I’ve been using a personal kanban board to track my office work ever since reading Personal Kanban by Jim Benson (ourfounder) and Tonianne DeMaria Barry (Sprezzatura). My latest evolution has been to track how much of my work is planned ahead of time vs how much is urgent work that arrives unplanned.
I love this about kanban – a simply, nearly trivial, change to the board and the kanban is now telling me a new story, and helping me visualize my work in a new, enlightening way. Read on for the details!
Time for a New Change
I took my original personal kanban board design from a pattern described on their website, http://personalkanban.com. It had four basic states, Backlog, To Do, Today, and Done. After about two weeks, I updated it to include date-specific columns for the upcoming week. Then I let it percolate. It’s been unchanged for the last several months… until last week.
A month ago one of our customers was struggling mightily with their Kanban implementation, and asked us to conduct an assessment. After asking a rather lengthy chain of ‘whys’, we identified a fairly substantial problem with the way their prioritization was conducted. Their backlog was visible to the development team, and was ordered in priority order. (GOOD) However, after some observation (and questioning) it became clear that new work was nearly always urgently prioritized at the very top, and the remainder got pushed down. (BAD) In other words, there backlog behaved more like a stack than a queue. Now, responding to change is an important agile principle, yet when all new items are consistently placed right at the top, it makes little sense to do any forward planning if the only items that ever get worked on are the latest ones. (This bears a far deeper discussion, but in a later post.)
Last week, while frustrated about my inability to accomplish my weekly goals, I decided to modify my personal kanban to track a new form of information – urgent tasks that appeared throughout the day vs. planned tasks which I had prioritized and planned earlier.
In other words, I wanted to track how much of my week was Stack vs Queue.
Visualizing Planned vs Unplanned Work
So I modified my process to use 3 different color ‘stickies’ to track my work.
- RED : Items that go directly into my Today column.
- These items most likely pre-empting planned work, are considered Work In Process (WIP) and are given a start date.
- YELLOW : Items that go into my To Do column.
- These state is my first Work In Process (WIP) state, and once an item enters this state it is assigned a Start date.
- GREEN : Items to go into my Backlog column.
- These items haven’t yet entered WIP, and do not have associated Start dates.
First week results
As you can see, my initial gut was correct, and the majority of work I did each week simply “came up” and had to be done urgently. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Much of my day to day work (when I’m not working with a client) is being called into sales calls, creating proposals, working through deep technical problems with others on my team, and other very important work that is nearly impossible to plan for ahead of time.
(Quick note: Some of the items you see in the backlog are ‘legacy’ yellow stickies.)
Despite the value of the urgent, unplanned work, I still have concerns. There is an awful lot of red in my Done column, and precious little green. And that seems to wrong. My gut feel is that I’ll need to look into ways to fit more strategic (green) items into my weekly work.
I love how a simple change to my kanban can tell me a new story, one I haven’t yet decided how I’ll respond to. But, I’m using Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) to improve, I’ll be able to have a baseline now for comparison during the Check phase!