Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Personal Kanban Week 9

Productivity Hangover

Ten minutes ago I was supposed to be writing this blog post. What I was doing instead was cleaning out the articles I have stored in Instapaper that have been in the queue for so long that they are no longer worth reading. This seemed really important at the time. And, I was actually-really supposed to be writing this blog post 30 minutes ago. But 30 minutes ago I was doing the stuff I meant to do 2 hours ago. And that is because 2 hours ago, I was still asleep because I stayed up until 3 AM trying to finish the things I had planned for the yesterday. This morning is all about the productivity hangover.

Yesterday, like most days, I planned too much into the day. There was no realistic way I’d be able to get it done given the fact that time is not quite as flexible as I’d like it to be and that I don’t have one of those boxes from Primer.

When a Problem Comes Along...

In working through this Personal Kanban project there is a question thing that has remained kind of an open issue for me the entire time. What about WIP? If you aren’t familiar with it, WIP stands for Work in Progress. In Kanban, the goal is to limit your work in progress in order to help maximize your throughput. Or, to put it more simply, you need to understand how much you can do at once before you start mucking things up. Once you understand that, you need to prevent yourself from taking on too much at once (and mucking things up). This also helps you understand how long it takes to get items through the system.

For the most part, the practitioners of Personal Kanban that I have spoken with have admitted that WIP is not something they pay much attention to. In speaking with them I did not dig too deeply on that topic at the time because it seemed to be non-critical. I was looking at WIP as a holdover from a more traditional approach to Kanban that had less relevance in Personal Kanban. Also, whether or not it is right or wrong, the items on my board are not sized in any way. Everything is the same, whether it is a writing a new Statement of Work, doing a load of laundry, finishing Clive Davis’s biography, or going through the legal steps of closing down a company. It is all just stuff I am trying to prioritize and do.

If you can dodge a wrench…

A few weeks ago I started working with an Agile Coach who was willing to take on the role of being my Personal Kanban Coach/Sherpa/Confessor. I am very fortunate that he was willing to take this on. The guy is brilliant and I have mad respect for him. I also can’t help but feel a bit bad for the guy. As far as being a coachee goes, I’m definitely having much with the room for optimization.

When I told him I told him I wasn’t really tracking my WIP I am pretty sure I heard him fall off his chair. The productivity guilt monster reared up and shamed me… so I recanted. I explained that I was tracking WIP …-ish. Which meant I had listed a number for WIP at the top of each of my columns and then I just wildly ignored that whenever the hell it seemed convenient…. Which was/is most of the time.

Putting the “fun” back in dysfunction

Shockingly, there are days when I can’t get everything done. Many times the reason is that I have other activities scheduled during time I would otherwise be working. I feel safe in the assumption that I am not alone in this. And yet for many of us, we somehow manage a level of delusion that permits us to plan to do work during the time we know we will be otherwise engaged. When this happens, we have these items, which we unrealistically planned, which cannot be completed on the schedule we put together. I have a master’s degree in project management and I’m deep with the Agile. I know how I am supposed to do this. I also know that how I am doing this is not healthy. I know it is not realistic. And yet it happens, over and over. I’m slowly becoming even more aware of how sharply fundamental an issue this is and how deeply and negatively it impacts my productivity. Because I do not have a clear and present awareness of my capacity and how to plan for that without exceeding it, I am always overfilling my bucket.  When I am teaching people in a work setting about how to keep from doing this, it’s easy to explain. I even have a calculator I’ve made for folks to use to help prevent them from overcommitting themselves each Sprint. But on an individual level am I really supposed to size every single thing I do and plan for doing just that and no more? That’s just not realistic.

And suddenly, just like that, I’m one of “those” students. The ones who like the ideas behind Agile, but who really need to spend some time at the Wall of Won’t.

(The teacher in me would now like to take the student in me out back now for a quick kneecapping… just for good measure.)

Sadly, I do not have a card for that on my board.

I hate when that happens.

Sherman! Time for a new Experiment!

I believe that understanding my capacity at a daily level, and planning to meet, but not exceed that capacity will allow me to complete more work each day. I believe that getting more items to a done state each day, and not leaving a lot of unfinished work on the board will have a positive impact on my ability to get work done that will further improve my productivity. I also believe that if I do not plan to do more than is possible in a day I will be better enabled to get the rest I need to be as productive as possible in future day. This is all common sense. It’s been proven over and over. We all have that voice in our heads telling us that we are special, that we can do more, that we are not bound by the normal laws of time and physics.

Yeah… not so much.

To experiment with this I am going to run two tests. First, I’m going to try the easy one … estimating ideal time for the items in my list and then also estimate my capacity. It will involve some overhead because I am going to have to do this every day, but I will try it for a week to see what happens.

The second part, which will be more challenging for me will be to try breaking my work up into pieces that are small enough to track progress on a daily basis. I’m going to run this for two weeks and then report on it.

Next week I’ll be back to the topic of software for Personal Kanban.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Podcast Interview with Factory of One author Dan Markovitz

A few weeks ago I had the chance to interview Dan Markovitz. Dan is the author of "A Factory of One", a great book on Personal Kanban. The podcast is hosted on the Projects at Work site here.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Personal Kanban Week 7


I had run across nomad8’s Kanbanfor1 physical boards at an Agile conference during the previous
year. While one part of my brain looked at them and thought, "Wow, they are really charging a lot (about $28) for something I could put together myself on a chalkboard, whiteboard or refrigerator for $0. It was difficult for this part of my brain to get a message through edge-wise because the other part of my brain was drowning it out. The other part of my brain apparently thinks if I amass a certain volume of apps designed to “improve” my productivity I will somehow magically be transformed into some hyper productive version of myself that can work a 16 hour day, spend several hours of quality time with my wife and daughter at night and still manage to get something called “a full night’s rest”.  That part of my brain was shouting BUY THAT NOW NOW NOW NOW NOW!"

Fortunately, I was able to talk myself down… probably by spending the same insane amount of money on a book I haven’t read.

When I found the app for the iPad though… I really compelled to test it out. And, it is very pretty to look at. I used it for several weeks… or rather, I tried to, did I mention it is very pretty to look at? This posting will concern it self with my review of the app. (Next week I’ll talk about what happened in between my attempts to get my world sorted with Kanbanfor1.)

The app has updated since I began testing it, so some of my concerns may have gone addressed already. I also think it is important to state up front that the issues I had with the application are not really problems with the application, they are problems with my approach to work.

The Basics

Kanbanfor1 is laid out in a very clean, basic way. You get boxes for the following:

  • Things to Do
  • Next
  • Doing
  • Waiting
  • Done
  • Notes

You also get a trashcan where you put the notes when they reach a state of whatever comes after done… ascended maybe?

The app is about as basic and simple to use as it could possibly be. There is a box with a “+” sign in the top left of the screen. Click it, and you get a New Task pop-up. You enter the task description, select from one of 6 colors for your task and click Done.  The task shows up in the Things to Do column. You can move it across the board. That’s it. That is all it does. I love that. It is what made me want to try it. ... (Once I came to grips with the fact that if there is a Kanban app that allows for online/offline access with sync. I am unable to locate it.)

I placed a task of each color in the notes field and used the names from the swim lanes on my physical board. I then replicated all the tasks from my board into Kanbanfor1. As far as I know, there is  no capacity for WIP limits in this app… it is bare bones, but kind of elegant in its’ simplicity.

(And did I mention it is pretty?)

While I knew this was going to be an issue, I underestimated how annoying it would become.  What I store on my iPad is only available on the iPad. This is great when I’m teaching a class or sitting on the couch, with my iPad. This is completely useless when I am trudging through an airport with a ridiculous amount of luggage. So, in those moments, I’m back to Things…, which I then re-enter into Kanbanfor1.

This lack of constant access didn’t seem to me like it should be a big deal. In practice though, I noticed that rather than updating as I go, which I do with the physical board, I was just not doing that with the app on my iPad. I ended up just capturing things at the end of the day. A subtle difference, but it meant that when I was posting the updates, I was having to look through all the tasks, figure out which ones I had completed and move them from Things to Do into Done. I lost the value that comes from the staged movement, and I lost the boost from moving it into Done when I completed it.

What was a more significant issue for me was the fact that there is no ability to change the size of the
board. Sure, you can pinch and zoom, but it just makes the stickies larger too. If you have 10-20 things to do, this board is great. If your backlog has 30-40 things in it, this board is tough to work with. At least if you are going for that whole big, visible information radiator thing. In order to get all my tasks on the board I had to create stacks. So, in "Things to Do" I have a stack of things I have to do for work. There may be 10 things in there, I have to just stack them up, maintaining priority is not easy – you have to unstack the tasks one by one, and then restack them. (If you happen to suffer from something in the neighborhood of OCD, you are looking forward to hours spend restacking tasks in priority every time you want to work in a new item.)

So what I end up with (sans the WIP limits) is stacks in each of the boxes. While I love the simplicity and I think the way the app is designed makes a lot of sense, for someone who is carrying a lot of tasks, this board will simply not work. I think if there were some capacity to manage the height of the boxes, or the size of the tasks, it may work better. Unfortunately, at least while I was testing it, this was not the case. If, however, I had a more manageable set of Things to Do, and I was always going to have my iPad with me (the way I do my phone), I think this app would be a perfectly fine solution… even without the syncing.

Help Wanted

If anyone who reads this can recommend an app that offers online and offline access with a sync to reconcile changes, that is available on IOS, please let me know. I have been researching them, but so far, it is all about the cloud. I think the cloud is great, but when I’m stuck in the actual clouds for several hours at a time, I need to be able to enter new items and make updates.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Personal Kanban Week 6

What if you mix the mayonnaise in the can, WITH the tunafish?

By week 6 I felt like I had begun to get the hang of a basic working practice of doing Personal Kanban using a physical board. I definitely still had room for improvement, but I felt ready to start on the next phase of this experiment  - tracking the work using an electronic board. Another reason I wanted to begin this phase was that I was about to begin traveling and teaching again.

The questions I initially had about this were:
  1. Could I maintain the working habits I had established using an electronic board?
  2. Could I find a tool that was as easy for me to use as a physical board?
  3. Could I fit all the work I was carrying on to the physical board?
  4. Could I find a tool that would allow me to work in an offline mode and have any changes I made sync up when I went back online?

There were a number of concerns I had about each of these questions.

Maintaining Working Habits

When I am teaching Scrum classes or coaching I always advocate starting out with a physical practice of working with a board on the wall whenever possible. There are two primary reasons for this.

The first is that when people are adopting an Agile practice, doing the work with physical tools allows the practitioners to develop their own working version of Scrum. Once they have established their practice, they gain clarity on what they need a tool to do for them. If they begin with an electronic tool, they learn to work the way the tool works. Each of the tools offers it’s own take on Agile and this may, or may not work to the benefit of the practitioner, but more often than not I’ve seen people rely on the tool to drive their habits (or provide them with an excuse for not applying some aspect of a practice.)

The second reason is that while it may not seem like a big deal, there is a psychological boost that comes from walking up to a board and moving a card into the Done column. It’s not a huge boost, but it is a good feeling to physically do that. If you can do it multiple times a day, there is an increased sense of accomplishment and this helps drive the practice. While I do think there is also a boost from doing the same in electronic form, I have not personally found that to be as positive an experience.

Ease of Use

Since I was still in the beginning stages of training myself to work this way, I wanted to make sure I would be able to find a tool that would allow me to maintain the good habits I was developing, while allowing me to continue to experiment. I also wanted to make sure that the process of creating a task, or moving a task would be as simple/easy as writing something down on a post it and moving it across a physical board. My assumption was that if the tool proved to be more complicated to use than a physical board, I would be less likely to maintain or improve on the habits I was developing. Anytime using software becomes more difficult to use than paper it makes work harder. That would obviously work against my goal for this entire project.

Fitting it All In

When I made the decision to try to include everything I do on the board my board became pretty crowded. I even had to switch to smaller post its in order to be able to fit everything. My goal was to find a tool that would allow me to keep all the work in one place, but it also had to be stored in a way that was big and visible enough for me to be able to see everything all at once.

Off the Grid

This was the biggest challenge for me. I have spent the last two + years teaching myself how to stop letting things slip through the cracks by relying on Things and Evernote. Both of these tools allow me to work on multiple devices and then have changes sync up when I reconnect. Basically, whenever I think of something I need to do, or encounter information I expect to need later, my goal is to get that thing out of my head and into something more responsible than me as quickly as possible. I have too much to do and sometimes I forget stuff. I’m also often easily distracted by the “OH LOOK A SQUIRREL!” factor, and I get ideas and find information in odd places when I am not connected. In working this way I have definitely developed a habit of putting more in Things than I can do, but this has helped me keep things from completely slipping through the cracks. Several times a day I review the list of items I have placed in the Today section of Things to clean it up. I do end up moving deadlines on tasks quite a bit, but having them there at least helps remind me that they are there and probably should be dealt with at some point. I also periodically review the items that have moved out of Today into Someday and do my best to cull the herd.

Evernote is like the junk drawer for my brain. It allows me the freedom to fully engage my inner Bill Blazejowski. All the ideas, notes, pictures of weird things that are momentarily important to me for some unknown reason, the books I want to read, and voice notes from “Chuck to remind Bill to SHUT UP!” go in there. There’s a good chance many of those things will get no further than being stuck in Evernote and left to electronically wither… but I do feel more at ease knowing that I have them... just in case.

The problem is, that Personal Kanban seems to be largely focused on reducing the amount of cultter (stuff I’m trying to work on) and moving to an electronic version may make it tough to continue embracing my inner digital hoarder. Six weeks in, I’ve still not been able to break from using Things every day just to capture stuff that may need to be added to the backlog. It may be dysfunctional, but my addiction to storing everything in a place more reliable than my own head is something I’ve been working on developing for a long time. It is definitely more appealing to me than going back to forgetting things I need to do. I was not sure how much of that I’d be able to let go of, or if doing so was even necessary.

So one of my goals for Sprint 6 was to select a tool and start testing. The first tool I decided to try was Kanban For 1. I’ll be posting about that beginning next week.