Kanban, thank you ma’am

I’ll be leaving Macmillan Publishers in two weeks, after seven years’ loyal service. A lot of work had to be squeezed into every week if books were to be signed up, edited, reviewed, sent to print, and the little details satisfied, such as their having covers and blurbs. Digital projects were even more complex. So I made detailed lists and bored my colleagues to tears with the virtues of the pomodoro technique.

But lists get old and they don’t usually tell you where a project or task is in its lifecycle. It’s either waiting to be done or crossed out. Creativity and problem-solving may require planning, several attempts and one or more reviews. You could add these stages as separate tasks on your list, or you could use a kanban approach. The latter involves visualising a typical workflow, usually from left to right. Tasks move from one side of the kanban board to another, perhaps regressing a step if a review determines that more work is needed. For the past couple of months, I’ve been using the following stages as a workflow:

  • To do
  • Planning/started
  • Doing now/today
  • Review
  • Done

One principle of kanban is to get a consistent ‘flow’ of tasks reaching completion. Ideally, you want to move things fairly quickly through the stages (though some items will need to wait at the review stage longer than others). In order to do this, you should limit the number of tasks moving through the flow at any one time. This is especially true of the ‘Doing now/today’ stage in my system. When you get down to work you’ll have a snapshot of where everything is and should be able to spot a few things that can be finished off.

Here’s an example board:

mark cooper's kanban example

Kanban is an agile project management methodology that began at Toyota. Apparently they were making too many car doors or something and needed a way to limit production of some components while others caught up. For your own kanban board, you could move post it notes over your desk, paper squares on a pinboard, or one of many digital options (Trello is good and allows you to add checklists and deadlines to each item).