Personal Kanban

How to Prioritize with Personal Kanban

The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. – Stephen Covey

[otw_shortcode_dropcap label=”D” font=”Dancing Script” background_color_class=”otw-blue-background” size=”large” border=”border” border_color_class=”otw-silver-border” shadow=”shadow”][/otw_shortcode_dropcap]oes the following scene sound familiar to you? It’s Friday evening, 6:00 pm and you’re watching the clock while stuck in a meeting that feels like it’ll never end? Even worse, you have a bunch of tasks that haven’t been completed. And invoices to file. And summary reports to create. And it’s your wedding anniversary, and you’ve not yet bought your wife a gift.
Okay, that last one may be pushing it a bit, but you get the scene I’m trying to present. You’re so busy that you get nothing done.

My path to personal KanBan

Let me put this into my real-life context. When I was promoted to a new role as a business unit manager I had to pass on my old duties to…. Well, that was just it: to who? It became clear that there wasn’t anyone to whom I could relinquish those responsibilities. So, guess what happened…
Here’s a partial list:

  • Every day my boss wanted me to finish some report
  • Every month the financial controller wanted me to review my Business Unit records (and it wasn’t like having a chat about the weather)
  • Every day my clients (old and new ones) wanted me to schedule appointments for project progress review meetings and, at the same time, my boss wanted me to schedule program progress review meetings
  • My friends wanted to have coffee with me
  • My daughter wanted me to attend her recital or to get her at school
  • My father wanted me to call my mother: “It’s been more than two weeks, you know!”
  • My wife wanted me to just be (more) present

Of course, I was overwhelmed. I needed a way to literally “see” the tasks I was expected to perform so I could do the “right work” at the “right time.”

What is a personal Kanban?

Kanban (literally signboard or billboard in Japanese) was developed in the 1940s by Taiichi Ohno at Toyota as a system to improve and maintain a high level of production. Personal Kanban (“personal” relates to personal value) is a visual representation of work. It shows what needs to be done, what is complete, what is being ignored and what is current.
Personal Kanban is flexible. It’s “a process that hates processes.” That’s because our life is full of variables and we can’t organize it with something like a collection of “best practices.” Our Kanban evolves as our context changes, encouraging us to response promptly to daily changes.
Personal Kanban is based on the principles and techniques of Lean methodology, a philosophy and a discipline that increases access to information to ensure responsible decisionmaking while “creating value.”
With increased access to information, people feel more respected and motivated, and waste is reduced. Much of this waste reduction comes from Lean’s goal of a “kaizen” culture (kaizen means “continuous improvement”). When we visualize our work, we adopt a kaizen mindset.

Personal Kanban prescribes just two simple rules

Rule 1: Visualize Work.
It’s hard to understand what we can’t see. We tend to pay attention on some things (e.g., deadlines or stakeholders) and exclude others (e.g., passage of time or political changes).
We must have a clear view of our tasks in order to make better decisions, but above all we should learn to do something because we believe in the task and its results and decline others (politely, of course).
Rule 2: Limit Work-in-Progress (WIP).
I know, you’re asking, “limiting my activities, why?” Because we can’t do more than we are capable of doing.
Our capacity (that is our productivity) is limited by many factors, including the amount of time we have or our level of experience or the amount of work that we’ve been assigned.

Your First Personal Kanban

Step One: Collect Everything You’re Supposed to Do
For your first application, use a whiteboard (or something similar where you can write and erase), some dry-erase pens and a pile of Post-Its.
Why a whiteboard? Project types will change and team members will come and go. You’ll need to quickly adapt your Kanban to each new scenario. Using a whiteboard you could, for example, create new types of tasks or add steps to the existent tasks. Simply erase and redraw as needed.
You could use also use your current online project management software’s task list feature or a specialized online Kanban board, like Trello, Kanbanize, KanbanFlow. If you do choose a discrete tool, later you can set up integrations via your tool’s API (see an example here) to bring over your data to your online project tools for better tracking.
Step Two: What’s the Flow That Creates Value for You?
The flow of your tasks depends on your position in the organizational hierarchy or your type of Kanban (if you’re using the Personal Kanban for your personal tasks there doesn’t exist any hierarchy). A value stream visually represents the flow of your work from its beginning through completion. You could adopt the most simple one, which is Ready (work waiting to be considered/processed), Doing (it’s your work-in-progress/WIP), and Done (hallelujah!).
Of course, making this choice, you have to be careful to adapt your flow to changes in the context for your tasks. Every time your work involves another person make sure it is evident on your board, otherwise delay and waste can be injected into your process. When work flows to a point and stagnates (there’s a “bottleneck” in the flow) you have to be able to visualize these points and remove the obstacle…

Step Three: Create and Maintain a Backlog
Write down everything you need to do on your pile of Post-Its. Everything. Don’t lie to yourself. Wallpaper the room with Post-Its if you have to (at my workplace I can’t wallpaper the room – it’s forbidden by policy – but if you can, just do it, it works).
Later, you can compress multiple tasks on a single Post-It, or group your tasks by color to simply prioritize them. But for now, just concentrate on pulling tasks out of your head.
Now decide which tasks need to be completed first and pull them into your Ready column.
Step Four: Establish WIP Limits
Can’t believe you’ve left a task half-done? Don’t’ feel guilty. Without visualizing your tasks, you aren’t able to see how many incomplete tasks you’ve have. Leaving tasks half-done depends on the fact that our brains crave “closure”; we “close” the task even when it’s not actually finished, because we want to think that it’s closed.
Pulling the Post-Its into the Done column, means satisfying our brain’s need for closure. What’s the remedy? Simply do what you’re supposed to do! Get the work done, don’t leave it behind!
But how? The task list is infinite!
The question is how many tasks are you able to complete at any given time? The real answer is “not so many.” You have just eight hours in your working day. (Yes, I know what you’re saying, eight hours, more like 16 hours, but that happens because we’re not organized, because we aren’t able to say no to some tasks, we aren’t able to limit our WIP.) Our WIP is limited by nature; so let’s impose a limit on our Kanban too!
Do you think that stress is something that you can’t manage? You’re wrong! The fact is that we reach our limit, we add more tasks to the list and tag them “now.” Stress continues to accumulate and burn our brain’s resources. Eventually, our performance flatters.
A study by the American Psychological Association states: “Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity.” We cannot be effective if we try to do more than one task at any given time. Instead, effectiveness increases when we limit our WIP and focus on the single task.
Let’s start by setting an arbitrary WIP limit, e.g., no more than three tasks. Add this limit to our Doing column. We can increase the number on days when we are motivated and energized. At the same time, we can decrease this number if there is an emergency that requires our focus.
Step Five: Let’s Pull the Post-Its
Pulling a task from Ready into Doing means indirectly prioritizing our tasks based on the current context. Would you like to know a trick to be effective in prioritization? Ask yourself, “Which tasks can I complete before I leave for my meeting? I just have half an hour” and “Which tasks are the most pressing?”
Now analyze your Backlog and pull a few tasks into Ready. Then pull the highest priority tasks into Doing. Pull no more than your WIP limit. As you complete a task, pull it into Done.
Step Six: Learn Your Lessons
Have you been effective? Take some time to answer to the following questions:

  • Which tasks did you do well?
  • Which tasks were hard to complete?
  • Were the right tasks completed at the right time?

This is called a retrospective, a process used to improve your effectiveness. It’ll be your best friend.


Kind courtesy of

Additional Options – The Waiting-For Column
Let’s imagine that one of your tasks is “Schedule Developers.” You take that task from Ready, pull it into Doing and call the developers.
They’ve left, so you leave voicemail and send them an email. After two or three of these messages, your Doing column will probably get full, you’ve reached your WIP limit.
Don’t worry! If you’ve to manage tasks that need additional input, add another column to your Kanban, named Waiting For.
As always, don’t lie to yourself and don’t put this in for every task you’re stuck on. Remember that you’re supposed to take every task to their natural end.
A word of advice, add prompts to the tasks put in the Waiting For column such as “Left voice mail on… Make follow-up call on….” And remember to also assign a WIP limit on this column, otherwise you’ll quickly get a junk lane. Always refer to Waiting For first when pulling tasks into Doing.
Additional Options – Today Column
The Today column is where you pull tasks you expect to accomplish today. This new column is your challenge.It represents your goal for the day, a method to measure your effectiveness.
One last piece of advice: capacity is not a synonym for throughput. Capacity means “how many tasks I will take to completion.” Throughput means “how many tasks will flow.” It’s a mistake to assume that if we don’t have an activity scheduled, we can fit in more work. You’ll run behind schedule in a flash!
Leave a cushion of time between one appointment and the next. An appointment can go long or your contact can be late. Trying to fit every white space on your calendar doesn’t leave space for flexibility.
Of course, there will be days when interruptions and dynamic prioritization will be the norm. Multitasking is certainly not ideal, but having the flexibility to multitask when the situation calls for it is. Sometimes your Kanban will have to accommodate the demands of a busy day. When that happens, look for ways to reduce the flow of unexpected work.
That’s the pros of the Personal Kanban method, one more tool in your toolbox, to help you prioritize and visualize your to-do lists, no matter your tool. We developed to help busy leaders visualize their project and team’s progress with the customizable Dashboard. It’s a flexible tool that helps you drive your personal KanBan to completion. Take your free trial now and take your task lists to the next level.
This article originally appeared on


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