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Jim Benson


What? You Say You Have Too Many Projects and Can’t Limit WIP?

Experimenting with new ways to visualize our work and limit our work-in-process (WIP)

Published: Thursday, February 22, 2018 - 13:02

Tonianne DeMaria and I run the Personal Kanban, Modus Institute, and Modus Cooperandi Corp-o-plex pretty much duo-handed. There’s a lot of work. The rules of Personal Kanban apply to us, too. We are constantly experimenting with new ways to visualize our work and limit our work-in-process (WIP).

Right now, we have five proposals out, are discussing potential work with four other organizations, are supervising another translation of Personal Kanban, have a major client with seven concurrent internal projects, are putting out a new product (coming soon!), have two other clients that require touch, a new project of Toni’s, group classes for Modus Institute to track/schedule/lead, eight conferences at which to speak or teach, and the usual biz dev/taxes/paperwork. Oh, we’re also redesigning websites, making marketing collateral, having interviews with the press, and conversations with people.

So, how do you limit your WIP when it takes a paragraph to list just the types of work out—not even the tasks.

Well, the answer is simple... ish.

Project tracking. Click here for larger image.

I’ll write about how we schedule out our weeks when I have more data about how our current shared board is working. But for this article, I just want to talk about this board.

This is my personal in-flight board that is keeping track of all things Modus for me.

Blue column headings note client work, business operations, or speaking/open classes.

Green big-bet stickies track my big bets (work I expect to take more than a month to complete or are the entire project).

Orange stickies are either the upcoming value delivery package or event (proposal, call, class video, etc).

Red stickies are highlights that the big bet needs action.

Purple are today’s WIP. (It’s Sunday, so I’m just getting two things out and writing this article).

The columns tomorrow will be joined by our week’s big bets—Toni and I select two or three things each week to “knock out.” Last week it was to get a prototype design of our new product to the producer, which I’m happy to say we did.

We pick a few big bets each week that can live in the flow of the work you see here. That way we make sure that company goals and needs are both met.

Inked board

Actual tasks are not tracked on this board. They are on my pretty eternal “Immediate Personal Kanban,” which has been up long enough for the title stickies to be faded and the “Options” column to actually say ready. (Let this be a testimony to Post-it Super Sticky Notes).

The two items in “doing” are the two items in the purple ticket.

Mea culpa

While writing this I “remembered” three other things to put on the portfolio wall and two more things on this board.

The important thing to remember is that Personal Kanban is always an exercise in keeping track, keeping honest, and keeping control. We lose track, we lie to ourselves, and we surely lose control all the time. Don’t lose heart, just know that this is part of being human and busy.

The exercise

1. Take several colors of Post-it Super Sticky Notes
2. Decide colors for title, big bet, active work (what you need to do), status (what is in flight and you don’t need to act on right now), and current WIP.
3. Start writing down all your responsibilities as projects/big bets
4. Ask yourself as you go along, “Is this how I want to spend my time?”
5. Note big bets, projects, or tasks that you answer “no” to.
6. Begin to strategize how to make that work improve or go away.
7. Systematically and calmly do the rest.

My goal at the end of any day is to get those red stickies to disappear. In essence, turning the board into active tasks I’ve let fly. In this way, I’m able to keep multiple responsibilities in flight while limiting my WIP.

Over time, I’ve asked myself that question a lot. It’s led Toni and me to select customers carefully and extract ourselves from situations in which we were personally invested but that didn’t lead to a healthy company or healthy Toni and Jim.

So, be busy... but be busy right.

First published January 2018, on the personalkanban blog.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

A pioneer in applying lean and kanban to knowledge work, and an internationally recognized speaker and writer, Jim Benson is CEO of the collaborative management consultancy Modus Cooperandi. He is a fellow in the Lean Systems Society and recipient of the Brickell Key Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, 2012. He is the creator of Personal Kanban and co-author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2011) and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013).