Enter Kanban

capture2Now scroll down.

All the way down here please.

Almost there.






About here will do.

Now, list as many of those objects as you can.

After you’ve done that scroll down.

More please.

More than that.






About here please.

I bet you remembered at least one of these: tin bucket, red teapot and pretty vase.

Why’s that?

  • They were shown one at a time
  • The other objects were in the big picture of 27 objects on 3 shelves.

You focussed on 3 things only, which is easier than 27 things all at once.

What else helped you remember the objects?

They were first shown to you in a picture. You didn’t have to pull them from inside your head, cluttered up with everything else that’s in there.

So what?

This is the same problem with work.

  • It is invisible

A lot of it is in our heads, or in email inboxes, files, other peoples heads, notes of meetings and to-do lists. It is effectively hidden.

  • It comes at you all at once.

It’s there looming all the time the stuff you are about to do, the stuff you have to do by a certain date, the stuff that’s on the back burner and you don’t know what to do with, all mixed up in your head with the stuff you are doing right now.

What to do?

  • Make work visible!
  • Cut it into bite-size portions!

An answer is…

What ISN’T Kanban?

It’s not…

  • a performance monitoring tool
  • a project management tool
  • a planning tool

What IS it?

It’s a board with work in columns.

It’s child’s play! Yes, I said that.

Kanban is a way of visualizing work so you can know what work is
ready to do
doing right now

There are all sorts of ways you can set it up. Different headings etc.

Here’s a suggested way.


There are only 3 rules. But they ARE rules.

Rule 1: Visualize your work

Making it physical makes it real. You can talk about it to others and people can see what it is that you are talking about. It broadens the context from deadlines and reports to the whole bigger picture of what’s trying to be done.

Rule 2: Limit your work-in-progress

You can’t do more than you’re capable of; everyone has limited capacity for work.

Think of a traffic jam, the capacity of the road has been reached and the cars stop flowing. If the number of cars on the road is below the capacity of the road, the traffic flows. Limit the work-in-progress to below the capacity for work, the work will flow faster.

Trying to work at capacity produces bad work. Limiting your work to less than capacity gets more and better work done quicker.


Capacity is not Throughput!

Rule 3: Use as a process not a tool

Kanban is a process, not a tool.

  1. Begins with visualizing the work,
  2. Continues by limiting the work-in-progress, focussing on the task at hand and also removing barriers to the flow of work.
  3. Ends with reflection on the work. This can be done as a team, or individually, or in natural work groupings with colleagues.

It’s often called a “stand up” as that’s what you do, you stand up look at the kanban board and as a group of people talk about the work. This could be daily or weekly or as and when required. But it never happens when NOT required by the work.

This is a thing I blogged on a Word document at work, I had taken colleagues somewhere else where they had seen a similar thing on a wall. At this time of year in Local Authorities there’s all sorts of noises about annual plans and how to monitor them. This was seen and liked as something basic and straight forward to track where work is, other than inside people’s heads.

I have never used kanban before, but have seen it all over the shop, by which I mean the internet. I first started using it for myself, having read the brilliant book Personal Kanban, that most of the above was culled/stolen from. I asked a colleague if could he chunk his work down into some columns, and for him to choose the number and type of columns. I did same, then we compared our dogs dinners. They seemed edible, so we thought we’d give it a go

The work we do is mainly hideously ill-defined. Shapeless and baggy, it remains so until we approach it with our pre-fab opinions and turn it into whatever was inside our heads. As somebody elsewhere has noted, a common trap is assuming everyone thinks the same as you. Perhaps making it more visible, or at least as visible as yellow post-its can be, is a prod at questioning and talking about the work.

I hope all those Scandinavian IT types who read this blog aren’t unsubscribing in disgust at my cack-handed description of kanban, I am a beginner at this, I refer you to the Idiot’s Clause.

NEXT! My first personal kanban, to help sort out the dogs dinner of my work, and…introducing The Social Media Project.

This entry was posted in me doing it, plans, public sector, tools and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Enter Kanban

  1. Fried Ape says:

    Nice one!
    I jumped right on it and built a Post-It kanban on the wall next to my desk. I knew there was a good reason for sitting near a wall. The kanban got all the tasks out of my notebook and under my gaze. Got a load of stuff done yesterday – every time I get a minute’s free time I scan the kanban and pick a little job to fill the gap.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      i recommend the book “personal kanban” then. it’s a quick but sharp read, lots going on in it. easily read in a day or so, but packed to gills with good stuff.
      its brilliant for not just the “technical” aspects but the thinking behind it, tailored for “knowledge workers” and at an individual “tidying the house” level too.

      it got the Shingo prize!


  2. Viraj Samarasekera says:

    I have been using Kanban for teams. Your explanation of Kanban is brief and direct to the point.I like your article.


  3. Lucy Hughes says:

    I LOVE your article, have just ordered the Personal Kanban book from Amazon. There was I thinking that kanban was some massively complex Japanese philosophy which would require a week’s course, a coach and a half of Teacher’s. When actually I can now dispense with the week’s course and the coach! Am slowly reading all your posts, as much for the laughs as for the learning 🙂


  4. ThinkPurpose says:

    Kanban is contagious.! I started doing it myself, then another one on a wall with a project im doing with a colleague, and then people came to look at this strange thing on a wall. An actual information radiator. So then my bosses boss did a couple for her work. Now this week I have to set one up for the whole team, Official board on wall and everything.
    I’m documenting it all, of course, with grubby photos and quips, soon to come in a post tentatively titled “We’re having a Kanban”.


  5. Lucy Hughes says:

    Oo-er, exciting stuff. My Kanban wall has also stimulated my Italian colleagues’ curiosity and when my “done” column is full of post-its the feeling of smugness is quite like something out of a Mastercard advert. I wonder if you could do a “top 10 books” post because as you say, you’re brilliant at pointing out what doesn’t work but I could do with a bit more of what does 🙂 Is there a Systems thinking for Dummies? I need lots of drawings….


  6. ThinkPurpose says:

    Drawings! Yes, they’re top hole for drawings, are systems thinking books.
    i’ll have a think, but it depends on what you mean by “systems thinking”. Annoyingly it seems to mean an awful lot of things, some of which contradict each other.
    which posts or subjects are the sort of things you find interesting, and i’ll see if i know of anything.


    • Lucy Hughes says:

      Found a list in your Marx post – once I’ve got through the other 6 books on my bedside table will start with those. Thanks!


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