Mapping Your Work with Personal Kanban

Jim BensonPrimers6 Comments

For more on how this works, see the various posts in Personal Kanban 101.

To-do lists are something that we’ve turned to time and again to manage our work and we’ve always been disappointed. They become daunting, lengthy, undifferentiated lists of things we have to do. It is hard to get perspective from a list.

I’m often asked for the difference between to-do lists and Personal Kanban, and why Personal Kanban differs from to do lists. We cover this in depth in the book, but we can do a short form here.

Personal Kanban is not a to do list

Maps Show A Lot of Information, Lists Tell A Little Information

Think of it this way:

Here is downtown Seattle. Right away you can tell where the freeways are, the surface streets, the water, and so forth. With maybe a little studying you can quickly find one way streets, ferry lines, and piers.

Rewriting your to do list is a waste of time

Everyone Wants You To Re-Write Your List ... WHY?

Now, let’s think of this like a to-do list:

  • Yesler Way
  • James Street
  • Cherry Street
  • Columbia Street
  • Marion Street
  • Madison Street….

See? I could list everything in downtown Seattle (which would take me quite a while) and in the end you’d have no idea how anything related to anything else.

You’d have a list with no context.

This is why people who counsel others on to-do lists tell them to rewrite the list daily. To-do lists quickly become stale and irrelevant.

If we visualize the work, like we visualize a map, that re-writing is unnecessary.

With a Personal Kanban we want to build a map of our work. We want to visualize the trade-offs, the options, the completion rate, even the relative joy in a particular task. We want to be able to see these dimensions to our work – not merely a list of it.

Personal Kanban is a Map of Your Work

Personal Kanban is a Map of Your Work

Here we see the basic Personal Kanban. While a normal to-do list is only two dimensions (work by length), the Personal Kanban map is multidimensional.


Dimension 1 – Topography (the layout of our work)

The Value Stream – This is the steps you take to create your work. That can be any steps you really take. This simple example includes four steps: Ready, Doing, The Pen and Done.

Ready – This is a graphical representation of the to-do list.

Doing – What work is currently in-flight. In a to-do list there are only two states. Not completed and complete. This column clearly shows the completing of your work.

The Pen – What work is currently blocked as we wait for others? This work is important to clearly see because it is both something that you cannot act on and yet still something you must keep track of.

Done – Work that has really been completed. We don’t draw a line through it. We don’t kill it. We keep it, look at it, remember it.

This topography shows us the landscape over which our work travels. We see where we are, where we are going, and where we’ve been. We even see some pitfalls along the way.

Dimension 2 – Movement (how we do our work)

Movement happens when something in one location ends up in another location. When we see movement, we can see how things actually live. In the Personal Kanban, we are seeing Pull, Constraints, Flow, Bottlenecks.

Pull – We “pull” work in a Personal Kanban when we have capacity to actually complete it. This is as opposed to work being “pushed” on us by others and overloading us. When rivers have water pushed into them – that creates a flood with sometimes horrific results. When we have capacity, we can do work thoughtfully and get that work done.

Constraints – We limit our work-in-progress to a few things at a time. Note the (3) in the Doing column. We can only have three things in-flight at a time. This constraint is our capacity. When we finish something we can now “pull” a new task. This creates Flow.

Flow – As work is pulled and completed, we build a rhythm in our work called cadence. The flow of our work can have three effects.

  1. Flow shows us how long it really takes us to complete our work.
  2. Flow shows us cadence, letting us set a pattern to our work.
  3. Flow actually feels good … when you get in the zone while working, that both calms our fears and excites our creativity.

Bottlenecks – When things don’t flow, they get stuck. (makes sense…) Whether they are stuck in the Pen or in your Doing column, they are visible and impede completion. Since you can see it, you can do something about it.

Dimension 3 – Depth (what are we really doing?)

Dimension 3 lets us know what our work really means. What options are we selecting? Where is our work coming from? Who are we collaborating with? What do we enjoy?

The Work Itself – We see the tickets, each representing a task or other item of value.

The type of work – different colored stickies can represent different types of work. Projects, urgency, clients, or areas of our lives (home, work, personal growth).

The age of the ticket – some people place dots on tickets for each day they are in doing to keep track of how long they were stuck there

Cycle time – some people record date / time started and date / time completed to get an idea of how long tasks actually take to complete.

Options – When we pull, we are now moving a task into Doing – which is a limited space. We want to choose carefully what task we start next. This now means that we are carefully exercising an option to do work. The board shows us the options we’ve completed, the options we have, and the options we are doing. This helps us choose better options as we learn more about how we work.


There are many more elements to the map of our work, but this gives us a taste of how the to-do list’s single dimension view of life is reversed by Personal Kanban.  For more on how this works, see the various posts in Personal Kanban 101.

For more on how Lean works, see Lean Muppets.

Jim BensonMapping Your Work with Personal Kanban

6 Comments on “Mapping Your Work with Personal Kanban”

  1. Sean

    Nice post – appreciate the idea. I like the concept but foresee a LOT of barriers to implementation, particularly the requirement for stability (chained to a desk with a whiteboard) or a separate app on yr desktop / phone that would operate the system. MAybe Im being too narrow minded but without a how I think that to-do lists broken by context (ala Getting Things Done) in an app like Wunderlist or Remember The Milk will still have the upper hand. Love how you’ve embedded the Lean concepts into a personal workflow tho – v neat. Thx for sharing, Sean

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  3. Helen Crozier

    Thank you so much for this succinct article. I read the book early this morning and am so excited to have the opportunity for a visual list. A problem I encounter and am guilty of is putting stuff in a to do system and then not going to look at it because I don’t like what’s in there. With all these pretty post it notes that I can move I hope to see less of that behaviour 🙂
    ps the iphone app seemed to disappear or is it just not available in Australia? I think it will be too small probably and would prefer the small post-its in a notebook. Just wondering….

  4. dannooo

    What happens to a task that you move into “doing” but then don’t get done? Say you work on the task, then time’s up.

    Is the point to keep it there, and keep going back to it till it’s done? Or can it go back into the waiting list for another day?

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