Why Kanban?

In the previous post I mentioned that my daughter Emma’s Kanban board was demonstrating three basic Kanban principles. These are making work visual, limiting the amount of work you are doing at one time, and managing workflow.

Making work visual

I’m chuckling as I write this because it seems like putting all the work you intend to do in one spot might bring on a whole lot of stress! Perhaps if all our tasks were just an unordered collection (or even a long To Do list?), stress might well be the outcome.

But the Kanban board neatly shows which work is at what stage. Much work is there, but only some is getting worked on. Other work might be waiting for someone else, so it’s not something you need to worry about now. And of course, some work is done, a nice reminder that tasks waiting to be started will indeed be Done one day. 

Seeing all the work at once also removes the sense that you are forgetting something – that something is going to sneak up on you and upset the apple cart. It’s all there, there’s an order to things, there’s an invitation to get started on …

Limiting work in progress

… one thing. You can see the whole work load, but you are probably most effective when you work on one thing at a time, in the moment, with focus. The simple structure of the Kanban board invites you to pull a task into the Doing column only after you have finished the previous task. Now the board is giving you the right to quit thinking about the previous task and to start thinking about the new task. You’ve chosen it, now commit to just that task until it can be moved to a new status. 

In practice, limiting yourself to one task needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But the general principle is sound: limit the number of tasks that feel active, pressing, and required right now. It’ll make you feel much better and you may see both your process and product jump a bit in quality.

In sum, The Kanban board let’s you see your workload, gives you permission to work on one thing at a time, and the process it’s supporting …

Managing workflow

… allows you to manage your workflow. You know what tasks are out there waiting for your attention, which you are working on now, and which are finished. You also have a tool for quick prioritization (and re-prioritization) of your tasks, because you only have one To Do item per sticky note. Reordering them is a snap. 

Communicating your workflow to others is also easy. My friend and mentor Bill Tihen liked to tell a story of his boss rushing into the office with a new project that was “top priority.” Bill walked him to the Kanban board and said, “OK. Which of these other tasks in the TO DO or DOING column should I take off the board?” “No, no,” the boss exclaimed, “those are all top priority, too.” “But that doesn’t work,” Bill answered, pointing at the board. “There’s a limit to what we can work on at one time. You’ll have to choose the top top-priority.”

In teacher workshops when I ask if they’ve ever experienced anything similar, everyone nods. I’m sure anyone, in any job, has had this feeling. Having a simple tool to manage this feeling (and the reality of how you go about getting things done) seems pretty worthwhile.

Chloé’s first Kanban board

Here’s an example from my younger daughter, Chloé. She has seen examples of Kanban in my office and, most recently, in her sister’s room. So she went and made one for herself. I wrote out her first tasks (on the pink speech bubble stickies) and she did the rest. The three colors at the bottom, she explained, are the type of stickies she is going to use for each of those three areas of her life: school, gym(nastics), and other, once she’s used up the pink ones I made. Color coding is, in fact, a common Kanban process. Chloé has also included a column here that I find very stress-relieving, the column called Stuck. I use it for tasks that I have completed up to the point where someone else now needs to act before I can continue. Those tasks are done, but only temporarily. It’s easy to occasionally scan the stickies in the Stuck column and to send reminders to colleagues that I’m waiting on them. Then when they’ve completed what they needed to do, the task is unstuck and I can move it back to TO DO, waiting for when I have time, directly to DOING, or if there is nothing more required of me, right to DONE. Simple.

Now, I just need to go talk to Chloé about including both” Harry Potter” and “Bike Ride” in the TO DO column at the same time …

3 thoughts on “Why Kanban?”

  1. Thanks for the reminder of Kanban as a way of organizing and managing my many projects at this time! I needed this today. Time to create my Kanban and hopefully reduce some of the pressure I’m feeling.

  2. It’s great to see parents implementing agile task boards around the world. I run a business in Australia called Creative Kanbans. We manufacture task boards that people can buy off the shelf and implement with little kids and older kids. By profession, I am a Certified Scrum Master using kanbans on a daily basis with project teams. For the last couple of years I’ve been working with kids aged from 5 years to 12th grade and their parents to implement the practice of using task boards to self organise. It is fantastic the adaption that kids have, especially when you let them write their own sticky notes and watch them proudly move their sticky notes from TO DO, to IN PROGRESS and DONE.

    1. Yes – moving stickies isn’t insignificant – it’s a step to being in control of your own work. And being in control should be a big part of our definition of learning, I think. We have a ways to go – kanban one of many to nudge us a bit.

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