Dominant and Secondary Projects

At Modus we now have a posted, dominant project at all times.

Visible dominant project

We post it as a large sticky on the wall. This is the banner saying “If you pull something and have any choice whatsoever, pull it from this backlog.”

This giant kanban token conveys our current organizational focus and promotes completion of that project.

Only when something is completed, does Modus receive any value from it.

This is why long projects with cumbersome deliverables are so difficult for companies and the people in them: long projects require long wait times to realize value.

As the anticipation for completion builds and we meet the inevitable disruptions in schedule, we are disappointed. As we are disappointed, our desire to work, our culture, and the quality of our work suffer.

Providing a constant reminder with a visual control, not just at the standup meeting (which is not a visual control), of the day’s focus has helped considerably.

I’ve noticed that Urgent but not Important tasks like answering emails, dealing with texts, and impromptu conversations not only derail us from the task at hand, but also the day’s focus. I’ve witnessed in others and myself that when we’re interrupted, we often don’t go back to what we were working on, but onto another interruption. After an unexpected phone call, we might suddenly find ourselves checking e-mail.

It seems that any break in flow, breaks the flow.

The visual reminder of major focus helps return us to the day’s project.

This is the fourth post in the series – Are You Just Doing Things.  You can read the previous post here.

Written in Mesa, Arizona

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Clean Up Your Backlog

Does your READY column look like a junk drawer?  post 3

Do you have tasks in there that you are holding onto from six months ago that say “Urgent!” (and have since the day they were created)?

Guess what? You’re learning something about your work.

We have a lot of urgent tasks that strangely don’t get done and no one gets hurt.

We might miss an opportunity or need to do something different in the future, but we don’t complete a lot of tasks we, ourselves, would describe as urgent.

In the first post in this series, I mentioned that at Modus our board had built up an unhealthy backlog. It was gigantic.

Why did this happen?

We're busy1. We’re busy! Tonianne and I were traveling constantly, forming partnerships, coming up with new products, working on existing products, keeping notes about things to blog about, juggling demands from clients, and running a business. We were both constantly adding to the board. So much so, Tonianne at one point created a backlog just for her because she couldn’t find things on the board. Busy-ness was becoming bad for business.

2. No custodian No one was in charge of cleaning out the backlog, so even though we are both focused on the board, we became focused on completion – but not hygiene.

3. Focused on the new work As I mentioned we were focused on completion. We would put new urgent work into the board and do it immediately, while old tasks just got older. We needed to maintain a focus, again, on board hygiene

So what to do?

Well, we can either clean them up or work them out.

Cleaning I took on the role of custodian and started clearing out old, poorly described, or simply unnecessary.  After that, and the backlog regrooming from the previous post, we were able to see all our work and begin to actually complete. When discussing the board, we now talk about old tickets and why certain tickets are there.

Batching If there are tickets that really are important, but haven’t been done, we might suggest a pomodoro or two to focus on completing just those tasks, clean them off the board, and move on.

This is important because often tickets that languish are of a certain type. They involve writing tedious emails or calling people on the phone, for example. Batching those up and completing them also is a good way to get them out of the backlog.

This is the third post in the series – Are You Just Doing Things.  You can read the previous post here.

Written in Mesa, Arizona

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Categorizing Your Backlog

Your backlog is hope. Your backlog is pain.  post 2

Your backlog holds all the projects, tasks, demands, desires, and expectations you have and the world has for you.

The problem is, today’s apparent emergencies are tomorrow’s waste-of-my-time.

If we are focused on completion, we don’t want to complete tasks.

We want to complete products.

If you find you are completing tasks, but not products … try making your backlog explicitly show what you need to do to complete the products those tasks make up.

cluttered backlog

This board is a typical cluttered backlog. You might be able to see that tasks belong to specific projects, but they are jumbled and incoherent. While each of these tasks might be options we can exercise, the complexity of our decision of what to pull next is directly related to the number of tasks in the READY column and our inability to quickly see what each task is.

So .. let’s try to build an explicit BACKLOG before the READY column:

backlog split

Here we see a board with a categorized backlog. We hold work in the backlog until it’s READY to be done. Only then can we move it into the READY column. Note here that the READY column is limited to seven tasks.

So now we’ve split out our work and we can see very clearly what projects we have, how much work is in each, and what we are currently spending our time on.

This board is much easier to interpret.

In this example, we can see that we are split between marketing, general work, and course creation.

This is the second post in the series – Are You Just Doing Things?  You can read the first post here.

Written in Mesa, Arizona

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Are You Just Doing Things?

I’ll bet you have a lot of things to do. bp1

Of course you do.

We all do.

A Personal Kanban anti-pattern that I’m seeing is that people are filling their kanbans with things to do and then…doing them.

They are becoming productivity machines. And that’s…really bad.

Look, there’s a limitless amount of things to do and you can become super efficient and do much more of them than you ever dreamed possible. And if you do that, soon you will burn out.

So I ask you, Why not figure out which work is important?

This happened to us recently at Modus. We had our board which we’d been using for a year. The backlog was filling up with tasks that could be done, but didn’t necessarily need to be done.

At client sites and in classes, we frequently use our own board as an example. And our board clearly showed this anti-pattern.

So we did a few things that I will recommend today:

1. Categorize the Backlog – We divided our backlog into sequestered categories of projects. This helped us see where projects were in their completion and what areas of work were taking up most of our time.

2. Clean Up the Backlog – Clean up the backlog by deleting old tasks that have aged out or that people want to care about but don’t really care about.

3. Pick Dominant and Secondary Projects – One project at any given time should be your main focus. There will always be immediate, context-specific, daily tasks you need to do – but one project should be focused on and completed. Secondary projects are those which need to be done, but are either not the immediate focus or are supporting that focus.

4. Clean Up the Done Column – Done columns can fill up, especially when we are hyper-productive. Soon we have our boards laden with stickies covering each other and we don’t know what we did, when we did it, or why we did it that way. Dirty done columns are worse than to-do lists.

What you might notice in these four steps is that we didn’t prioritize our tasks, we didn’t make big plans, we altered the board to flow better and our the relationship to the work to be more focused.

In the next four posts, I’ll talk more about each one in depth.
Written in Mesa, Arizona

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Personal Kanban for a Well Oiled Machine

It is no small secret that you can’t do everything yourself. A machine’s gears only work well with all the parts of the machine when they are well oiled. I like to think that my family works in this way. Why? Because we use Personal Kanban to keep our well-oiled machine running.

Here are a few ways my family has used Personal Kanban.
When I am entertaining, making a special recipe or meal, getting ready for an event, or going on a trip, I will make a kitchen counter kanban.

Personal Kanban on the kitchen counterWhen cooking or baking, as I add an ingredient to my dish I will move the post-it into the appropriate column. Often when I am baking, I easily lose track of what I have added to the recipe, this helps me not to lose track.  I have also added tasks corresponding with the meal, such as setting the table, chilling the wine, etc.  When we are getting ready to travel I will put everything right on the counter that I need to do both for myself and my family in regards to packing, confirming reservations and acquiring tickets.

When using a Kanban that involves my whole family when setting it up I take this approach -  I ask each member of my family what color post-it’s they want their tasks to be on. This is because I wanted each of them to be able to take one glance at the board and know exactly what each of us is doing at any given time, and I wanted them to be a color that makes them happy.  In the past I have liked to use the refrigerator, but the post-its sometimes wouldn’t stick to the door, so I decided on the cabinet that is most used, the dish cabinet. (No one can eat without going into this cabinet!)

Kitchen Cabinet Personal Kanban

My husband chose the blue, my daughter the purple and I was the pink color.  I added the color post-it each of us chose with our names at the top above the waiting lanes.  This worked out great because I didn’t need to add names to the individual tasks, just what each task was, and we all knew immediately whose task it was. I even decided to add the day the task was going on, that way when I filled the waiting lane I could put every task up in chronological order, it made it easier to wade through.

Family Kanban workflow on the kitchen cabinetBy Tuesday we were already in a good flow. What I love most about doing a family kanban is the fact that it involves everyone. While I was away my daughter and husband moved their tasks and kept each other in check. It’s like I have a safety net in place, it ensures that we are working together as a family (even if one of us is traveling). I’m not worried that my daughter won’t get to her activities on time. I know it’s getting accomplished.

Each time we use a new kanban in our home we learn and evolve as a family.  It adds to our family happiness factor.  In the past my daughter has even left her appreciation for our family Kanban right in the middle of the board.

Family Kanban showing happiness

I sleep better at night when I’m traveling knowing my family members have the visual reminders of important tasks that can’t get overlooked. This is also something that even though we are busy, going in all different directions, we work on together as a family all week long. Each kanban board is a direct reflection of our family, where we are all at together in our lives, and it brings us closer together.

This post originally appeared on the Nothing is Out of Reach Blog.

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Completing Projects and Building Confidence with Kidzban

When I first started using Personal Kanban the one thing that excited me immediately was how much I wanted to use it with my daughter and at home with my family.

And so my journey began.  At the time my daughter was 11 and continuing her religious education preparing to become confirmed.  There was so much she needed to get done before being able to complete the process and become confirmed that anytime we even mentioned the subject she became clearly overwhelmed.  That’s when I decided to introduce her to Personal Kanban.  We set up a Confirmation kidzban.

Kidzban for Confirmation ProjectsShe was so excited to be able to visualize all her work that immediately she felt a sense of relief.  Once we got the tasks all up on the board she realized most of the tasks were actually waiting for actions from others.  ”Oh that’s not so much work.” she said.  While it appears to be a lot of WIP, some of those tasks were actually waiting on action from a parent.  Her first use of a Kanban was a complete success. She has completed her religious education and did receive her confirmation.

When my daughter was a little older she was a competitive swimmer.  When you swim for a long time you hit many peaks and valleys.  One season my daughter was feeling incredibly defeated in the water.  Although practicing very hard day in and day out she was not seeing the results she wanted in the water.  She was losing confidence FAST!  So I thought about it and at the time I was experimenting with using Kanban for many projects so I thought why not? Let’s see if a kanban can gain her some confidence back in the pool.   We sat down and talked about the times she wanted to achieve in the water, what her times were at that point, and what times she needed in order to qualify for the Junior Olympics.  We wrote her goal times on post-it’s, and set up the Confidence kidzban.

Confidence building Personal KanbanThe Personal Kanban consisted of 3 major swim lanes, a BACKLOG of times, those being the times she was going into the meet with, her seed times.  The WIP lane was the goal times she set for each event.  The COMPLETED lane was called Goal Times Completed. When she had achieved the goals she set in the WIP lane they would be moved over. Having the times visualized on a board before we left for the meet was huge for her.  When she posted the times up on the board she began to see the differences and began to believe yes this is totally something I can achieve.   Not only because she hit some of her goals, but also because when we looked at the board after moving the first two events of the meet over to the completed swim lane, it felt tangible to her.  She could actually look at the board and see her goals being met.

Workflow on the confidence kanbanAfter the second day of swimming we still had success, and even though she only completed one goal on her Personal Kanban board she was extremely proud of her work in the pool on this afternoon. The board has caused her to realize that confidence isn’t only about achieving those goals, it’s about seeing her work in progress. Along the way her confidence will get stronger and stronger with each goal that is met.  The main goal of this Personal Kanban was not just about achieving all new times, a very difficult task for any level competitive swimmer. It was also about giving a 12-year-old athlete her confidence back. According to her, even though all goals were not met and moved into the completed lane YET, they will be. Can you apply Personal Kanban to help confidence?  Ask my 12 year old and she will tell you, yes you can.

This is an updated post that originally appeared on the Nothing is Out of Reach blog.

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Personal Kanban at NYC’s Agile Learning Center

The Agile Learning Center at Manhattan Free School is designed to put young people in the driver’s seat of their learning and living – giving them the same opportunity and responsibility that we have as adults – to create their own lives.

Each morning, we begin with a standup meeting. Everyone takes a turn stating their intentions for the day and making requests for any support they may need. At the end of the day, we come back for another standup meeting to reflect. Did we fulfill our intentions? If so, how? If not – why? What might we do differently tomorrow based on our awareness of today?

This daily cycle of creation and reflection produces a powerful feedback loop, providing us clear information about the choices we make and the results of those choices. Between the bookends of this daily cycle, kanban boards are used to support mindfulness in our decision-making process.

After morning standup, we use kanban boards to make our intentions visible. Speaking intentions is a start, but making them visible in physical space takes our awareness and commitment to the next level. Now we have a self-created roadmap for what’s possible.

Kanban for students

From there, students practice prioritizing by surveying the possibilities for their day and moving things into READY or “Get Set”. What do I really want to do today? Who could I work or play with? What will nurture my body, mind, and spirit? A nine year-old may not be using these words or asking these specific questions, but the kanban process has them considering all of these factors in their own way.

Next, we get to experience the power of making what’s possible a reality by pulling the selected intention into DOING or “Go”. ACTION! Deep engagement ensues. When we take the time to make conscious choices, we tend to be more focused, present, and committed to our actions, because we are taking ownership over the whole process.

Completed lane on a student kanban

When an intention is fulfilled, a task completed, or a curiosity explored, we come back to move the story across the finish line. Crossing the finish line does not mean that the story is over and done with. However, it does mark what we have created, and gives us the opportunity to reflect, assess, and constantly improve.

Student kanbans

The kanban board is an extremely effective tool for breaking through our automatic thinking – informing ourselves of the past, visualizing the future, and bringing our attention to the present.

Agile Learning Centers is an open-sourced education model for the 21st Century. Learn more about the very first Agile Learning Center at

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Preschool + Personal Kanban = Kidzban Success

After teaching in the 4 & 5-year-old student preschool class for many years, the last year I taught I became a teacher in the 3-year-old student classroom.  While excited, I knew it would be a challenge when setting up my classroom because many of these students would not know how to read or would have a very limited sight word knowledge.  The classroom would have to be highly visual. I knew I wanted to use Kanban in the classroom, my challenge was how I was going to use it.

Stoplight safety student kidzban

The first month of school I wanted to teach my students about being aware of the world around them and the rules of safety when outside playing.  So we focused a bit on stoplight safety.  They knew what a stoplight was but had no idea about its function and what it meant for them when crossing a street with a caregiver.  We first learned about the three colors and what each color stood for.  Then to re-enforce what those colors meant they were each given a colored circle and asked to place them in the correct place on the stoplight  and then tell the other students what that color meant- green safe to go, yellow slow down, proceed with caution, and red, stop.  When we were sure they were confident and  knew all three they then were asked to move their circles to the completed lane.  They had fun watching each other move their circles and if a student was struggling the other students would collaborate with that particular student to help them put their circle in the correct spot.  I heard from quite a few parents, that their child let them know when they went through a yellow light too fast or even through a red light! This safety stoplight kidzban was a big success.

Go Fly a Kite preschool kanban

One thing that I have found after 10+ years of teaching preschoolers is that they absolutely love to help you out in the classroom.  So I knew from the point when I was assigned this class one of the Personal Kanbans I would design would involve classroom tasks.  I wanted to design something that represented fun, so I decided on ‘flying a kite.’
Here’s how this works: each student has a bow on the tail of the kite.  Every day we chose the next name on the tail and that person gets to ‘fly the kite’ and essentially is the classroom leader for that particular day.  The kite is divided into four sections, each section has a classroom task: flag holder, dressing the classroom weather bear, being the line leader, and ringing the clean-up bell.  The student’s bow moves around to all four tasks as they need to be completed. The student who is the kite flyer for the day also wears a badge, that goes home with them at the end of the day.

  • Upon entering the room most students will walk over to check out the kite to see who is going to be the leader each day in our class.  They are learning not only to recognize their name but the names of their classmates.
  • They have learned their tasks, if I happen to get sidetracked in the classroom doing another task students will come up and ask me, “Is it time for Judy to dress the weather bear yet?”  A lot of times the student who asks me that question isn’t even the one to be the student leader for that particular day.
  • Group participation, when the student is dressing the weather bear, many other students come over to participate and offer help.  This aids in learning to get along in group situations.
  • This is not a traditional kanban board, however it works just like a traditional kanban, there is a ready lane-the tail with the bows, a work in progress lane-the kite sectioned into four tasks, and completed lane-the bows placed under the words I flew the kite today.
  • This is giving my students the visual of their tasks, the ability to see themselves move around the classroom completing these tasks and the huge confidence of seeing their tasks completed.
  • The badge that they get to wear when they are the kite flyer-class leader for the day makes them feel important. Upon wearing it home it breeds conversations about what tasks they had to complete.
  • Every student knows they will get a turn, and they are excited when they see where their bow is placed on the tail and when their turn will be coming up.
  • It helped to get the students into the ‘groove’ of our classroom and what would be happening during their day. This is many of my students first experience in a structured classroom, and it can be very scary and intimidating the first few weeks. This helped greatly ease their minds and make the experience a positive one.

I found that my students were having a difficult time grasping the Thanksgiving holiday, so I decided that we would design a Thanksgiving Personal Kanban together in class during our circle time.

Preschool classroom Thanksgiving KanbanWe set up the pilgrims traveling to the United States first, talked about how they would arrive then we talked about what they would need to learn to survive with the Native Americans, how they would grow food, prepare the food, etc.  Then we discussed how their working together made them successful and happy, which brought us to celebrating Thanksgiving.  By doing this kidzban together they learned more from the visual then by me just talking or reading from a book.  They got to place the pictures on the board, and we all collaborated on why and how and what we thought they did next.  The students loved working on this board together.  Now they know that Thanksgiving is about more than just eating turkey.

My biggest hope is that I begin to see more and more teachers and educators using Personal Kanban in the their classroom.  I firmly believe from pre-k through college this can be a class game changer and great collaboration tool across the board in every subject.

This is an updated post that originally appeared on the Nothing is Out of Reach Blog.

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Kidzban Around the Web #2

Around the web people are sharing their experiences with Kidzban.  This is the second post in the series – Kidzban Around the Web.

Joseph Flahiff introduced Kanban to his daughters on a Saturday morning when they had guests arriving at 2pm, and they needed to get chores done before their guests arrived. Joseph states in his Saturday Chores with Kanban Part I  “Normally the girls choose all their chores before they start.”  They were previously using a chores list set up in an excel program.  On this particular Saturday he decided on introducing a Kanban board.

Saturday Chores Kidzban

Take a look at this wonderful video below where Joseph interviews his daughters – JoHanna and Jillian. They discuss the few bumps in the road they encountered and how they tackled their challenges together and why they’d like to use the process again. Joseph’s daughter JoHanna mentioned “There will still be some bumps but not the same ones because we’ve learned from our mistakes.”

“Working with a list we never really felt like we were working together.  We felt like competitors instead of teammates.” – JoHanna

The next Saturday, Joseph’s entire family got into the action even his 3 year old daughter Joy completed tasks on their Kanban.  The Saturday Chores with Kanban Part II highlights another wonderful video below where the girls discuss how they worked together and broke up the chores into smaller tasks so they weren’t so overwhelming. Team work is personified when you hear how all three daughters managed the task of vacuuming the master bedroom together.

When asked what her favorite part of using the Kanban was Jillian stated “The achievement of finishing a chore.”

You can read and view Joseph’s Saturday Chores with Kanban Part I and Saturday Chores with Kanban Part II in their entirety by heading over to his WhiteWater Projects blog.
Videos and photo credit: WhiteWater Projects Blog.

This is the second post in the series – Kidzban Around the Web.  You can read the first post in the series here.

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Kidzban Around the Web #1

Around the web people are sharing their experiences with Kidzban.  This is the first post of the series – Kidzban Around the Web.

With families becoming busier and busier it can be overwhelming keeping up with everything we need to accomplish in each day.

Steve Hamilton tackled this problem with his Kidzban.   Steve’s wife was away for 3 weeks, and while she was away he wanted to keep track of their two children’s activities so he decided to set up a Kanban board on the sliding glass door. Steve explains “This is the single most visible space in the entire house — it is the first thing you see when you walk in the front door.”

Each Sunday they planned out the coming week – homework, activities, practices, etc. The cards were color coded for each child. Every night they would spend a couple minutes planning the next day. That’s when they would move the cards from the top section into the today section.


Jack and Mackenzie

Steve went on to add “We are now one full week in and so far it has been smooth sailing. No missed homework, no missed practices, good meals each night and the house is reasonably clean!”

Please head over to Steve’s Blog to read his Kidzban post in it’s entirety.
Photo credit: Steve’s Blog.

There often are things we don’t get done before we go to bed each night. Tim Wise came up with a perfect solution for his 6 year old son with his Kiddie Kanban: The Going to Bed Kanban Board.

Tim begins by noting “My 6 year old loves responsibility. He loves being able to know what he has to do and getting it done himself.  He does not love when his dad tries to bark commands.”

They decided to write everything that needs to get done before bed on sticky notes and put them on the wall.  A few tasks were – change clothes, take a shower/bath, read a book, brush teeth, learning new prayers, etc.  His son mentioned “This is like a Todo list for bed.” So they labeled the first column TODO. He also said, ”We need to be able to tell when I am done.” So they then added a Done column. They added the Doing column so they could see what was being worked on.  After the notes went up his son began rearranging them putting them in order. Tim mentioned to his son that was prioritization.

Tim finishes up by stating “We said some prayers after reading together, and we learned a new one together. ‘Thank you for today. Amen’  So we accomplished learn some new prayers along the way. Unfortunately, we never fit in the bath, so I guess we’ll be stinky together tomorrow.”

You can read the entire Kiddie Kanban: The Going to Bed Kanban Board post on the Agile Dude Blog.

This is the first post in the series – Kidzban Around the Web.  You can read the second post here.

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