Taking Kanban virtual!

A while ago I wrote about the costs of switching your focus across tasks and my intention to run an experiment of using a personal Kanban board to help limit my work in progress and bring greater focus to my days, in the service of getting more done, faster.   I am happy to report that the experiment was successful – using the Kanban board kept me grounded in the top priorities for the day, and focused on what I needed to do to move things forward.  It served really well to have the physical board be something I could walk around with – literally just sticky notes inside a file folder.  This allowed me to pull it out at any time to show others, add new things to the backlog, or move something to Done and pull the next thing into In Progress.    Teams have been using Kanban for years to great success, of course, so this is not news.  So when I had a big chunk of things that needed to get done which included four other people, I really wanted to use Kanban.  And then I ran up against the challenge – using a physical board makes it difficult to collaborate across a virtual team that is not co-located.  But all the technical solutions I had seen to date left a lot to be desired – they just could not replicate the simplicity of sticky notes and the satisfaction of literally moving a card from one column to the next.virtual kanban

Well, I am happy to report that has changed.  A colleague introduced me to Trello (website here, info about the company here), software that lets you have a virtual Kanban.  I have been using it for about 3 weeks, both for myself and with a virtual team.  It was as easy to set up as my physical board with sticky notes, and provides the real experience of moving cards through the process which I find very gratifying.  And because it is virtual, I can add links to other sites, documents, detailed tasks lists, change the color, categorize things, add due dates (which I will get notified about as the date approaches) – all kinds of things, but I can keep it as simple as I want.  I can also invite others to view my board – so I can give my boss full visibility into what I am working on.  The application is helping the virtual team get much better coordinated so that we can move forward together.

So I am a definite fan.  The only drawback is keeping the board fresh – which is true for physical boards as well.  They have to be visible and used, to be useful.  I have set up my web browser to automatically open my board along with my home page, so that it is always front and center for me.  And having a phone app helps too.  Here are some other things I have learned about how to optimize, based on my personal work style:

  • I don’t use Kanban for smaller action items – instead I use it for “projects,” something with a start and a finish, what I think of as a chunk of work, in the David Allen nomenclature.  I have been using Allen’s Getting Things Done approach for years, and find it incredibly effective for managing my action items which often arrive as an email.
  • My Kanban board and my Outlook task list are now my two primary productivity tools for creating flow – one at the “runway level” (task list) and one at the “10,000 foot level” (Kanban).  I could use one or the other instead of both, but I like the different features of each for what I am using them for, and having two does not feel burdensome.
  • As Allen would say, any system won’t work if you don’t use it  – it has to be part of how you get your work done, not something you have to maintain on the side.  To that end, both of these tools can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make them, and are very adaptable so that you can make them your own.

Here’s to flow, and focusing on whatever is the highest and best use of your time!

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