be explicit at any given point-in-time.

        1. ChrisB

          Thanks for the reply Jim! Maybe it’s relevant that I’m self-employed, and unlikely to show my kanban board to my clients. So I don’t have to worry that anyone is going to make a faulty decision about how busy I am from counting the kanban there are on my board (e.g. “you’ve only got x tasks on – surely you can also do this”. ).

          Jim, are you advising that people set themselves a target (“I like to have x kanban in my ‘doing’ column”) and tune that target with experience?

          I totally see the point of not allowing too much WIP. But I don’t think I’ve understood what the problem might be in having too few kanban in the WIP section, provided they are enough to keep one occupied…

          For example, most of yesterday I had 1 kanban (about managing a software deployment we were doing) as WIP. That kanban represented my personal involvement in the task. There was also a flow of other kanban in and out of the “pen” – (e.g. “get Fred to test subscription module” is WIP for me while I’m asking him, then in the Pen until he gets back to me with the result). I think I had 6 kanban in my “pen” at one point. A kanban for scrum meeting was in my WIP briefly, and so on. So I was busy, and my boar was really helping me not to forget to check in on Fred if he took too long to test the subs, and lots of sub-tasks like that. But time-lapse film of my board would have shown mostly 1 kanban there, with blurs as other kanban passed through transiently. I suppose I could have broken down my “manage the deployment” kanban into smaller tasks (e.g. I’ve decided that I like 3 kanban in WIP and am sizing the tasks to Make That So), but that didn’t seem terrifically useful. Does that sound about right, or am I missing a point here?

          Thanks again

          1. Jim Benson


            Yes, I’d say this sounds right … but you’ve thought a lot about this and have a good enough grasp on your work to describe it.

            For most people (especially ones building their first Personal Kanban), the first acts are centered around discovery.

            What is my work?
            Who is it for?
            What interrupts me?
            Does this really take this long?
            Why am I tired and upset?

            So, most people (and I still use one) a hard number is useful to see when work starts to get out of hand and to be a flag when you should be saying “Whoa, I need to pay attention to WIP”.

            The number also sets a firm restriction which compels people to finish. Without it, most people will rationalize extra work and, insodoing, totally disregard limiting their WIP.


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  4. Stuart

    How do you deal with work you have started and then passed to someone else and are waiting for their input before you finish the task?

  5. Daniel McGee

    Thanks to my school what a great way to get my schooling and my life on a better track might just keep me from being confused

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  7. N.West

    Very interesting stuff. Curious how to handle tasks that must be accomplished every day, and every week / month. With those sorts of things in the mix I’d have way over 5. Do you just move them around and around in a circle each day– even if they are 15 minute tasks? Thanks for this– looking forward to experimenting with the ideas…

  8. Tim Wason

    I take the recurring tasks and consider them “habits”, then use a cute little iPhone (probably other devices as well) app, and put them in Habit Factor, then you have a record if you did the habits each day. This takes all the stuff that’s recurring out of the swim lanes and you are looking at occasional things, not everyday occurrences. I’m not an expert, but that sort of Brian Tracy approach seems logical to me.

    I go a bit further and have Tracy’s Eat That Frog app too, dorkey, but it only allows you to do ONE major task at a time, and when you get it done, the cartoon frog croaks in congratulations, and you move on to the next in your WIP. Any help I can get… It works, which is all I care about.

    Another useful little tool– iPhone app again– Procrastination Buster, also called 10plus2x5, which times you on 10 minutes work at a time, then 2 minute break, then back to work, do it 5 times (x12) and you have an hour done! Just start one 10 minute thing and then you are rolling! There’s sound effects at the beginning and end of the periods too which are fun. I am going to start it right now! (This little note was actually that 2 minute break, you know… ). Back to Work!

  9. Cocreatr

    Was looking for ways to visualize ongoing projects for our small business development project team. Realized that I need to socialize the approach first. Personal kanban is just the right step worth exploring.

  10. Richard Coleman

    Can’t believe I only now discovered this technique. I immediately set my board up, said ‘oh man there’s a lot to do’ and stated.
    I already feel better. As visual person, this is perfect. This then fits in with my routine development. Thanks Jim.

  11. John Dickinson

    so – do you actually do this with a white board and sticky notes? or is there an APP online that would help ( so that you could access it from more than the one place where your white board is)

    1. Jim Benson

      All of the above. Right now to my right is a physical board on a wall with post its.

      But there are over 30 online apps at the moment. Tons and tons of them.

    2. Andre Liem

      Probably the most relevant online app you would want to use is Trello.
      Been using it since it came out and as a personal kanban manager for everything in my life, it works well and be collaborative with others if you want. It was originally built by & for software developers so there are a lot of features you probably don’t want, but it’s pretty simple out of the box.

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  13. S Jordan

    This has been a great read!

    I’ve come back to Kanban time and time again over the years; one of those people who “So want it to work for me”. 🙁

    I love the simplifying promise of its effect on my life. The quest for a single source of truth!

    Hoping to get some answers to how others have done it. How they’ve tackled what for me are the biggest hurdles:

    1) Reconciling the trivial and epic on the same board
    2) Lack of a reminder component (ala most ToDo apps)
    3) Understanding of critical path and estimates

    I learn better by example, so …

    For instance, an epic task might be “launch a new widget”. A trivial task might be “pay car insurance by end of the month”.

    In the spirit of “Seiri” (of the 5S’s), the idea is to put everything in one place. To quote the blog “If you have used (or still use) different ways of keeping track of your tasks, get rid of them.” (

    Putting every task that falls out of building a new widget right alongside paying a bill, picking up milk, planning a vacation, etc. could seem overwhelming and more practically, would they even fit on a single whiteboard?

    The second thing I struggle with is a concern for lack of reminder. A beauty of many ToDo apps or calendaring apps is “set and forget”. I need to pay a bill on the 31st? No problem; put it on the calendar and receive a reminder on the 30th. No need to reorder the task list popping items off the stack until such time as the “payment task” surfaces at the top. How is this handled in practice?

    Finally, the ideas of critical path, dependencies and estimates could be debated to death, but broadly speaking, any time you have to report on “when” and “what is it going to take” is what I mean.

    I use the term “report” very loosely; report simply could be telling your spouse how long it’s going to take to replant the back garden with her favorite flowers (and how much it’s going to cost); or report could be as complex as telling the CMO when she should green-light marketing spend so as to correspond with anticipated launch of a new international launch of Widget XYZ.

    Thank you in advance

    1. Chris Baker

      Hi S Jordan. Here’s what I do to deal with the points you raise.

      My kanban board deals with what I am doing now, or will be doing in the near future (a week or two perhaps). It’s not a long-range planning tool for me. And it’s not a reminder system for appointments. I use other systems for those. I think that’s the key point.

      I don’t put kanban on the board for things further out than a week or two, it just clutters the board with stuff that I’m not going to get to yet. I’m influenced here by the ‘Agile’ school of thought in software development. The idea is that longer-term plans are needed, but probably might just as well stay in larger chunks. There isn’t necessarily the information yet to break them down to a fine scale of detail, and time spent planning *in detail* what is going to happen a while off can just be wasted if there is a change of plan. Agile teams tend to operate in ‘sprints’ – periods of work of perhaps a week or two. They often plan those for a kanban board and leave longer term plans elsewhere. There’s a regular team meeting to close out one sprint and start the next one. That work includes reviewing the longer-term plan against the current situation, and then creating all the new kanbans needed for the next sprint. A system like that works for me (except I have the ‘meeting’ with myself!).

      My kanban board isn’t anything much to do with ‘reporting’ except as a way of seeing how I’m getting on with my work for the current short period. If I need to estimate how long some big sequence of tasks will take, I use other tools.
      Maybe it would be worth you researching Agile methodology a bit, and seeing what seems relevant?

      If a task I ave kanbanized has a deadline, I write the deadline on the kanban. If I’ve estimated how much work I need to do on the task, I write that estimate on the kanban. That helps me see what I’ve got to start next. I also keep a diary. My diary and not my kanban board is my reminder system. I might make kanban about something that is also a diary appointment, but I don’t have a rigorous rule about doing so. I just do what feels useful to me!

      If I have several different projects on the go, I have used different coloured kanban for each. Working with software teams, we’ve also had boards that are divided into ‘swim lanes’ (for example , vertical columns indicate steps such as to-do, doing, done; and the board is also divided into rows to keep different kinds of kanban separate). But personal boards are the workload of just one person. So think why your board is so loaded up that it needs such things! A key concept is limiting the work in progress. You can’t realistically do more than a few things at once without becoming inefficient, so having too many kanban on the board just becomes clutter. It might be better to reload the board periodically.

      On one occasion, I had to do something that was a long sequence of steps, all of which I knew about in detail because I’d done this before. I decided to write out many kanban right away. I put them in a stack, from first task to do to the last, and pinned the stack to the ‘To-do’ part of my board. Then I could just take the top kanban off the stack each time I was able to start the next task, and progressively strip the pile down. That worked too. The reason I don’t often do that is back to the Agile thing – if I don’t know what all the tasks are at the outset, trying to plan *in detail* is likely to be a waste of effort.(I’m *not* saying that long term planning is pointless – quite the opposite- just that I don’t find a kanban board helpful for it).

      Hope that helps. Other people might answer differently. The thing is to experiment and find a system that works for you (or at least that’s what I think).

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  18. David Hulsey

    So…post it notes / tasks accumulate in the ‘done’ column. As silly as the question may sound…what happens to them then? Is the ‘done’ column cleared periodically, after reflection?

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