Increasing Workplace Productivity, Part II: Using Personal Kanban to Stay Focused on Key Tasks

Kanban, like 5S, is a technique that was invented in Japan as a part of the lean manufacturing process. The word “kanban” actually means “visual signal” or “card”, and like 5S, kanban uses visual information to increase productivity.

Originally, kanban was used to control logistical chains in manufacturing plants. In a kanban system, new commodities are manufactured “just in time” based on actual customer demand. Kanban cards are then used to display information about manufactured items as they move through the production process. In the system of personal kanban, we will also use cards, but instead of information on manufactured items, cards will contain information about tasks that need to be completed.

The Basics of Personal Kanban

In personal kanban the idea of visual cards and a pull system is repurposed to provide an alternate to to-do lists and a way to stay focused on key tasks. A basic personal Kanban system might use a white board, some index cards, and 3 columns marked “Backlog” (everything that needs to be done), “In Progress”, and “Done.” In this system, we use cards to indicate tasks that need to be done, and simply place them in the appropriate column. At this point, of course, all we have is a glorified to-do list. Therefore, we need to establish some simple rules that will help us prioritize and work more efficiently.

Basic Rules for Personal Kanban

The first rule in personal kanban is that you must set a work-in-progress limit for your “In Progress” column, typically three or four tasks. The second rule is that you should attempt to finish your entire “In Progress” list before you pull in new items. Only when absolutely necessary should you swap from the “Backlog” column to the “In Progress” column. The third rule is that when you are not engaged in planning, your thought and energy should be focused only on getting the “In Progress” items completed, and not on the many items sitting in your “Backlog” column.

Outcomes of Personal Kanban: Less Stress and Greater Productivity

By following these rules, you minimize task switching, which is a major productivity killer. You stop worrying about the numerous things that you could be doing, and instead focus on what you are actually doing. Rather than concentrating on whether a given list is “finished”, this helps you pay more attention to the quality of your work and your overall productivity, which is much more important to achieving long term productivity in a reliable fashion. Also, when you follow the rule of only starting new tasks once the “In Progress” bin is empty, you should be able to avoid constantly procrastinating unpleasant tasks; this is particularly helpful for completing those tasks that always sit at the bottom of to-do lists but never seem to get done.

Once your basic system is established, you will want to start tweaking it, to create a system that perfectly matches your needs. In the future, we will delve deeper into using personal kanban, and as we continue to explore methods you can use to increase productivity, both in the workplace and at home.