Stack vs Queue: My Latest Personal Kanban Evolution

By | 2011-09-25T09:36:39+00:00 September 25th, 2011|Kanban|8 Comments

MP900422183 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,  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

PersonalKanban-StackVsQueue - Copy2

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.)

Next Steps

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!

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  1. Anonymous September 25, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Very good idea to identify how you prioritize in time.

    I would suggest a small “Eisenhower Method” analysis to reduce the unimportant-urgent stuff in there.
    In my experience, most urgent stuff is not important unless you don’t take care of the important-not urgent by taking care of the former first.

    I have quite a different setup for my Peronal Kanban but my needs where different when I created it. I have a video here about it that might interest you:
    The bulk of the Kanban starts at 38:00 minutes so you might want to jump there first.

    I also often help people with PK setups and Time Management coaching and really like it. I don’t ask for money but if you’d like sharing your ideas via voice-chat, feel free to setup a meeting here:


  2. Jim Benson September 26, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Wow! That’s a lot of red my friend!

  3. Steven Borg September 30, 2011 at 9:53 am

    @SteveGodbold:disqus  asks about the relative sizing of the colors.  If the Red (urgent, pop-up tasks) tend to be smaller, that would impact how the visualization is interpreted.  In looking over the sizing, it appears that the Red items are indeed a bit smaller, but (maybe surprisingly) not massively so.

    I handle sizing differences in two different ways:

    1) For fast interruptions (things taking less than 15 minutes or so), I use little red stickies, instead of normal sized ones.  (You can see them at the lower right portion of the Done column.  There’s a stack of small red stickies there.)

    2) To ensure Green cards don’t end up being huge, I’ve taken on of the ideas from Getting Things Done — the “next action” idea (what is the next action I need to reach the goal). So, Green items, if they are large, will spawn a few other Green items that will flow across the board more rapidly.  (This helps with another rule I have… That nothing can flow across the board if I estimate it will take more than 4 hours to complete.)

    That said…  The standard Red items are indeed a bit faster to accomplish.  So that will definitely impact how many flow.  I’ll keep that in mind as I interpret the visualization.

    So, how many of these should be Red vs. Green vs. Yellow?  Thoughts?

  4. Steven Borg September 30, 2011 at 9:57 am

    It is a sea of red!  Way too much in my initial estimation.  By the way, Jim, I want to thank you so much for Personal Kanban.  What a great read, and the first “organizational / time management / productivity” tool that has worked for me!  Thanks again!

  5. September Links | Learning Agile and Lean October 2, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    […] Borg’sStack vs Queue: My Latest Personal Kanban Evolution shows how to use Personal Kanban to deal with the following problem: urgent work items always crowd […]

  6. Daniel Hjort October 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    Have  the same problem and looking to use Kanban to visualize it. Found this while Googling around for some tips. Thanks!

  7. […] more perspectives on kanbans, see the following sites. Steven Borg blogs about customizing his personal kanbans for deeper insight into planned versus unplanned work. […]

  8. Andy Brice November 6, 2014 at 8:38 am

    Steven, We have just released a new piece of software into beta that allows you to do Kanban and gives you full control over rows, columns and colors and allows you to slice and dice your tasks in multiple ways. It is currently free. There is a 2 minute overview video at: I would love to get your feedback.

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