Organize your life with Personal Kanban

Darren Becks
CC BY 2.0 Darren Becks in front of a Kanban Board/ Lloyd Alter

Tools that revolutionized manufacturing and are changing building also work for people.

Lean Design and Construction applies principles developed in Japanese manufacturing, primarily at Toyota, to improve productivity and reduce wasted time, movement and human potential. But in fact, the principles can be applied to almost any kind of project, and even to yourself.

While at the Lean Construction Institute's conference in Vancouver I was intrigued by a presentation titled Personal Kanban, by Darren Becks of St. Jerome’s University; he runs the University's operations using Lean, and showed me a new way to organize my life.

'Kanban' is the Japanese word for signboard or billboard, and was developed by Toyota as a way of improving manufacturing efficiency. It was all about visualizing the work and workflow and limiting the amount of work in progress.

Kanban boardsKanban boards/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Basic Kanban is as simple as three columns: To Do, Doing, and Done. However, one can riff and elaborate on that. Darren Becks appears to be the sole support of the 3M company and its production of Post-it Notes with his University's Kanban board, but he didn't show us what his personal one was. But those rules that Toyota set up apply here too:

Visualize your work: At any time you should be able to easily see what you have to do and pretty quickly judge when it is getting out of control.

Limit your work in progress: Darren suggested that if there were any more than three items in your Doing section then you were getting into trouble by trying to do too much at once. In a LifeHacker article on the subject, Alan Henry noted that "it also helps you avoid the dangers of multitasking, not to mention burnout. Managing your workload carefully also teaches you how to say no without wrecking your career."

When I first looked at this I wondered how this was any better than the many to-do list apps around; I am currently using Wunderlist and have tried others. But in fact, my Wunderlist has 1,326 to-do items and most are so far off the screen that they will never be seen again. And when the job is done, it is gone. Having set up my personal Kanban board, I get some satisfaction seeing things go from to do to doing to DONE! You can feel it. You can see the flow.

Darren likes physical Kanban boards, saying, "Don't bury things in your computer. Keep it in front of your face." I personally don't like using paper if I can help it so looked at some of the digital versions out there, with a little help from Lifehacker.

Trello shotMy Kanban board/Screen capture

They point to free software like KanbanFlow, but I used Trello because I was familiar with it as a to-do list and have an account. I separated the to-dos into work and home but that is it so far. I have a dual monitor setup so I can keep it in front of my face all the time as Darren suggests.

I had not heard about Personal Kanban before, but having tried so many personal organizing systems before and it seems to be about the simplest. There are also lots of resources about it, including a book and a blog by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry, who claim that "Personal Kanban tames overload and promotes focus and flow, helping us concentrate and complete our work." All with what basically is a fancy multi-column to-do list. I am going to give it a try.

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