Last week, after reading about Kanban boards after indulging in a little “productivity porn” (ie, reading academic/professional mother/geek productivity blogs), I decided to take the plunge.  “Kanban” is a term from Japanese management that simply means “signboard,” and it is simple a simple idea: use a large visual organizer to make the next tasks visible and to diagnose bottlenecks.  It was made famous by Toyota’s “just-in-time” industrial systems: factory workers posted colored cards on a large signboard to indicate work that was backlogged at the factory, in-process, and shipped off.   Kanban boards are now widely used by software developers and other “knowledge workers,” who updated it with that space age technology, the post-it note.  The retooling of JIT industrial production into creative/intellectual productivity deserves anthropological scrutiny, but I’m not going there today. In any case, the Kanban board is certainly one of the cheapest and easiest tools out there.

Last week, I was juggling a number of complex projects at work and home.  Most of them are exciting and/or necessary, but I was starting to lose focus and be paralyzed when faced with the decision of what to do next.  So I bought a stack of Day-Glo post-its (the new kind with a full-stick back) and a large posterboard and got to work. Here’s what my personal Kanban board looked like when I set it up:

photo (5)

Note that I allowed myself no more than 6 “doing” cards in the center column. If I can’t actively work on something in a single day, it gets stuck in the “backlog” column.  As the week progressed, I moved my post-its from “doing” to “done,” and then dug into my backlog for new tasks to move to “doing.” Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • My observations:
    • Limiting myself to 6 “doing” cards turned out to be realistic, although some tasks end up being quicker than others.
    • The physical act of moving a colored card from one column to the next brings a wonderful sense of relief (when you accept that you can’t do all things and send something to the “backlog” column) and/or accomplishment (when you move a card from “doing” to “done.”  Very satisfying.
    • My focus issues center around losing sight of the “big picture” as micro-tasks stack up.  The Kanban board actually creates a composite “big picture”  out of those microtasks, visible on the office wall.
    • This composite picture seems to invite reflection on workflow, motivation, and time use.  Wow, that little yellow post-it took me half a day–what can I do better next time?  Hmm, this blue post-it stayed in backlog all week long–does this mean I’m just not motivated?  If not, what needs to be done?

    Reflecting on my own workflow reflections, I realized that there are three good responses to tasks that get backlogged repeatedly:

    • Stimulate: If it’s important and exciting but backlogged, it means I need to do something to get it moving. This could include another “-ate” verb: delegate!
    • Eliminate: It’s neither important, urgent, or motivating for me, so why spend precious time doing it?  Why let it block the flow?  Looking at the backlog column makes it easier to say “no” to new commitments, something I always find difficult.
    • Marinate:  It’s not the right time to act on the project, but I don’t want to eliminate.  As long as I don’t feel stressed out about it sitting in “backlog,” that’s fine.  When it starts blocking my focus or workflow, time to reassess.

    The main downside?  Like all paper organizers, it has to be posted in one place.  So when I work at my school office instead of at home (where my Kanban board is), I’ll need to remember what’s in my “doing” and “backlog” columns.  There are a zillion “online kanban” apps that address this issue, but then you lose the incredible satisfaction of walking over to the big board and moving your ticket along the production line!

    Because it’s great for “big picture” planning and diagnostics, I am pretty sold on the Kanban board.  Its’ a useful tool for long, drawn-out projects like fieldwork, writing a book or dissertation, remodeling your house, running a grant, planning family activities, or, in my case, usually all of the above.


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