Trying out a Kanban board

I've just read a book review of a new book called Happiness by Design. One of the author's rules for designing happiness is to become a neophile – a lover of new activities. So I'm on the right track because this week I began a new activity. (Regrettably after my recent trip to Senegal I abandoned my previous new activity – learning French). My current new activity is Kanban. It's a method of visually organizing workflow activity and tasks and is adapted from one of the many tools of the lean/Toyota just in time system of manufacturing.

For several weeks I've been observing how it works before deciding I should give it a go because I think it may be useful in organisation design work. I see it in daily operation at the 9:15 a.m. 'stand-up' (an agile technique) where the Kanban board is in use. It's a focal point for discussion on project progress (or not) and leads to the next step in the plan. At least that's the theory and it seems to be working well enough.

The method as I understand it is: people sit in project-related meetings with a pad of Post-it notes each. As the meeting progresses they furiously write stuff down but only one item per post note, in big writing, often they looked almost pained (the Kanban look?), sometimes they use different coloured pens – in the same meeting – so coding the notes in some way. There's an element of multi-tasking going on: speaking in the meeting, writing on Post-it notes, choosing the colour of the pen for each note, keeping the right expression. Not so good for happiness as according to the happiness book multitasking makes you less productive.

What's impressive is the rate of eating through Post-it notes. In one meeting one person can get through almost a whole Post-it notes pad single handed. The following day the various project people come to the stand up with previous days collected Post-it notes and read out theirs and then there's a solemn discussion and the note gets added to the board in one of the many columns – backlog, doing, done, date, etc. or not. The notes that don't get put on the board are folded into little squares or oblongs. I think that bit is just a ritual before putting them in the bin/trash. But I do need to find out if it's a required aspect of the Kanban methodology. Sometimes the notes flutter down from the board to the floor. Perhaps they are weightier ideas or tasks?

Now, having learned a certain amount by observation I've decided to have a go myself – but not at work, at least until I get more proficient. I'd like to leap in at the 'expected performance' stage and not at the 'must improve' stage. I need to practice and 'get with the programme' because this might become 'the way we do things' and not 'just another initiative'. I can't afford to sit back and see if it's a passing fad. The bandwagon is enticing.

Also it might contribute to my happiness as it's a new activity, and additionally it could rank me higher on the 'team player' scale. I'll be seen to be embracing change and not resistantly sticking to old-fashioned ways like 'to-do' lists, Getting Things Done, or project plans on Gantt charts in Microsoft project. So there are lots of reasons to give it a go. Even better I might feel and be more organized.

As I'm writing this it's day four of the try-out. Already I've learned a lot. In my investigations I've found several schools of Kanban – there are different methods each with their own approach, language, ten top tips and so on. As with anything I've ever tackled as a newcomer I find that there's an entire world of specialism out there devoted to it. Just look at the number of Kanban Pinterest sites, Youtube videos, books, images, slideshares, blogs, training and software.

From what I can gather, the physical world of whiteboard and Post-it notes is more effective than the virtual world. But I've also plunged in with Trello as a software version – I just have to make sure that my physical and virtual boards stay the same or I'll get confused. Also there is now an element of duplicative working but that's just for learning till I work out which I prefer. The advantage (potentially) of Trello is that I can get it on any device – smartphone, laptop, home/work. Except I can't. There's no Trello app for a BlackBerry so I'm wondering if I become such an aficionado of Kanban that I'll swap my BB for an android phone. My work laptop doesn't allow access to most of the web – so a couple of obstacles there but the theory is OK. Also, Trello has many competitors so how do I know I've picked the right one to try?

Next thing – the standard Post-it notes size seems to be the 7.5 cm squares, or even the 7.5 x 12.5 – but they're too big for my liking. My eco-sensitivity creeps in. It's a waste writing one idea on that size of paper. After the first two days I opted for 5 x 4 cms (small) – also I can fit a lot more on the board. And that was another decision. I looked on Amazon for whiteboards – as they seem to be the board of choice for experts..There are many whiteboards to choose from, and then you need to buy the markers and cleaner fluid. So setting up the board is an investment. I need to work out a measure of whether it is worth it. What are the success indicators? Remember it has to be better than what I currently do to stay organized which is a combination of the TMI method I learned years ago when that was the bandwagon to jump on, and the David Allen Getting Things Done method; a somewhat more recent bandwagon.

The Kanban method I've picked to try out is Personal Kanban.This defeats the object somewhat as the idea of a Kanban board is that it's collaborative: teams look at it either in real or virtual space. But remembering the Joan Armatrading song – Me, Myself, I maybe the projects associated with my different roles will act as a proxy team collaboration. I think that'll work as it involves trade-offs, prioritization and a lot of practice on the two rules of personal Kanban:

1. Visualize your work
2. Limit your work-in-progress

The first step after buying the board, pens, Post-it notes and cleaning fluid, was to rule up the whiteboard into 3 columns – backlog, doing, done. I'm doing fine on the 'visualizing my work' – looking at it today I see the board is listing heavily to the left. Everything is in backlog except, 'write blog' which I've just moved to doing – a very satisfying visual and definitely shows adherence to rule two – limit your work in progress. At the same time that is a bit alarming. It seems that the last three days all I have managed to do is pick up work (I guess I could put that in the 'doing' column?) rather that actually do any work. Well that is something I've learned – to start saying no to picking up stuff and instead start doing it and hopefully it can then get to the 'done' column. I'm not clear why the 'done' column is necessary unless it's a signal to give oneself a pat on the back or some other form of reward. Also I see I'm not quite clear on what goes on a Kanban board and what goes on a 'to do' list and whether purists would have a view on this. (Oh, they do – here's an example).

But now I've completed the blog I can test out the 'done' column and go off for a glass of wine. What method do you use to organize yourself and your work? Let me know.