The Pen: Managing Stalled Tasks

This question is from an interview I just did with an internal magazine with ExileSoft, a Sri Lankan company. The question has been haunting me, though, so I’m extending my reply in this post.

Thushara’s question:

“I started to practice Personal Kanban. But I got stuck at some point.  I ended up having too many tasks in the “Pen” which never moved.  (This interview was a good example. It was there over 9 months). What should I do?”


When we first created THE PEN to allow us to sequester tasks delayed by forces beyond our control, we realized that it ran the risk of becoming a sinkhole – a place where work would fall never to be seen again.The Pen Personal Kanban

Here we see a kanban with a THE PEN column. The ticket in there says “Schedule Plumber”. If we didn’t have a column like THE PEN our DOING column would quickly become mired in work that wasn’t complete – but we could not work on.

So THE PEN is necessary in Personal Kanban, but, as Thushara has found, it doesn’t stay looking nice and neat like this for long. It fills up with every promise someone has ever made to us and we’re left with the visual record of eternal repeating disappointment.

Okay, maybe it’s not that bad.

But, for us, half exercised options (which is what a half-done task is) are unacceptable. So, we have a few rules of thumb:

MAKE THEM ACTIONABLE: Items in THE PEN should either be obviously waiting on work by others and have born on and revisit dates. When you move something to THE PEN, note when it went in, why it is there, and when you should revisit it.

FINISH BEFORE START: Always look at your Pen before your pull a new task. Clean your house before you buy new things.

WIP LIMITS: Set limits on the Pen – both for age and for number of tasks. When you reach a limit, you need to place concerted effort in getting rid of those tickets.

ASK WHY: If you see tasks backing up ask yourself  “Why are these in THE PEN?” Because, you know what? If you didn’t have the Personal Kanban … it would still be stuck. You’d just forget about it over time. So, is it in the pen because it isn’t relevant anymore? Is it there because a project didn’t get finished?

ACT:You need to act on those tickets. You can do one of the following:

  1. Nothing – If you are honestly waiting on someone and there is nothing you can do, then leave it in THE PEN.
  2. Refresh – Contact the people on the card(s) and remind them that you are waiting
  3. Escalate – If there is an escalation path (someone to involve of higher rank to increase the urgency of the task for others) bring them in. If there is not, contact the people who are holding up the work and make the ticket’s value for you very clear to them.
  4. Push – You have a pull system but others do not. If a card is stuck simply because others are procrastinating or don’t care – take the card to them and work it off your board.
  5. Recategorize – If this task is not waiting for a person to do something, but for an event to happen (like a trade show or a deliverable deadline) that is forseeable and in the future, declare this task done and make a new ticket for follow up at that later date which can go in your backlog.
  6. Kill it – If the option value for this task has expired or the coordination costs are too high, you can decide that ticket is done and contact the people letting them know you’ve had to kill it.
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3 Responses to The Pen: Managing Stalled Tasks

  1. Pingback: Notes on Personal Kanban | Gareth on IT

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