Kanban, or The Art Of Accepting Idleness

Sketch23281727Triggered by my day job, I visited a Kanban conference last Friday in Cologne. One afternoon, two lectures, a little more then twenty participants … I wouldn’t call that necessarily a conference. But nevertheless the host, the Limited WIP Society Cologne, decided to name it that way. Besides this little overstatement, and acknowledging the low price, it was worth the time and the travel.

I habitually don’t blog about the things, that make up the main part of my professional life. Developing software is usually only a small part of it. I think I’m hesitant because I’m too far into it. I lost the view from the outside and consequently fear I’m unable to explain the matter to outsiders in a meaningful way. But I decided to make an exception, this time. If it doesn’t make any sense, please let me know and I will be much more reluctant the next time.

I read this post by Sofagirl on Campari & Sofa prior to the conference. During the first lecture I remembered the post and felt that the topics are strongly related. Before further elaborating on this relationship, I strongly encourage you, to read her post. Then come back for a short introduction to Kanban. Thereafter I will try to explain why Kanban can be part of a systematic cure of the problems Sofagirl, so wonderfully and at the same time alarming, described.

So, what is Kanban? The first lecture was meant as an introduction to Kanban and started with a little bit of history. I will try to recap: Kanban, originated in Japan, means visual signal and basically was (and still is) the name for a token, that represents a slot in a system, from a fixed amount of available slots in that system. The lecturer, Matthias Bohlen, referred to the Imperial Palaces’ gardens in Tokio as an example to bring the concept across.

It’s free to visit the gardens, but you have to draw a chip (the Kanban) while entering. When you leave, you have to return it. There is a limited number of chips available in total, so when there are no chips left, no one is allowed to enter the gardens. The intention is to keep the gardens from being crowded and damaged. The core idea: every resource (the gardens) has a fixed number of items (the visitors) it can healthily handle, don’t ever allow more items.

Very insightful people at Toyota (Taiichi Ohno) took the concept to engineering. With the rising fame of Toyotas production system outside of the engineering world, other insightful people (David Anderson) adopted the concept to software development.

But how does it work there? You basically define columns to hold work items. Those columns represent the steps in your development process. You place them from left to right and limit the amount of work items that is allowed in each: three things in Design, four things in Development, four things in Testing and so on. Taken together, this forms the Kanban board.

The actual column names and their limits are team specific and have to be tried out. The clou, and at the same time the hardest thing to explain to managers, is: if someone has nothing left to do and the limit of parallel work of the column is reached, he is not allowed to take new work from the left, the former step in the value stream. Because he would violate the limits. HE STAYS IDLE. Occasional idleness is regarded as a very good thing. He might as well help, if that is possible, his colleagues down the value stream.

Besides advertising Kanban as a method for organizing the work in software development projects in our company, we decided to use Kanban to organize the whole work of our department (the project management office). This includes much more things then software development.

But how could all this actually help in Sofagirl’s (and many other’s) case. Apply Kanban on a personal level?  … Er … Actually, why not? Well, how might that look like? Obviously yourself is the resource. What columns might be useful? Queue, Next, Doing, Proof, Finished? Might work for me. What would be proper limits? Queue and Finished are unlimited by definition. Work in Next can be started as soon as their is space in Doing. Three things for Next, maybe a few more. I would start with three.

You should be working on exactly one thing at any given time. Nevertheless, the limit of two seems appropriate for Doing. Because that leaves a little room for switching, in case you get stuck (e.g. due to some external factor). The column Proof is the hardest thing, at least in my opinion. It is hard for me to say I’m done with something. It is also the spot where you notice, if you have defined the units of work properly. It even gets harder to say: ‘Done’ when those things are poorly defined. I would limit the Proof column to only one item. That way I would be forced to actually finalize the things I began.

I guess you should think about using different boards, with possibly different columns, if you can clearly distinguish between different circumstances and necessary work to do. My normal day has basically three distinct slots: 8-10 hours day job, 4-5 hours family and home, 2-3 hours private projects and blogging. It feels right to use a board exclusively for each of those slots.

I wouldn’t introduce further boards. I thought about different boards for different projects, but that would blur the picture. Yourself, better your time is the resource. How could you possibly decide what has to be done next, when two different boards, with different next things to do, are occupying the same time slot.personal-kanban

By the way, if you are looking for a software tool to organize yourself this way I can recommend Trello. It’s web based and free for personal use. The snapshot above shows how a possible Kanban board, made with Trello, for my private projects and blogging time slot might look like. I omitted many things I could add to Queue for now. The colors indicate different kinds of work. Blue is blogging, green for programming and red for manual labor.

There are many other methodologies out there, that are made to help you staying focused and productive. The most popular, I guess, being “Getting Things Done” from David Allen. I read the book, tried the method for some time and still do it to some degree, but for me it’s far too much work to keep the system alive and useful. And besides my laziness, I’m not the long term top-down planner, that’s my wives domain.

You might have heard about Pomodoro? I tried that. It’s simple, but offers basically just the focus part. Interestingly Pomodoro forces times of idleness. Go check it out if you are intrigued. I haven’t worked that way for a while, though.

What are your tricks and techniques to keep yourself afloat on the never ending stream of duties, responsibilities and information?


Update: Well, I just googled “Personal Kanban” and found this site. Haven’t looked much into it, though.


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