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Managing your constraint – Part I – Kanban

Manage your personal constraintEach of has the same 1,440 minutes every day, 7 days a week, but what we accomplish with them varies dramatically. For most of us, time is our constraint, and how we choose to exploit the time available will drive the results we see.

My last post on singletasking gave some tips for managing your constrained time more effectively. In these next two posts, I’ll share a system that I’ve personally found very helpful for maintaining the focus necessary to get the really important stuff done.

Over the years, I’ve tried numerous different time management systems from do-it-yourself approaches like Outlook reminders and Excel spreadsheets to commercial systems like Franklin Covey Planner and Getting Things Done (GTD). Each had its useful elements, but none of them ever really worked the way I needed.

Then a few months ago, I ran across Jim Benson’s Personal Kanban approach for managing your personal workload and have been hooked ever since. For those of you unfamiliar with Kanban, it’s a Lean tool for visualizing your workflow and minimizing your work in process. In its simplest incarnation, a Kanban board has columns for each stage of workflow and then tasks are are moved from column to column as work progresses.

In Personal Kanban, post it notes are written for each task. You color code them for different categories. Mine are Marketing, Selling, Client Work, Writing, Infrastructure, Learning, Household, and Personal. Yours will depend on how you earn a living and the way you organize yourself, but notice that the same system helps you manage both work related and personal tasks which for many of us are a blurry line anyway.

Benson suggests a very simple three column board—Backlog, Doing, Done that looks something like this:

The Backlog column is tasks that you are committed to doing, the Doing column is whatever you are working on right now (e.g. Write this week’s blog post), and Done is hopefully a column packed with everything you’ve completed.

You then keep an options list (idea bucket) of all the things you’d like to do. Then once you’ve committed to doing one of them, you move it onto Backlog sometime before you need to start it in order to finish on time. After finishing one task, you pull the next most important task out of Backlog and into Doing.

Benson likes to limit Doing to five items. Personally, I keep mine at one to limit my tendency to switchtask. For me that’s part of what works so well with this approach. It’s a visual reminder of the one thing I’m committed to finish right now.

After using Personal Kanban for a while, I’ve found it more convenient to add some columns. After Backlog, I added This Week and Today. My Personal Kanban board then becomes both a weekly planning tool to decide what should have priority for the week as well as a daily tool for deciding what I need to work on today to accomplish everything I’ve committed to finish. If you’re familiar with GTD, you’ll recognize how important this step is. I’m also considering adding Month and Quarter columns.

Up until now, we’ve been talking about a big flip chart size sheet of paper with post it notes being moved across it. Very visual and, at least for me, just the kind of in your face approach I need to stay focused. However, it’s not exactly handy if you spend lots of time out of your office.

In my next posts , I’ll show you how you can take your Kanban with you using free web based tools and how I integrate Personal Kanban with my Outlook calendar.

One final caveat about managing your time – experts in TOC will correctly point out that if everyone inside a company maximizes their own personal productivity or efficiency, the overall results will suffer. For this reason, it’s important to realize that your Personal Kanban may need to subordinate your work time to the efficient use of the company constraint.

As a simple example, consider a doctor’s office where the system constraint is the doctor’s time. If the office receptionist maximizes their own efficiency by limiting interruptions, that means less efficient use of the doctor’s time and less sales throughput. In short cycle time situations like this, an office Kanban would be more useful in maximizing the flow of patients through the practice. Of course, our receptionist could still use their own Personal Kanban to manage the remaining 75% of their time.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • John Uhri August 23, 2010, 11:44 am

    I've seen Kanban boards used for software development tasks and projects. I hadn't thought of using it for regular "TODO" type tasks before. Thanks!

  • Bill August 23, 2010, 12:03 pm

    Thanks Mike, I can't wait for the next posting to evaluate the software.

    Regards, Bill

    • Michael A. Dalton August 24, 2010, 10:58 am


      Glad you found it helpful. I would definitely suggest trying it on paper first – having it there hanging in your office makes it hard to ignore 😉

      Plus it also makes it very easy to migrate when you do automate it.

  • Daniel August 24, 2010, 4:06 am

    Outstanding post. I also am awaiting your next post on software you are leveraging. Until then, I'll give my whitw board a cleaning and give this a try.

  • Jim Benson August 24, 2010, 8:08 am


    This is an excellent post.

    I appreciate your one or two limit. I tend to stick around that level as well and keep my tasks small. I do recognize that I have the benefit of not having children which can cause people of good intent to have many things in flight quite against their will. 🙂

    There are also differences when I'm on a joint task. For example (and I know you'll get this), a book chapter – or even a section – may be an annoyingly pervasive task that stays on the Personal Kanban, even if I have to do my taxes and have a call in to the plumber.

    I'd love to see an actual image of your Personal Kanban – even if you greek out the actual words. Just to get an idea of both the flow and the vigor of what you are doing.

    Thanks again for a superb article.

    Jim Benson


    • Michael A. Dalton August 24, 2010, 11:17 am


      Glad you enjoyed it and thanks so much for sharing Personal Kanban with the world. Obviously, I'm big on anything that simplifies life and your approach does that big time!

      The way I handle tasks that I can only work on a little bit at a time (like a chapter that I'm writing now for contribution to a new innovation theory book) is to timeblock my calendar and then to move the item from This Week to Doing. When my time block is up (or my brain is fried whichever comes first) I just move it back to This Week or Backlog.

      Great idea to share an image, I'll do that in my next post.

      Thanks again!

  • Shabana Wollin August 30, 2010, 7:23 am

    Very nice post! I utilize a customized solution that meets my needs (that I developed) to track my work load on any given day. The problem with that is, I have it accessible currently on my personal computer & laptop at home. I actually got to this post from your software review of tools. I might give AgileZen a try!



    • Michael A. Dalton August 30, 2010, 9:55 am

      Shabana –

      my original approach was a Kanban using electronic sticky notes, but had the same problem – syncing it between platforms. That's where the web based tools come in handy.

      If the Agile Zen approach works for you it would be great if you could share what you learn. Feel free to come back and post a link if you blog about it on your site.



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