Open Kanban’s Productivity Secrets: Visualizing Work

Open Kanban Horizontal Board - Visualizing Work

Who wouldn’t like to have 3 or 4 more hours in the day? Who wouldn’t like to have their full to-do list done in a day! Like so many others, I also dreamed of a time when I would feel the great satisfaction of crossing all my to-dos off my list. This however didn’t happen often, and the few times it did, it was a bittersweet victory, in order to have victory at work, usually my personal life would suffer. Wouldn’t an extra hours in the day work to accomplish the miracle?

Well I can say I did try a lot. I remember once trying to wake up at 4 am for a week so that I would get through my exams in university. And although it did work, after the horrible effort, I only wanted to sleep and never do it again. After the reduced sleep failed, I also tried David Allen’s system of Getting Things Done. Honestly it did help a bit, mostly it helped me organize, but still no solution, the problem continued I still needed many more hours in a day… until I started getting deep into this Agile / Lean method called Kanban.

Now before I continue, I wanted to make this more like a conversation, where you could somehow ask me your questions as I go, a bit of the Socratic method, plus a good avenue for feedback while I explain to you how this Kanban secret works. All right? So imagine Alex is the interviewer, and he represents you.

ALEX: Well I have heard a little about Kanban, I guess it’s one of those Agile methods for IT and software development right?

JOSEPH: Mostly yes, but nowadays you can find several flavors of Kanban, I wrote Open Kanban as a free alternative. In addition our company teaches Kanban Ace, an expanded version of Open Kanban that is not free, but has been enhanced for business and IT.

ALEX: OK, I see, but how does Open Kanban, or Kanban Ace for that matter can make me more productive. Can I truly get more hours in the day somehow? That would be great!

JOSEPH: Well the short answer is sure it can! The long answer is that in order to understand the secrets of Open Kanban productivity you must understand two key practices: Visualize your Workflow and Reduce BASE. Today we will discuss Visualize your Workflow, perhaps the one with the largest impact.

Visualize your Workflow is relatively easy to grasp but it has tremendous benefits. Instead of building a to-do list, you imagine the phases that your work must go through to achieve success. Then place identify those stages in a visual board. A pen and paper are enough to do it, and that is how I will do it here. Imagine your weekly to-do list, and the stages your work goes through until it’s done, like I show you here:

- Items you truly wish done, but have no idea when they will be done.
- Your wish list has many sizes, some things are simple like buy milk
- Other things on your wish list are complex like buy a house, or write a book
- Here you take the items from the WISH LIST and make them a priority, a real action item for the day, the week or beyond.
- Stuff you do now, not planned, this you are doing right now. 
- You pull what you had in ACTIONABLE and move it here to work :-)
- Stuff that can't be done in a day or a week, so you have to keep going at it for a while. 
- People call this sometimes these efforts projects.
- This is the celebration area, your victory lap! Much better than crossing a list item :-)
- Move or pull stuff from DOING and ONGOING here
- Focus on observing your progress or flow, and learn from it.

The CAPITAL headlines mean a stage of effort, the bullets symbolize work items, although now I use them to illustrate how the board itself works.

Now you can have that list above a whiteboard, a notepad, wherever you prefer, the key thing is that you update it every day. We recommend an electronic Notepad since it would be very easy to move items from one SECTION to another just using doing cut and paste. But a physical notepad would work fine too.

Once you have this system going, the Visual Kanban board will give you something of tremendous value:

  • First you can see progress! Not just a list that demoralizes people like a to-do list, but a truly nice way to see how your efforts are rewarded, and how progress actually happens!
  • Second it will help you prioritize, by looking at the system, that is actually what you have visualized in your board, you can be able to notice what has an impact on your productivity, and adjust accordingly. You can reduce wasteful effort, and optimize your time. Guess what you will discover you have more time after all!
  • Third, don’t just use the list to organize yourself; stop once a week, and once a month to examine what’s going on. Learn from the patterns on the board, and discover how you can be more efficient, and wiser. No one can get more hours on a day, but we can all learn to act smarter! =)

ALEX: Wow! That was a lot of information, but pretty simple. It feels like a super upgrade on my to-do list on my iPhone? So to do that I could even use an app like Notes right?

JOSEPH: Absolutely! And of course a physical Notepad with stickies that you move from one STAGE to another would work too. You can also try Kanban apps or websites, but the truth is that a simple notepad, or free Notes app would be enough. You need more sophisticated tools when you are dealing with teams and businessess, for personal stuff, no need!

ALEX: Cool, I think I got it JOSEPH. Now I remember seeing somewhere in the past a Kanban board like the one you explained above but with columns and stickies moving around. I guess this is the same right?

JOSEPH: Correct, you can visualize that same Kanban board I showed you above vertically, in a horizontal fashion. Vertical is better for Notebooks or note apps; horizontal is usually better for teams and physical whiteboards. Look below I’ve put an example using an electronic board, the content is identical to the one I just showed you before:

Open Kanban Horizontal Board

ALEX: Pefect now I get it, by visualizing my work, my efforts I can learn what’s going on and accomplish more. As a bonus I get to see my progress and feel motivated!

JOSEPH: Precisely!

ALEX: One last question, this is fantastic for my personal stuff, I can use this to organize and be more effective with my time. However I also manage a team, what about that, can Kanban help me there?

JOSEPH: Sure it can! It would take far longer for me to explain exactly how, but in brief the same secret would apply: Visualize Work of your whole team, or even your whole business. After you do that learn how to move work from stage to stage with efficiency and intelligence. We teach this stuff at AgileLion, feel free to check out our classes, or our Open Kanban free webinar.

ALEX: Thanks I do have a lot to get started with. What do you suggest I do first?

JOSEPH: Just start now, build a simple board in your Notes app on the iPhone, and then continue during the week, update it daily. Stop at the end of the week to see your progress, you will discover many productivity opportunities!

ALEX: Thanks a lot, I will do it for sure. Until next time!

JOSEPH: See you soon Alex! Good luck.

That is Visualizing Work in a nutshell, the first productivity secret of Open Kanban and the Kanban Ace method. Learn more with us, or read more about Open Kanban. Feel free to comment this article with your questions, or share it with your friends. May your productivity be increased today! God bless you!

Joseph Hurtado
Founder AgileLion Institute
Kanban Ace Coach - Kanban Ace is the First Open Kanban Method