Do The Kan Kanban?

By | February 23, 2012

What is Kanban?

Kanban means “billboard” or “sign” in Japanese. Originally developed as a way for Toyota to optimize their assembly line flow it has since been used for numerous other industries and even in your personal life as a form of organization.

Getting started is pretty easy.

First assemble the following items:

Sticky Notes (all same color is fine)
Dry Erase Markers

First Steps
Start by visualizing your workflow. This is one of the essential keys of Kanban.

Think about how you do a project, clean the house, or get tasks done. Then split your whiteboard into those sections with your markers based on that flow. Someone on twitter said “I’ve never done the same Kanban twice”. This is because it’s not rigid but extremely malleable. You grow with Kanban, not into it.

My Kanban at work consists of 4 columns (Ready, Doing Today, Doing, Done), but yours can be anything you want and named anything you want. There is no “wrong way”. For the sake of this post let start off with the simplest form – Ready, Doing, Done.

Basic Portable Kanban

Mentally Unloading
Now it’s time to pull all that psychic weight out of your head. Take your pen and put each task you want to get done on separate sticky notes. No need to go into detail, you can always revisit these and break them into more notes. So you might write down “take the car to the mechanic”, “call the landlord”, “finish the report”, or “push changes to source control”. Write out everything you can think of to accomplish your long-term or daily goal.

The Backlog
Once you’ve unloaded it’s time to put them on the board. The way I do this is to actually stick them off the board first in my “Backlog”. This is the area that I keep when I have new things to add. I also am constantly re-prioritizing this and the “Ready” area with new and existing tasks.

Items In The Backlog

Limiting Your “WIP”
WIP stands for Work in Progress. This is the other essential key of Kanban. Limit your work in progress.
To do this you will set limits of how many items (or notes) can be in your Doing or To Do columns at one time. Think of a juggler. A good juggler can handle juggling two items, or maybe three. Only really good jugglers can handle 4 or 5.

The key to Kanban success is to find your limits. Start off small and then work up. Think about what your limit is and why. It may surprise you that your limits can change based on the project or even mid-project. It’s ok, adjust these limits as you see fit. Mine in the photo below have a limit of 1 item WIP.

Limiting WIP. Items flowing through.

Pulling Items
Visualize a supermarket and how they stock their shelves. The customers at the end of the chain “pulling” these items. The process by which the store keeps shelves stocked is only by what gives the best profit/success and, ultimately, what is being “pulled” downstream.

Prioritize in you Backlog, move the tasks into Ready, to Doing, then Done. Watch how your WIP changes and how items flow. Tweak it where it fits your process and work flow best. This is your Kaizen or “improvement”.

Pulling To Done

Visualize your flow. Limit Your WIP. You are now ready to Kanban.

Recommended Reading: Personal Kanban by Jim Benson

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