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Laurel Thoennes @ Quality Digest

Customer Care

To-Do or Kanban? That Is the Question

Transforming the slings and arrows of outrageous workflow into context and clarity

Published: Thursday, April 14, 2011 - 08:28

“What makes a personal kanban any better than a to-do list?” asked Julie, crossing out a completed task on her “ta da!” list with exaggerated strokes.

“With personal kanban you visualize your work, it becomes tangible, you get kinesthetic feedback, it’s flexible, contextual, and it promotes completion and clarity,” said Kara. “To-do lists don’t.”

“What do you mean?” Julie frowned at her co-worker, pen hovering doubtfully in midair. “I’m looking right at it and writing on the board! I flex; I do stuff out of order all the time. And it feels great when I cross things off.”

“Here,” Kara said, handing over her copy of  Personal Kanban. “Read chapter two while I run an errand.”

“Where are you going?”

“To buy more sticky notes.”

What is Personal Kanban?

Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry have written an excellent book, Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011). The best way for me to tell you about it is to give you my mini version of what I think using a personal kanban is. By all means, let me know if you think I’ve missed a point or the point altogether.

In a tiny nutshell, when using a personal kanban you write out all of your tasks, decide what to do first, decide how many tasks you’re capable of working on at one time, and stay within that limit, taking care to finish what you begin.

There are only two rules for a personal kanban: Visualize your work, and limit your work in progress (WIP).

A condensed example of setting up a basic personal kanban

To visualize your work, you can use anything that allows you to take all that work you have to do out of your head and put it where you can see it in an obvious, accessible place. Use what you prefer, but for this example we’re using sticky notes and a dry-erase board and markers. Draw a table on the board with four columns: Backlog, Ready, Doing, and Done.

Backlog. Write on sticky notes everything you need to do, big and small tasks. Really empty your head for your initial backlog. When you’re done, lay out the sticky notes in your Backlog column (and next to your board if there are too many notes to fit). You may end up using an entire wall; that’s OK.

Ready. Decide which tasks need to be completed first and pull those sticky notes into the Ready column. Don’t spend a lot of time prioritizing here. You have to take things into context and be flexible to what life dishes out. Expect the unexpected, and be ready to prioritize on the fly.

Doing. The goal is to do the right work at the right time, and finish what you start. To do that, you need to divide your workload into manageable chunks. (Note that “manageable” doesn’t mean smaller.) Because the context of your current situation is going to dictate how you manage it, you need a WIP limit. Try setting an arbitrary WIP limit at two. Write the number 2 in the Doing column header as a reminder. Pull two tasks from Ready into Doing. Recognize what’s going on in real time, and accept work as you are able to complete it.

Done. When you’ve finished a task and you pull that sticky note from Doing into the Done column, you’re satisfying your brain’s craving for closure. The rate at which work moves from Ready to Done is throughput—a measurable rate of flow that helps you make informed decisions.

Personal kanban

When you see all of your work laid out in front of you and you pay attention to what’s happening in the throughput, it gives you context, and that context leads to clarity. You gain insight into the way you process work. You see life’s trade-offs. (e.g.,  If you do one Saturday chore each night after work, you can go to the music festival next weekend.) You recognize opportunities that could create future options, which helps you adjust your work as options evolve. (e.g., Your in-laws decided to stay at a hotel so you don’t have to make up the spare bedroom—and you get the clean sheets instead.)

Working a personal kanban allows you to detect the rhythm in your workflow and learn to operate in unison to its beat. Irregularities in this cadence help you zero in, fix problems, and stave off bottlenecks.

Limiting WIP allows you the time to focus; to work with a calm, clear head; to remain flexible; and keep pace with change. Limiting WIP promotes completion and clarity.

To-do list

To-do lists are an inventory of tasks where the goal is to get through the list. They provide no context; whatever occurs while working on a task remains conceptual and easy to forget. You can’t see where things get off track. It’s hard to understand what went wrong when you can’t see or remember what happened. You’re placed in a reactionary mode. To-do lists are static; they have no flow, no rhythm. Instead you rely on deadlines and assumptions that nothing will impede your progress. As soon as you finish one task, you move on to the next without thought, barely acknowledging your achievement.

After receiving the book, Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, the first thing I did was go to the website www.personalkanban.com/pk. I hadn’t visited it since mid-December 2010, when this book was forthcoming and Quality Digest Daily published Benson’s introductory article. I was surprised at how the site had flourished. “This thing must work,” I said out loud, scanning the blog posts. What really struck me was the valuable information and personal knowledge given freely by the authors. This isn’t blah blah with quality buzz words or teaser questions where you’ll find the answer on page 57 of their book. How refreshing.

But as the authors say, “Do the right thing at the right time.” Go get the book and use it as a springboard to create your personal kanban. Besides providing more than enough great suggestions to get you started, there are excellent metrics and design ideas to help you prioritize, improve upon, tailor fit, and get the most from your personal kanban.


About The Author

Laurel Thoennes @ Quality Digest’s picture

Laurel Thoennes @ Quality Digest

Laurel Thoennes is an editor at Quality Digest. She has worked in the media industry for 33 years at newspapers, magazines, and UC Davis—the past 25 years with Quality Digest.



My choice is Kanban as it allows you to have more control over your tasks and it's easier to manage when more complex projects happen especially when you have to collaborate with others.

Kanban has been really trending and has been implemented in various processes like software development, project management, marketing and more. The physical Kanban may not be flexible enough so you can always use a digital version like this kanban solution - Kanzen. This app has some cool features that our team absolutely loved.


I think we call it project management.  The depth of description and number of sub-tasks are determined by the complexity of the tasks.  I think it is helpful to remeber the concept of "ditchikow tsigachi - you need more than one ring master when the circus has more than three rings." 

To-do list vs Kanban board

A to-do list is great when you need to cross out some tasks and be done with them.

Kanban works better for tasks that require multiple steps. For example, writing a blog, reviewing it, posting it could the steps for a blogger. For muti-step tasks Kanban is just a better visual representation.

A whiteboard with post-it notes can be used for that. Or, on web, apps like smartQ (www.getsmartQ.com) offer a friendly solution.