Is Your Project in Limbo?

Limbo is completion out of reach

Limbo is completion out of reach

What happens when we start a project and it is honestly overtaken by events?

We start a project in good faith and then, because context changes, we have to set it aside. It’s work-in-progress, so what do we do? The project isn’t done, we will likely come back to it, but it could be weeks or even months before we touch it again.

These projects Limbo projects – we are unclear when they will start again, we only know that we’ve started them and that they are no longer our priority.  We are moving the project from being active to being just another option that may or may not be exercised in the future.

Some people who are, shall we say, really into their Personal Kanban will lose sleep over this. But one word of (hopefully) enlightenment – Personal Kanban is more about understanding our work than it is getting specific things done.

So, we now understand that we have a project that is either in Limbo or getting close to Limbo.

Ask a few key questions as soon as possible and with as many people involved with the project as possible:

  1. Limbo Really? Is the project really in Limbo or are we simply being distracted by something else? (Make hard, but informed choices when interrupting a project).
  2. Quick Payoff? Can the Limbo project be focused on and quickly completed? (Even if you greatly reduce the scope of the project, can you quickly realize some benefit from the work done thus far?)
  3. Future Knowledge? If you are putting this on hold, what will you need to know in the future when you start up again? Write a note to your future self about the state of the work, why it is that way, and the location of any half-completed work.
  4. How Could This Happen to Me? Be very critical of why this project was allowed to start, only to be abandoned. Abandoning a project is very expensive and very wasteful. Figure out why this happened and take steps to avoid it in the future. Limbos cost money.

Again, Limbos are going to happen. They happen to everyone. Since our contexts and priorities change, it would be foolish to expect that every project we start on will be completed. The goal here is to use the Personal Kanban to understand our work, recognize when a project is in Limbo, and to act responsibly.

Seattle, WA

Pretty Awesome Image:

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You Are a Role Model

fortuneAt some point, maybe at many points, it strikes me that we are all role models. We all influence each other. We are a network of emotions and actions.

When we do something, positive or negative. Kind, indifferent, or cruel. Self-centered or altruistic. Other people notice. Other people react.

This is systems thinking in the social sphere. Social media is a social system. We have seen how they can be built, enjoyed, and exploited. Work, home, friends are also social systems.

I’m not going to go into any false spiritual spiral with this, I’m just going to note that there are systems in which we operate. Personal, political, economic. At home and at work. And how we act, how we present ourselves, how we interact with others – makes a hell of a difference.

In the 90s, before New York City became mysteriously friendlier, I woke up one morning in Tribeca. I went for a walk with my friend Brian. We went into a shop to get some coffee. Brian was animated and talkative, but when the person came to get his order the exchange went like this:

Person (aggressively staring at Brian): What d’you want?

Brian: (looking away, like the other person isn’t there): Coffee.

He gets Brian his coffee.

Person: Here.

Brian: <no response, grabs coffee>

Person to me same thing: What d’you want?

Me: (Looking back at him, smiling) I’d also like a coffee, please.

Person stares at me a second, trying to figure out if I’m for real.

Goes to get coffee.

Comes back and hands it to me.

Me: Thank you.

Person walks away.  Stares at me.

Brings me a muffin.

Person: … You have a nice day, okay?

Me: Really?

Person: Really. <Person then smiles back>

My friend Brian was one of the nicest people on earth. But in the 90s New York system, he was expected to act a certain way. On my part, I didn’t do anything hokey or over-the-top, I was just not unpleasant.

Brian said, “I’ve never seen that guy be nice to anyone.” I was a role model, just by being human. It doesn’t take much.

When we get overworked, we get stressed. When we get stressed, we get unpleasant. When we’re unpleasant, we behave unpleasantly. We we do that, we spread it around.

So, I’m not saying “be nice all the time.” What I’m saying here is that if we build our systems to avoid overwork (likely one of the largest sources of stress we have), we are improving other systems we engage in because we will be better actors in those systems.

So recognize that you are a role model. You are an active part of many social systems.

Blogged on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas

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Two Goals Quickly Visualized

I realized that I had fallen off the writing wagon. I had become a non-writer.

That was really bothering me.

I sat down several times to write blog posts and wrote portions of them or huge rambling missives that went nowhere.

Soon it became clear that I needed a goal and to visualize it. It was pretty simple really. It looks like this

Two Goals Quickly Visualized

Two Goals Quickly Visualized


I wanted to make sure that I wrote blog posts and participated on Twitter. So I made a quick (ugly) chart over my done column on the board by my desk. It has the days of this week with two swim lanes – one for blogging and one for entering 3 tweets per day  into Social Flow.

I then mark down how I felt about them when I was done. Overall, it was pretty good. No home runs there, but it was okay. (I’d make a big mouthed smiley for one I was really happy with).

What I’m doing here is quickly visualizing, rewarding, and evaluating a goal. Since they’re daily tasks, moving the stickies would be redundant and perhaps even annoying. But setting up a rapid feedback system helps immensely.


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Sharing Your Story

Everywhere we look we’re discovering people around the world – from all ages and all walks of life –  are tailoring their Personal Kanbans to some very specific needs, and in some very unique ways.

Are you one of those people?

If so, we invite you to share your experiences on the Personal Kanban website, and serve as an inspiration to the global Personal Kanban community.

Are you using Personal Kanban in conjunction with an online tool like Evernote or Google Keep? Have you incorporated a calendar feature into your board? Applied a particular email filter? Used it to extend your GTD practice?

Is there an online Personal Kanban tool or mobile app you’re particularly fond of? Or did you opt  for a physical board instead, preferring to use a wall or window or desktop Personal Kanban?

Do you use it primarily at work and/or, are you using it at home with your family? Have you used it to track an interesting project? Tell us!

These are questions that when answered, have the potential to inspire others in ways they never considered.  So share your Personal Kanban story with us. It doesn’t have to be too involved or complicated – we don’t want to break your WIP limit!  We’re looking for a quick paragraph or two describing how you’ve implemented Personal Kanban. And if you want to share pictures of your board, even better.

So consider sharing your story.  We look forward to hearing from you.

Jim and Tonianne

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Finding Hidden WIP

Can you find the hidden WIP in this picture?

Can you find the hidden WIP in this picture?

Limiting Work in Process (WIP) is not easy.

Our work is largely invisible, which means it’s hard to notice. It creeps up on us. Well, heck, it’s invisible, it just walks right up – bold and unabashed. It doesn’t have to sneak – we’re simply blind to it.

Then, one day, we notice it is there.

Over the last three weeks, we’ve worked with several groups that are shocked when we’ve found hidden WIP. To them, we seem like ghost hunters finding inefficiencies and overload where there was previously only air.

So, how can you find hidden WIP?

It’s easy: always assume it’s there.

When you start from a position of knowing that there’s more WIP lurking, you examine the shadows more closely. Here’s three common shadows:

Big Tickets – People are always asking about ticket sizing. If your tickets are too big they have lots of room in them. Lots of room for WIP to hide. Lots of tasks that you can start and not finish. Lots of ways for the ticket to get stuck. Ultimately, the big tickets have lots of shadows for WIP to hide. Tickets get bogged down because one or more of those hidden tasks is hard to complete. (Note to some: user stories are usually pretty big tickets).

Overfocus on Team Work – Time and again we see teams limit their WIP on a team board, but overlook the individuals. So the team will have a WIP limit of 5 or 6 and be meeting that limit just fine. Upon examination, however, one or two people are involved in every ticket. Since our work is completed by people, overloading them defeats the purpose of the Personal Kanban in the first place.

Self Deception – We put things on the board that we want to put on the board. Everything else … hmm. We’ve seen software teams overloaded with unboarded support tasks because they weren’t “real work”. We’ve seen researchers overloaded with unboarded administrative tasks because they weren’t “real work.” We’ve seen people with dozens of incomplete tasks that were “too small for the board.”

Tonianne and I now look for these things out of habit. We immediately look for oversized expectations, individual overload, and unreported work every time we see a board.

Image from Cecil Goes Wild … which could be used to teach kids about hidden WIP.

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Finishing Feels Good

Yes, finishing feels good. When we complete tasks, we feel better than when we have a pile of incompletes just lying around. Incompletion creeps up on us, overloads us, and crushes us. The more we fail to complete our work or realize our goals, the more susceptible we are to hopelessness, doubt, and fear.

So … completion would seem to be a pretty clear winner.

So, why don’t we complete? Because we have competition for our attention. E-mail, Facebook, conversations with colleagues, and the other 25 tasks we are working on simultaneously are constantly competing for our focus.

(Even now, I looked up, my Facebook browser tab says there are 2 replies there. I started to move my cursor up to check on them and said, …. hey, you’re writing a blog post! Get that cursor back down there…)

Neuroscience has found that when we finish tasks, we get a dopamine rush. We actually do feel better. However, interruptions trick the brain. They can be like instant gratification that gives us little dopamine rushes. We find ourselves incurring more and more distractions that, like any indulgence, feel good at the time and leave us feeling empty later on.

The tricky bit here is we no longer have space as individuals to concentrate. Whether we are at the office or at home, our focus is impaired by these constant interruptions. We cannot focus and complete. This costs us, our companies, and our families every second of every day.

In order to complete, we need some help. We need something to ground us, something to focus us, and something to propel us. Once we have these elements, projects at work become easier, communication becomes smoother, and motivation is easily found.

The key here is not to have that help seem like the solution. The help here is to find our own ways of working. We have discovered though, that a few simple tools have helped people and organizations craft their own ways of working.

Tool 1: Visualize Your Work – Creating a Personal Kanban immediately lets you and your colleagues know what you are doing now, what you have done, and what is coming up next. That grounds your work in a tangible system that constantly reminds you of what needs to be completed.

Tool 2: Limiting Work-in-Process – Our distractions create work overloads. We take on too much work and then have to manage all those tasks in-flight. Limiting our active tasks as individuals or as work teams is vital for completion.

Tool 3: An Eye for Improvement – In order to really improve how we work, we need to actually understand what improvement looks like and how to achieve it. In Lean, this is called “Kaizen” (Continuous small positive changes).

We don’t want improvement like “Starting tomorrow I will do everything exactly right,” because large unrealistic change is unrealistic. Learning, however, to take on small improvements makes all the difference.

Potent Combination

Our goal here is to understand our work, do just enough to get quality work completed, and always be looking for ways to make work better / more enjoyable / etc.

Learning More ….

Reading: Doing a search on the Personal Kanban site for “Visualize Work”, “Limit WIP”, and “Improvement” will give you some food for thought.

Workshops: In March of 2014, I’m going to be teaching a few workshops on exactly this combination with Kaizen expert Mark Graban in Phoenix (Mar 10) and San Antonio (Mar 12).  We did one class in Seattle last year that went so well that this year we’re doing two!

Conversation: We’ll be hosting a 2 day conversation on this February 19 / 20 in Seattle called Kaizen Camp.


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Killing Email Interruptions: Personal Kanban using LeanKit, Gmail, and Zapier

Quick intro from Jim Benson:

We’ve asked Chris Hefley from Leankit to write a series of posts showing how to integrate tools many of us use everyday with our Personal Kanban. These are fairly technical posts, but also very powerful ones.

In this first post, Chris mentions that his aim is to keep his inbox at zero by taking action items and moving them directly to his Personal Kanban. Tonianne and I have also noticed that we also tend to act on emails the moment they arrive. This means that we allow email to interrupt our flow of work – then we get to the end of the day and are disappointed by how we let those interruptions derail our day.

Chris lays out a simple mechanism to move emails into your Leankit Personal Kanban that can both clean out your inbox and give some of those interruptions their proper priority. Also, I’ve turned Chris’ post into a video which is at the bottom.

Take it away, Chris


I aspire to keep my inbox at zero. About once every couple of weeks, I actually get there. I’ve got several tools that I use to help me with that, including moving emails to my Personal Kanban board in LeanKit.

LeanKit has a connector available for Zapier, a cloud based integration hub. Zapier provides hundreds more connectors with other applications, which makes it very easy to connect LeanKit with Gmail, ZenDesk, BugZilla, BaseCamp, and many more.

In this article, I’ll show you how to set up a “Zap” to create a LeanKit card based on an email in Gmail, complete with a link back to the original email, so that you can get that “to do” item onto your Kanban board and out of your inbox.

First, you’ll need to go to and create an account. There’s a free account that should work just fine, and if you need more integrations or faster synchronization you can upgrade later.

Once you’ve created your account, you’ll be asked to create your first “Zap”, and presented with the screen below:

Setting up Zapier with LeanKit

On the Trigger (left) side, choose Gmail, and choose “New Thread”.

Setting up Gmail with Zapier

On the Action side (right side) choose LeanKit and “New-Add Card” for the action.

So that when a new Thread is created in Gmail that fits the criteria we will add later, it will create a matching card in LeanKit.

Setting up Gmail with Zapier

Follow the steps in Zapier to set up your Gmail account:

Integrating your email

…and your LeanKit account.

Set up Zapier to LeanKitNow, in a separate browser tab, go into your gmail account, open an email, and create a Label called “lk” (or something similar) for that email. (Help for how to create a label in Gmail:

Back in Zapier, in the filter for your Gmail Trigger, choose the “lk” label you created in the previous step (it could take a few minutes for the label to show up after you’ve created it. If you don’t see it after a few minutes, try saving your “Zap” incomplete, and then coming back to this step.)

Filtering Gmail Triggers

In Zapier, Choose the LeanKit board you’d like to add cards to. This will allow you to select from any board in your LeanKit account (that you have access to with your login).

Filtering the LeanKit Board

After selecting the Board, you’ll be able to select the lane you want new cards added to, and the Card Type you want for your new cards.

Choosing the Lane

For the Card Title field, add the Gmail fields  “From Name” and “Subject”, and add “Plain Message” to the description field.

You can also add “ThreadURL” to the Description field if you’re using Basic or Team edition to provide a link back to the email. Or follow the instructions further down to add the link to the card header if you’re using Portfolio edition.

Selecting a card title

Test it like so:


Set up 2

If you’re using LeanKit Portfolio Edition, you can use the “External Card ID” field. Add “ThreadID” to this field from the list of available Gmail fields.

External Card ID

Open your LeanKit board in a new browser tab, and in the settings for your leankit board, enable Card ID, and set it up as shown below. The {ID} field is where the Gmail ThreadID will go.  (Check the gmail message url by opening an email in your browser and confirming the format of the url shown below for the email).

Card ID

Now, the link to the original thread will appear in the header of the card, allowing you to quickly jump back there without opening the card to view the description.

Links on Cards

That should do it. You can test the Zap and turn it on in Zapier. Now, all you have to do is label a message in Gmail with “lk” and then archive it to get it out of your inbox. The next time the Zapier sync process runs, it will pick up that email and create a LeanKit card for it.

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Limiting Holiday WIP with Personal Kanban

I’m asked on a regular basis how Agile or Lean practices can be applied during the holidays. Let’s face it, we have a limited amount of time and todo lists as long as our arms. Truth be told, people have limited success using the ever-growing todo list. You either forget your list at home, you take on too much at one time, or you forget why some of the items on your list just aren’t getting done. Several years ago, I found the answer to my “get stuff done” problem and it is known as Personal Kanban.

“Personal Kanban borrows from several Lean principles and practices. With just two simple acts – visualizing work and limiting work in progress – Personal Kanban gives us clarity over our work and our goals, and the unprecedented ability to deal with distractions, manage expectations, make better decisions, and ultimately find a healthy balance between our professional, personal, and social lives.” – See more

Using Personal Kanban

I’ve leveraged Kanban for Agile Teams with great success. But I used a physical board, complete with sticky notes and painters tape. I also had a small board in my office, for personal stuff. Unfortunately, the more I traveled for work, the less physical boards worked. I always seem to have my laptop or phone with me but I didn’t always have a wall to apply sticky notes. What is an Agile coach to do!? Of course, in this digital age, there are several inexpensive solutions. I use LeanKit. It works on the web, phones, and tablets. Everything is synced all the time. There are other solutions out there but this has worked for me (and my family) for quite a while.

Here is the 50,000 foot view of how it works. On a surface that is in plain view all the time, visualize your workflow. It could be as simple as ToDo, WIP (work in process), and Done. Being this is personal, label the columns anything you want. Identify what you need to get done on cards. I like the title to be actionable (Call, Find, Do, Finish, Get…). I then color code the cards so I know if it is for work or not. Let’s say you are traveling during the holidays: “Pack clothes, book hotel room, reserve rental car, get boarding pass”. Use specific card colors and you’ll know at a glance if you forgot to do something. Limit the stuff you work on at any given time. If you haven’t discovered it yet, multitasking is a big lie. You don’t get more done! You just keep really busy. Focus on getting stuff done, not starting more stuff. Don’t exceed WIP limits in a column. If there is no room for a card in a column without exceeding a self-imposed WIP limit, you do not pull a card into the column! This is important. By limiting what we agree to start, we will in turn finish a lot more.

Personal Kanban

derek's pk 2

Kanban Cards

Here are the cards for my “Holiday” Personal Kanban. My board doesn’t go away after January 1. It just focuses on other stuff. The yellow cards are going to drop off after New Years. I left them on the board so you could see how we can have three groups on a board and it still have clarity. Colors of cards are optional. I use every visual queue I can, including blocked and high priority indicators.

Red cards – Christmas and my birthday
Orange cards – LeadingAgile (work)
Yellow cards – Chanukah

I keep a backlog of stuff that isn’t “ready” for me to work on so I don’t even include those on my board. Even after having the highest priority cards appear at the top of the board, having too many cards on your board can paralyze you with choices. I only add cards to my ready column, if they have limited dependencies and are ready to complete within the next few weeks.

WIP (Work in Process)

One of the secrets of a pull system is you only work on things you actually have capacity to work on. When you have capacity in the next step of your workflow, you can pull work into that step. Limit the amount of stuff that you’re working on at any given time and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll get more done. Personally, I know that I can only deal with three things at a time before things start to get dropped. Know your personal limits and set them accordingly. If you’re working on something and you get blocked, don’t pull in more work. Add a visual indicator that indicates the item is blocked. and continue pulling working through to done. Once you unblock the work, you can pull it the rest of the way through your system.


I’m a strange combination of a little OCD, a little ADHD, a lot of grit, and a lot of drive. I need a focus column. If I walk away from my desk, read an email, or get a cup of coffee, I can pretty much guaranteed to forget what I was working on. The focus column is my visual reminder of that one thing I’m trying to focus on right now. Notice the image of my personal kanban above that I’m trying to wrap up this blog post. Everything else can wait. I need to get this done!


Ah yes, the done column. It is where all work needs to go. When I look at it, it makes me feel pretty darn good. We all feel busy but we commonly ask ourselves if we’ve actually gotten anything done. Well, this will show you. I recommend you reflect on what you’ve accomplished, feel good about it, and clear the column on a periodic basis. I do it either once a week or every other week.


I know this is a lot to put into a single blog post. But if you’re wishing for a more productive and balanced 2014, I would recommend you give this a try. It’s super simple to start and over time, if you’re persistent, you’ll see it will bring more clarity to your work and your goals.

If you want to learn more about Personal Kanban, I would recommend you read Personal Kanban by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry. It’s a great read and an awesome gift!

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Kidzban Around the Web #3

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

Maritza van den Heuvel writes from her Becoming an Agile Family Blog. She has written many posts on her experiences with both kidzban and Personal Kanban.  In her All Aboard post she describes “that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.”

She has used a kidzban right from her dining table.  She states “The most visible item in our open plan living area is the dining table.”

She has also used the fridge.  Maritza mentioned in her post “By the next weekend, I’d realised that the object which is most central to our lives is in fact the kitchen fridge. It’s the first thing you see as you walk into the kitchen, and all of us open it at least once in the morning, afternoon and evening. It also came with a ready-made metal surface and a myriad of magnets we could use for our cards.”


Maritza loves the fridge because “The further beauty of the fridge, is that it has natural boundaries that separate the Backlog (below the line) and Work In Progress (above the line). Work again moves across from the left (Next Up) to the middle (Doing) and eventually to the right (Done).”

She even has a portable Kanban that she made out of a folder and pasted a poster board to. “So far, the mobile board has been my biggest breakthrough in personal productivity using Personal Kanban.”

Maritza has created truly innovative kidzbans with her family.  Her Teaching Kids Timekeeping with Kanban is one example.  She states “I had been toying with the idea of a non-linear kanban for over a year.”  Her kids loved Harry Potter and “were already familiar with the concept of a clock that ‘shows where you are’ made the format of the clock a no-brainer.”

TimeKeeping kidzban

Maritza mentions how easy it was to involve her children in creating the kidzban while making it fun. “All you have to do is look around at what you have and use it creatively while involving the kids throughout. We made the clock in an afternoon, with an extra day for the choosing and printing of the photos.”  The face was created by using the previous year’s cardboard calendar.  Her kids colored the segments, and she wrote the activity names on poster board and her kids cut them out.  They are removable so that they can change easily if activities change or the time changes for activities and her kids chose their own photos to use on the arms of the clock.

After using the clock for around a month Maritza concluded, “The kids are certainly having a lot of fun with it so far.”  They placed the kanban “strategically” in a highly visual place – at the bottom of their stairs.  ”….they have to pass it every time they go up or down. We now also have a new mantra to Check and Change….(the Weasley Clock).”  She also stated her kids are starting to form the habit of changing positions of their avatars and they are enjoying comparing each other’s status.

Be sure to stop by Maritza’s Becoming an Agile Family Blog to read the All Aboard post and Teaching Kids Timekeeping with Kanban post in their entirety. Maritza is also one of the authors of the book Beyond Agile: Tales of Continuous Improvement.

Photo 1: Credit
Photo 2: Credit

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

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Clean Up The DONE Column

You have my word that after this post, there will be no more memegenerator pictures..post5

How do you know when to clean up your DONE column?

When it is full.

I mentioned in our first post in this series that we were showing our board to people in classes and on consulting engagements. The DONE column showed that we were really really productive. It was huge. It went on forever. Hundreds of completed tasks.

So, how do we clean up our DONE column?


Every Friday we meet and discuss what we’ve been doing and move the tickets from DONE into an archive column. For a physical Personal Kanban, this might be a box or a folder. We discuss what we did and how things went, focusing on areas of improvement.

But what happens if you are on the road for four weeks straight and you can’t have a retrospective?

This was happening a lot.

Not Everything Needs to be Discussed

Recently we have discovered that focusing on one or two main projects at a time, the retrospectives change considerably. We set up tactical boards for daily work and focus on that work. We are constantly asking ourselves what needs to be done, how our process is working, and what the best thing is to do next.

The DONE column still fills up with tasks, but now we understand the nature of these tasks. We are also starting to flag improvement ideas to discuss. We now pull those tasks in real time, as opposed to waiting for a retrospective. So Tonianne might come up with a few improvement tasks and we’ll discuss them the next morning.

This frees us up to archive routine or comfortable tasks when the DONE column starts to fill up.

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

Written in Mesa, Arizona

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