Friday, June 22, 2012

Kan I Kanban?

A couple days ago I was doing some research into some issues related to my use of GTD when I stumbled upon a thread on the ToodleDo forums about a technique they were calling "personal kanban". Like the original poster in that thread, I'm pretty happy with the GTD system for keeping things organized.  If anything, I really need to spend some time practicing to increase my use of the system (I tend not to use it for smaller To Do's).  I generally maintain about 150+/- tasks in the system which runs off of ToodleDo and I access using my phone or tablet via the Ultimate To Do app.

The problem is that far too many of the To Do's in the system have been languishing there for a while.  Some are meant to - those in the Someday/Maybe category.  But lots of Action tasks seem to just live on indefinitely.  So, I try to keep myself on the lookout for tools that will help with the "DO" part - not just organizing to get things done, actually getting things done.  For instance, I will now get a Pomodoro timer going if I need to really focus on something for a while.  And I sort of incorporated some concepts from the Do It Tomorrow methodology. Still, it seems like there is something missing between the GTD lists and actually working on something.

That is where the personal kanban may play a role.  From what I gather, the concept of a kanban comes from the Lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, Agile development world.  So anyone with a background in those areas is probably thinking, "yeah, kanban, been there, done that, what else is new?"  The kanban technique is a method for visualizing a process and the tasks that make up the process and then following them through the process.  Three main concepts or benefits are to be derived from the tool:
1. You can visualize the tasks that need to be done (and I assume in looking at a process, see how they should flow);

2. You limit the amount of work in progress to avoid distraction and being overextended;

3. You can measure progress.

I'm not trying to use it for actual processes (e.g. how a software developer might use it) - instead, the "process" is on a larger scale.  The process of DOing things (those things being the tasks on my GTD lists) is the focus of my personal kanban.

To use kanban, one sets up a "board" with several columns.  Tasks are then "stuck" on the board and as they are processed, they are moved from one column to the next.  In good Western fashion, I've setup my board to flow from left to right.  I have it setup with five columns - This Week, Do Today, Doing, Waiting For, and Done.  My plan is to use the columns for:

This Week - the primary entry spot for tasks moving from the GTD list over to the kanban.  When I do my weekly GTD review, I'll move the tasks for the upcoming week to this column.

Do Today - as I'm ready to process something on a particular day I'll move it to this column.  Thus far, I'm also using this as a point of entry for tasks that come up - new stuff that needs to be addressed since the weekly review was completed.

Doing - as I start to actually work on something, I'll move the task to this column.  Right now I have this limited to only three tasks at any given time.  As mentioned earlier, one of the attributes of the kanban method is recognizing that one can only work on so many things at once before the diversity becomes a distraction.  In my research, this was one of the distinctions between kanban and a scrum - a scrum method does not limit the DOing part (or, in a manufacturing or development setting, this might be Work In Progress).

Waiting For - if I start processing something and then need to get an answer or info from someone, I'll move the task to this column to just wait.  Once I get the info I need, I can move it back into Doing to finish (when a spot is open).

Done - Not hard to figure this one out.

In setting this up, I found the Personal Kanban site to be useful in getting up to speed with some of these concepts.

With the basics floating in my head, it was time to find a tool to manage a personal kanban.  Going back to the ToodleDo thread cited earlier, some users commented on some of the tools they found useful.  I tried the Pomodoro Daisuki app mentioned, but didn't like the lack of ability to add comments to tasks and the Pomodoro timer didn't have any options to handle interruptions (yeah, they happen).

Some other tools I found included ListThings, Kanbanery (looked to be focused on Apple products), and Kanbanize.  Pretty much everything was either web based or i-something focused.  I finally did find KanbanFlow, which had a Chrome app available.  That is what I settled on using for now.  I can setup the columns I want, drag and drop between columns, the tasks can have some information attached to them - both descriptions and comments - along with color coding and assignment of responsibility (if I want to try a group effort).  One thing I liked as well was the ability to add subtasks.  And as I discovered via Twitter, the KanbanFlow folks are working on a (sort of) mobile version.  It is really a browser based version of the app modified for mobile devices - not really an actual app.  Still, in my very preliminary testing I found it to be pretty useful and capable of mimicking most of the full desktop browser features (inexplicably, access to comments was not available).  The screenshot below shows KanbanFlow running in Chrome on the desktop.

What would be really nice would be a tool similar to ToodleDo where you have the main app operating via the desktop (as KanbanFlow does now using the Chrome extension although I can open it in any browser) and then a mobile version of the app that I could run on my Android based phone (or even better, a tablet optimized version for my Galaxy Tab).  Or have an api available so others could develop clients that connect to the backend data.  Ideally, this would allow for use of the mobile client even when off-line and it would sync whenever it re-established contact. And probably a really far out wish list item would be the ability to either push or pull tasks from ToodleDo over to the KanbanFlow system.  This would minimize the duplication of data entry during weekly reviews or when I need to move a task to the system mid-week.

So that is where I am with the personal kanban.  I've been using it for a few days and it seems to be effective in helping me cycle through tasks.  In fact, I decided to take a crack at setting up a board for my team at work to track progress - and help keep things moving - of the many projects we have on our schedule of activities.  I decided for the team that I would go more low tech and create a physical board.  I am using the large white board in my office to set up the columns (with a little corner devoted to items where we are waiting on other departments).  I picked up some large Post-It notes and wrote up one task per note and put it in the appropriate column.

You may notice that for the group kanban, I created two swim lanes (horizontal rows).  One is for tasks related to our ActiveStrategy initiatives in our balanced scorecard.  The other is for tasks related to other initiatives and priorities.  And if you look at where items are flowing (the bottom swim lane) you can quickly see why our balanced scorecard is not working real well.  Perhaps with the added understanding of this (thanks to the ability to visualize tasks - one of the benefits of kanban), I'll be able to get those tasks in the top swim lane moving forward again.


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