Adaptable to all situations and accessible to all learning styles, Personal Kanban is a system that allows you to improve your productivity by visualizing the amount of work you have and by optimizing the way that work is carried out. The rules of Personal Kanban are quite simple: (1) Visualize your work (2) Limit your work-in-progress. That’s it! But this deceptively simple mindset leads to profound productivity enhancements. The actual process of Personal Kanban starts with getting a physical or digital board (a whiteboard is usually best) and separating it into different sections of Backlog, Work-in-Progress, and Complete. Then, you fill in the Backlog with all of your goals and tasks (usually written on Post-it notes). As you decide on what to work on for any given day, pull those items over into Work-in-Progress. Finally, when items are finished, pull them over into the Complete section.
The strengths of Personal Kanban start with its near infinite adaptability. Unlike other personal productivity tools, Personal Kanban offers useful patterns, rather than forced edicts. For example, the Kanban sections can be divided into whatever patterns best suits your personal style of work:
- Backlog, Work in Progress, Complete
- Plan, Do, Check, Adjust
- Upcoming, Ready, Doing, Done
- Near, Here, Now, Past
- Future Items, Current Items, Finished Items
Additionally, each of these main categories can be further divided into smaller pieces, such as putting a “Work”, “Home” and “Play” subsections. The idea of nesting can be pushed to the extreme by having smaller kanban charts within a higher-level kanban chart, allowing for multiple levels of granularity. Used at a business, this could manifest itself as kanban charts that go from companywide > business unit > department > group > individual work. The scalability of the system adjusts effortlessly to your personal needs and situations.
Another major strength of the system is its ability to improve clarity and predictability through visualization techniques. According to the Kanban method, tasks should shift into items that are discrete, unambiguous and ideally of a similar size to reduce variance. Furthermore, tasks should be organized by placing higher priority items higher up on the board. Over time, when laying out all of your tasks on the Kanban board, you can easily get sense of how much effort is necessary for any given task, and what other tasks are pushing up against it. By visualizing your work, you lift the mental burden of attempting to hold that information in your mind, allowing you to focus on the task at hand.
Finally, kanban is all about focus, and if used well can seriously reduce the chance context switching, the biggest killer of productivity. Personal Kanban accomplishes this by explicitly addressing waste, through techniques such as “WIP Limiting” and “Stop the Line.” Derived from lean manufacturing principles, kanban strives to “minimize inventory” by constantly going back to clean up the Backlog and Work-in-Progress tasks. One might wrongly believe that listing more tasks equals more productivity because if more work is spelled out, more work will magically get done. However, in reality, setting limitations is the true key to increasing throughput and reaching a state of flow.
Like all productivity systems, Personal Kanban isn’t without its flaws. To start, Personal Kanban isn’t very useful out of the box because there aren’t enough details or constraints within the system. Some tweaking and customization is almost always needed to get it to match your needs. For example, kanban allows you to simply put general goals into your Backlog, but the items going in should really be translated to specific action steps.
Moreover, the system doesn’t address what you should or should not put into your backlog. In other words, it’s very possible to fill up the backlog with trivial activities, leading to a situation where you simply become more efficient at procrastinating. As Peter Drucker once noted, “there is nothing quite as useless as doing with great efficiency, that which should not be done at all.”
Lastly, the process of constantly cleaning out the board can lead to issues if the task is still on your mind. In concordance with GTD theory, one must put down everything in their head to reach a clear head and reduce stress. Therefore, although it is generally a good idea to maintain a clean Backlog, this process could break down if the removal tasks is not done in the proper manner.
Personal Kanban shows itself to be a truly powerful productivity system because of its robust adaptability. However, this simple philosophy is a double-edged sword because by only offering general guidelines, the system pressures the user to fill in the blanks to make it work for their needs. And if this structure isn’t built out correctly, the entire system could easily backfire. In the end though, I believe the benefits far outweigh the costs, making Personal Kanban the best productivity system I’ve encountered so far.