Editor’s note: One of our agile coaches and Scrum trainers, Dave Prior, has been keeping a log of his experience using Kanban to manage his own work. You can follow his adventures every other week on our blog.
When this experiment started one of my goals for the first time box/iteration was just to see if I could actually give up my Things task list and follow the practice with a board. I had tried a number of other productivity frameworks and found that only pieces of them stuck. (Someday someone will write on a book on how to finish David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” book and I’ll actually get all the way through it.) And while I know that limiting work in progress is a cornerstone of this type of approach, and I did set WIP limits, I decided to be a little loose with the limits since I was just guessing at what they should be.
Because my larger plan is to test out different approaches to Personal Kanban, I wanted to start as simply as I could manage. I created a task board and began to fill it with post-its. The first lesson I learned was that I had far too much in my to do list to fit on my Kanban board. I decided to limit it to the things that seemed to be the most important at the time.
The Architect of My Own Demise
The most basic way to set up my board would have been to create three columns: On Deck, Doing and Done. I know this. However, when I sat down to work on it, I began struggling with how I would be able to visually understand the different types of things I had to do. My plan was to use this not just for work, but for my whole life. So, I made a decision to start with multiple swim-lanes. This is a choice I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with. It seems to violate (my current understanding of) one of the basic premises under which this system is designed to work. But… (I bargain with myself) baby steps. I decided that this would be an OK thing to try while I am working on coming up with a better solution.
I started off by dividing my Backlog up into 5 swim-lanes, each feeding into its own On Deck and Doing columns (instead of having just one of each). I was able to limit myself to one column for Done though. The reason for this is that there were/are so many things I felt compelled to work on that I was afraid if I put them all in one box, without some kind of designation, I’d lose sight of something critical. (Yes, I realize this is a broken way to look at it.) There was also a part of me that was curious about how I would work through the prioritized items once they hit the On Deck boxes. The swim-lanes I set up were:
- Work-ish: Obviously for things somewhat related to work
- Reading (later changed to Reading and Research): self explanatory
- SA/IT2: for work/volunteering I do for the Scrum Alliance and IT2
- Personal Daily: These are things I do every day that I track
- Personal: Personal projects and tasks I need to take care of
So here is my basic organizational system:
Even with the swim lanes I was still concerned about understanding the tasks on the board. Not so much from a priority standpoint, because I can handle that pretty easily with the On Deck backlogs. The desire for clarity is more about having a visual way to quickly understand that a given task is related to (work, personal, reading, etc.) This should have been easily handled by the swim-lanes, but there were sub groups I felt I needed to identify even within the lanes. So, I began with a variety of different sized and colored post-its, each one loosely designated to belong to some kind of additional detail on a task.
Challenge of Value
One of my challenges was (and continues to be) defining value. I believe the multi-colored, multi-sized post-its are part of trying to define that. There are tasks that obviously provide direct value to customers, like “send Client X a demo license.” There are items which provide indirect value to my ability to do my job: “Read the new book by Diana Larsen book, Liftoff: Launching Agile Teams and Projects.” There is work I do volunteering for organizations which provides value for others: “Review submissions for Scrum Gathering.” But there are other things I do that appear to be valuable only from the perspective of their impact on my body, brain or mood. How to capture this value in relationship to other items in the list continues to be a struggle and is one of the reasons for the multiple swim-lanes in my board. (How for example do I quantify and prioritize based on value if what I am comparing is the value of sending a client a demo license, compared to the mental health boost I get from meditating each day, or maybe just sitting back to read a comic book for fun.
It would be easy to argue that the non-work items do not provide value to a client and do not need to go on the board. But that seems to me to be a pretty thin definition of value. My goal was to try to put everything on the board. The problem was, it didn’t all fit. One of the most important things I learned that week was that if I don’t put it on the board, it isn’t going to happen. So, I needed a kind of backlog nursery, where I could dump ideas and then periodically replenish the backlog on the board from that nursery.
Personal Kanban, Week One, In Retrospect
I decided to hold a little personal retrospective at the end of each week to evaluate how things are going. The first week was really difficult for me, not because following the process was hard – that was actually pretty easy. The hard part was that Nigel Tufnel stopped by to crank the volume on my obsessive tendencies up to 11. Here are the important (and painful) things I learned about myself during week one.
- While some of the PK books will tell you to plan to do the unpleasant work first and then work your way towards the stuff you want to do, I found that if I don’t force myself to do the things I want to do, that I cram every possible minute full of the not-fun work and never get around to the enjoyable, recharge-oriented items on my list. (Remember, this is my vacation too.) I actually had to block out time to stop being productive and just sit around and read a book or play my guitar for fun.
- I was so focused on getting the items across my board as efficiently and quickly as possible that I actually spent a few nights tossing and turning in a restless series of dreams about the board, the tasks, and how to move them. (The last time I had dreams like this was during my brief, but disturbing addiction to playing Doom and Quake. Unfortunately, this time I didn’t get to wake up and grab the BFG to kill off some monsters.)
- In my crowning moment of idiocy that week, I climbed off the treadmill halfway through a long workout because I realized I had not moved the card into the doing column. I was unable to continue the workout until I had the car in the right column. (Yes, I have issues.)
- Throughout the week I found I was still using Things. As eager as I was to embrace the new system, I was still afraid to let go of the method I had developed in order to keep things from slipping through the cracks.
At the end of the first week, I know I have a long way to go. I’m nowhere near ready to deal with WIP, the waste I am creating, or finding a better way of doing this. But, it’s a start. And, by the end of the week I was able to start talking myself down off the ledge of obsessing about moving the cards….
But, they say admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.
Here is a snapshot of my board as I got ready to start on the 2nd week.