Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Personal Kanban Week 5

Working on mysteries without any clues

As I’ve been working though trying to adopt this practice, there are questions that have emerged for me. These are questions I don't have answers for...yet. Some are simple, some, not so much. Some fall outside the bounds of Kanban and may be more relevant to general personal productivity. And some of these questions are probably just me getting my obsessive compulsive on.

[cough] Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? [/cough]

Next week I will begin writing about what happened when I tried moving from a physical Kanban board to an electronic one. Before I start on that, I thought it would be a good idea to create a backlog of all the questions I don’t have answers to so far. 

  1. How do I assess “value” in a way that can be applied across all the items on my board if I am tracking both personal and work related items. For example, generating a proposal for a 10 million dollar project seems to have value from the perspective of revenue, improving skill at writing proposals and most likely other areas as well. Having a recurring task to exercise or meditate each day seems to have some value because these are tasks that result in improved
    mental and physical health – which enables me to be more creative and productive. Sitting on my butt for an hour (re)watching old episodes of Firely and eating an inappropriate amount of potato chips may appear to have no value, but I do believe that the slack time, when we are being unproductive and just zoning out for a bit, is important too. How can I measure/understand value across these three types of activities in a way that is uniform enough to let me  compare them to one another?
  2. I’ve slowly been learning that for me, the value of WIP limits is not just to enable me to focus, but also to keep me from being overwhelmed by all there is to do. When I have loaded up my board with everything I can think of that I need to do, it is too much too look at, very difficult to prioritize and it ends up working against me.

    "The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." Oscar Wilde

    There is a tax on productivity that comes from the mental overhead of trying to cope with too much at once. In addition to the fatigue of trying to understand it all at once, there is a sense of guilt or shame that crops up when I find things that have been on the board too long. This productivity guilt can have a brutal impact on my ability to get things done. I’m learning that I can only have so many things in play at once, so I limit what I put on my board. This is fine. I understand this practice and I’m working on getting better at it. But this doesn’t solve my problem. My problem is that I just have too much stuff to do. I can limit the amount I let into the board. But there is still an ocean of stuff waiting outside the club on the wrong side of the velvet rope. It’s been standing there a long time, patiently waiting to get in. Some of it may not be important enough to get in, some of it may need to be culled from the herd. But some of that stuff is important. Either way, I’ve got the mental overhead and the productivity guilt from all that stuff that is out there waiting. It leaves me feeling like I’m only creating the illusion of making progress with becoming more productive. So… what do I do about all the stuff outside the board? Do I need a backlog for my backlog?
  3. I am not tracking how long anything spends in queue for any of my work. I do not have any idea what my velocity is. At the moment, this does not seem to matter, but I am afraid I may be missing something here.

  4. Can I swarm? I’m only one man. I can only do one thing at a time, but there are things that crop up that require (or want) immediate and uninterrupted attention. I recently ran into that with the scope of something I thought would take 2 hours exploded into a 4-day project.  It completely crushed the value of this process for 4 days. And this also applies to non-work items. Baseball season is starting and I’d like to spend some time really studying up on the details for the players for some of the teams so that I can have a deeper understanding of what is happening when the actual season begins. This is a time investment that would put other things on hold. Obviously the value question comes into play here, but so does the impact on other work. Do I need to track how other things that are impacted by swarming? If so, does that mean I need to weigh the value of swarming on X against not swarming on X and continuing to make progress on other items? At what point does this become so complicated that it loses value for me as an approach to being productive?
  5. My workspace is still a disaster. Oh wait... that was a wee bit too negative. My workspace is still "organization in flux".  It is in a constant state of “I’m getting ready to go on the road” or “I just got back from being on the road”.  I'm having a very difficult time employing 5S. Does this matter? How is this impacting my productivity?
  6. Does the fact that I am still using Things to quickly capture items that are later added to the board matter? Is this serving as my backlog’s backlog? Is that a bad thing?

  7. Why does all this make me feel like Hal the obsessive-compulsive vampire?

Podcast Interview with Personal Kanban author Jim Benson

A few weeks ago I had the chance to interview Jim Benson (@ourfounder), one of the authors of Personal Kanban.

You can check out the interview on Projects at Work.

Jim Benson Interview Part 1
Jim Benson Interview Part 2

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Personal Kanban Week 3

Off the Rails…

It was all going so very well. By the start of the 3rd week I was beginning to get the hang of the process. I wasn’t a shining model of productivity, but I was certainly making improvements.  I was learning a lot about how I worked and what I needed to do to become more productive. I had started making notes about all the experiments I wanted to run in the coming weeks.  I was keeping my PK Journal up to date. The only issue was that I hadn’t tried it with real work yet because I was also still on staycation. (I travel a lot for work, so when it comes to vacation, I’m totally happy to just spend the time at home becoming fully present with what a bad decision it was for someone who is horribly allergic to cats to adopt three of them.) Being at home for the first part of this experiment had allowed me to establish the physical habits of personal kanban and my hope was that this would keep me rooted in the practice once I was on the road again.

So naturally, the obvious next step was to completely screw that all up.

I had planned to be away on a retreat for a few days during the 3rd week. While I was there I picked up a slight cold that immediately turned me into a walker for about 8 days. Both of these events meant that for a period of almost 2 weeks, I was completely unable to do work on anything on my board.

Failure Bow

So… time for a Failure Bow

(If you aren't familiar with the Failure Bow, I'd like to recommend watching the Matt Smith TED talk below.)

While it would be easy to rip myself up for losing step, I knew that was going to happen at some point. What I was more interested in was what it would take for me to recover when it did happen.

Since I’d been keeping detailed notes on what was and was not working I turned to those to try and see what issues were causing the biggest trouble.

“Hi, My name is Dave… and I’m a Things-aholic.” 

I was still using Things every day. I was recording tasks on my board and working them, but there were additional items in Things that I worked on and they never made it to the Kanban board. Most of them were personal items, but it did seem kinda of pointless to me to be working with two tools at once. It just divided my focus and make getting anything done that much more complicated.

I decided that I was going to start capturing everything I do on the board. I took everything listed in Things and created a post it for each item. I sorted and grouped the whole thing on my Kanban board. My plan was to try and go one week without using Things. During that time I would rely 100% on the Kanban board.

I made some modifications to the layout of my board as well. I added blocked boxes for some of the swimlanes and also made adjustments to my WIP limits.

I decided that I would start each day with (re)prioritization

I had learned that travel can have a very negative impact on working this way. I had a number of jobs coming up that would require travel. So, I decided to start researching electronic tools so I could test one out during my next trip.

One of the things I have found to be invaluable in this whole process is having the physical board to return to when things break down. There have been a number of events and situations that resulted in me needing to reset my approach.  I’ll be posting about them in the coming weeks. For anyone who is going to try personal kanban, my first advice would be to start out with a physical board and develop good habits with your practice. These will be an important touchstone for you as you work through the changes this approach will have on your work.

The final thing that came out of my retrospective for iterations 3 and 4, was a new question… what should I do about recurring tasks? Was it really going to be worth creating post-its for recurring each item so that there was a card for each one on each day of the week? That seemed ridiculous. I had no answer, but sometimes, just having the question is a good start.  

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Girl Scout Kanban

I’ve been writing for a few weeks now about my Personal Kanban Experiment, but actually, it isn’t just MY experiment. My whole family began using Kanban last December and at the start of the new year my wife and I spent a day teaching the basics of Kanban to a small group of Girl Scouts.

One of the main things I do for a living is teaching Agile. I’ve also been teaching people how to manage technology projects using more traditional methods for about 15 years. While I will (hopefully) never say I am expert at it, I do believe I have a fairly good handle on the types of things that make it difficult for people to learn this stuff. I come to each class hopeful, but also ready for the struggles that sometimes come with helping people learn a different way of working. That being said, there has been absolutely nothing I have seen in 15 years of teaching that could have prepared me for that Saturday in January that my wife and I spent at the local Girl Scout HQ.

Among her many other accomplishments, my wife is a Girl Scout Leader and a teacher. She’s never taught Agile before, but she has taught Project Management and she’s been working on a Kanban experiment of her own.  When my wife first asked me about doing the class together I was very excited about it. For one, my she is my favorite person to work with but also, I saw this as a chance to start teaching Agile to a group of young women who were already training to be leaders in whatever they go on to do in life. More importantly, this was a chance to teach them Agile BEFORE they learned waterfall. I was/am giddy at the possibilities this presents for them when they enter the workforce.  My wife was already pretty familiar with all of the kids who attended our class. I was only familiar with one of them – my daughter.  And, as the day drew closer, the terror over teaching kids instead of adults took hold. I was worried that my stories wouldn’t resonate, I knew most of my jokes wouldn’t work and I was pretty sure that at some point I’d slip up and my language would include phrasing that was perhaps a bit to colorful, or just plain weird for the room.

Still, with the possible exception of properly loading the dishwasher, I completely trust my wife and she’s had a lot of experience at trying to keep me from being an idiot, so my plan was to try and do my best to adapt the things I normally teach so that they’d make sense for the Girl Scouts.  We started the day by explaining the basics of Kanban to them. We talked about what a Kanban was, where it came from, how we wanted to have a board with three columns in it. We talked about WIP limits and agreed on some basic numbers we would test out. Then we talked about populating and prioritizing the backlog. AND THAT IS WHERE IT GOT WEIRD!

When I teach CSM classes we spend a good bit of time talking about and around the Product Backlog before we actually build one. We discuss a variety of prioritization techniques and the various merits of different ways of sizing work.  Even though it is something we ease our way into, for many, it is still a struggle.  However, take a small  group of 12-15 year old Girl Scouts, and tell them this:

We need a list of all the stuff we want to get done in this session today. We need to list each thing on a separate post-it and put it up here in the column we’ve labeled Product Backlog. Then, we need to figure out which stuff is most important and organize the stuff in the backlog from most important to least important. We can change our minds about the order later, but we need to know what to start with now. 

After you utter these four sentences, you may have to be prepared to spend a few minutes brainstorming with them to generate the list. You may also have to establish working agreements (should we list bathroom break, or not?). But, within about 5-7 minutes, you’ve got a full backlog that has been prioritized based on the collective agreement of a group of kids who have all eagerly, and actively participated in the process.

I thought my head was going to explode.

And then, it got even weirder as the Agile-ish behavior took hold…

As they began pulling items from the Ready column into the Doing column, the girls self organized into small groups. (Apparently young Girl Scouts know how to do this instinctively… there may be a badge.)

Then, as they were working, one of the girls was hungry… well, ok.. she wasn’t hungry… she was ABSOLUTELY STARVING TO DEATH! She expressed her need It was acknowledged by the other teams. They examined the board and realized that the only way to pull Lunch into the doing column was to complete one of the tasks that was being worked on. That fact established, they swarmed on the task that was closest to done so that they could move it over and pull Lunch into doing in order to save the life of their team member. With respect to swarming, I’m accustomed to seeing adults have a rational adult discussion about whether or not to swarm, and if so, what to swarm on. I’m completely not familiar with the insane idea that humans could just look at a board of Kanbans, identify the item without discussion and swarm on it without having to talk/debate about it first.

The rest of the day was filled with similar types of experiences. Because we wanted to give them a way to measure their progress towards completing the items in their backlog, we taught them to use a burndown chart… which they updated vigilantly every 30 minutes. Each time a group finished an item on the board, they ALL walked up to move it over together because they were part of a team and wanted to celebrate in the accomplishment.

I was at a loss. Where was the frustration, the anger, and the arguments? The blind panic at the idea that items that need to be addressed were not going to be the responsibility of one person (who we could hurl under bus if/when necessary). My wife and I were discussing the freak-ish behavior we were seeing… wondering when, why and how it is that this open-ness gets removed from the equation, and more importantly, how we could stop that from ever happening.  It was a truly amazing day.

I often say that I learn more from the students than they learn from me. Never was this more true than the day my wife and I spent teaching Girl Scouts about Kanban. Not only did I get a lightbulb upside the head with the understanding that this open, collaborative way of working was something that wasn’t born into them, but I came away with the understanding that, left to their own devices, the Agile-ness is already there.  IMHO, what we have to do is find a way to help kids sharpen their Agile nature it and find a way to protect it from the waterfall.

My wife and I are now preparing for a longer project to help provide more agile training and coaching for some of these young ladies as they begin working towards their Gold Award. (The Gold Award is the highest achievement a Girl Scout can attain. It is the Girl Scout’s equivalent of the Boy Scout’s Eagle Scout.) For each of them this will involve managing complex projects that span several months and involve multiple teams on a variety of efforts.  I the Kanban training is any kind of indicator, this is going to be an amazing learning experience for all of us.