Using a personal kanban board

October 30, 2009

For a few months I’ve been using a personal kanban board as a way to becoming more effective, efficient and knowledgeable about the process that goes into my work. It’s only been used for hobby and home projects, because that’s where I felt had lost control and stuff just kept piling up.

I’ve always known that my main problem was initializing too many projects only to become stressed out by everything, unmotivated and abandoning most of them halfway through, which in turn led to a sense of failure and broken promises, either to myself or to others. Therefore the Work In Process (WIP) limitations of a kanban board seemed like a very good idea, and I quickly set one up for free at Zen. After adding some WIP limitations to the Working column, I got started and the results came instantly: I’ve been finishing up some old projects that I’ve had in the back of my mind for years. All of a sudden I know that when I start a project, I will finish it. Even if it becomes stale or boring, I have to push through before I can move on to something that seems like more fun. Just knowing that is a great motivator for actually finishing stuff, thereby delivering some kind of value.

My kanban board is very simple: I have a backlog, a Working column, a Complete column and an archive (where items I’ve finished long ago go). It seems almost too simple compared to what large teams use, but hey – there’s no team in I (and vice versa). The Working column has a WIP limit of 2 items, of which one can be computer related (e.g. reading the RSpec Book) and one can be related to something else (e.g. painting the walls). I noticed that if I allow myself to do two or more computer related tasks at once, I jump back and forth depending on the mood. That in turn leads to the pace feeling a bit slow, which lowers the motivation to work on stuff even more, which makes the pace even slower and so on…

My personal kanban board

My personal kanban board (click to see large version)

I’ve actually completed many more items than are in the Complete column above. I’ve just moved them into the “Archive” column. Just so you know.

Since I only have three columns, the visualization part of the kanban isn’t as prominent as when you’re working on a bigger team. Neither the backlog nor the Complete column can be bottlenecks, all I have to analyze from this perspective is the Working column, and it’s always full. I tried having more columns in the beginning, just to be able to identify bottlenecks, but it always felt contrived.

So the steps for you to get started with a personal kanban are very few:

  1. Create a board with columns and determine the initial Work In Process limits (you can change them later, it’s an open process).
  2. Create tasks/stories and put them in the backlog.
  3. Start pulling from the backlog.
  4. Analyze what goes well and what doesn’t, and start reaping the benefits of actually getting things done. It sure feels good pulling items into that column.

Once those darn walls are painted, my fiancee and I will put up a common kanban board for both of us in that room (the guest room/office). I’ll report on that in a future blog post.

9 Responses to “Using a personal kanban board”


  1. Great summary Peter!
    I’ve been thinking about this but it always felt to contrived and complex. This is a simple enough solution I like!

  2. Robert Says:

    Very interesting, I’ve never even heard of a Kanban board before. I’m going to try it out and see if it can help me.

    Thanks for the great post.

  3. Jim Benson Says:

    Peter,

    Thanks for the link to personalkanban.com.

    I’m glad to see that you are using both AgileZen and working with physical kanban. I use both consistently when working with groups. The physical kanban’s tactile nature reinforces the “done-ness” of a task.

    When you said you tried other columns, was one for partially-done tasks (like leaving voice mail)? We have a column called “The Pen” that we use for those. That has been great for identifying bottlenecks and might not be so contrived.

    Hope all is well.

    Jim

  4. microserf Says:

    Jim: Yes, a few days later I added the “on hold” column, since I ran into that problem for the first time. The process is constantly changing.

  5. Jim Benson Says:

    Awesome!

    In a few days, I’m coming out with another addition that is a potential game-changer. But I’m wordsmithing it now. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Also, if people want to start, we made an easier to view and download Personal Kanban 101 on slideshare:

    http://www.slideshare.net/ourfounder/personal-kanban-101


  6. Hey this is interesting. Do you reckon this is much better than a physical kanban board? I use a physical kanban board on my desk, and I found it to be much more productive rather than a web based ones. What is your opinion about this?

  7. microserf Says:

    I actually believe that a physical kanban board might be better, and when the “office” in our home is ready, I’ll skip the online one and go with the simpler option. I don’t need all the stats etc that Agilezen gives me, I’m only interested in keeping the stuff I do concurrently to a minimum. And its more visual than having to log on to a site all the time.

  8. microserf Says:

    Jim: What would this game-changer be?

  9. Marian Says:

    Thanks for the interesting article! I’ve also tried out personal board by Zen but I have to say I am not so impressed. I found another Tool that allows to create personal Kanban boards – it is the Kanban Tool with the feature of seamless time tracking.


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