Merging GTD and Kanban

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Today I’m delighted to present you an interview with Pascal Venier where we talk about merging two productivity methodologies Getthing Things Done by David Allen and Kanban.

Personally it was a great fun to arrange this interview and think of the questions. I’m hopping to do more often.

Now let me pass you to Pascal.

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Can you please provide a short bio (if you like)?

I am a performance coach and trainer in personal productivity, based in Ottawa-Gatineau, in the capital region of Canada. A Frenchman, I was for over twenty years a university professor in Britain, where I have taught at the Liverpool Hope University, the University of Manchester and the University of Salford. Over the last 15 years, or so, I have become increasingly interested in personal productivity. Last year, I fulfilled my ambition to start my own practice, offering executive coaching and training workshops in personal productivity. Whilst I am based in Canada, my services are available internationally : I am a frequent visitor to both Britain and France and my coaching services are available online on Skype. I am currently in the process of completing the French translation of Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry’s Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life.

How long have you been practicing GTD and/or other productivity methods?

I have been practicing GTD for nearly 9 years now. I discovered David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, The Art of Stress Free Productivity, during the summer of 2004. It was a real revelation for me. Unlike the traditional time management methods I had tried before, this flow-based method not only allowed me to gain  — or should I rather say regain — control of my workflows and place my work commitments in perspective. All importantly it gave me the ability to be remarkably flexible and adapt much better to ever changing circumstances.

What is the method that you use the most?

I am currently combining Getting Things Done with Personal Kanban. They both articulate remarkably well, as they are similarly flow-based. I like to speak as my Kanban board as the “front-end” of my GTD system. The GTD workflow process helps me have everything under control. The Six-level horizons of focus allows me to gain perspective on what I do — something which is far from obvious — and Personal Kanban actually helps you not only get things done, but to actually to get the right things done.

What elements of Personal Kanban appealed to you?

Perhaps Personal Kanban’s extreme simplicity. It only involves 2 rules: visualise your work and limit your work-in-progress. As someone who is extremely visual — I am also an avide mind-mapper — the way in which tasks and projects are represented in a visual manner with post-it appeal to me. I also like the way in which the number of tasks you are focussing on at any given time should be be limited as it really helps me with the execution face of my workflows. Personal Kanban does really help you having that all important conversation with yourself, or your team, about your work, in a timely fashion.

How did Personal Kanban improve your productivity?

It has really helped me being more selective about what I was doing, prioritize better, no longer feeling overwhelmed by huge GTD type task lists. One crucial dimension with Personal Kanban is that you actually explicitly visualise the tasks you have accomplished. Being able to see what you have achieved at the end of the week when you conduct your weekly review/retrospective is something extremely valorising. It makes a big difference psychologically.

Did Personal Kanban improve focus and making progress on the selected set of projects/actions?

Personal Kanban has really helped me to improve my focus. Having a WIP limit  — a work in progress limit, in other words limiting the number of things you do at the same time — has helped me a lot in that respect. When you have a WIP limit, you must finish a given task before you can pull another one. “Stop starting, start finishing” is a buzz word in the Kanban community. You cannot complete more work than you can actually process. It is as simple as that. As Jim Benson, Joanne Ho and Maritza van den Heuvel put it in Beyond Agile, Tales of Continuous Improvement : a person who is overloaded cannot provide full attention to the task at hand.”

What was the impact on your workflow?

It is very clear that my work is flowing much better now. At the same time, using Personal Kanban, is really helping me getting in the flow.

Were there any challenges in implementing the Personal Kanban approach?

Not really because it is very simple.

I started implementing Personal Kanban, in a very progressive manner. To start with I carried on using a GTD software, the excellent Nozbe, and simply introduce a WIP limit, something which was very easy, as it was just a matter a limiting the number of actions which would starred. This worked remarkably well. It convinced me to take things further and to also introduce the visualization dimension of Personal Kanban in my GTD implementation and started using the Trello Kanban software.

I was for a time rather reluctant to use a physical board with post-it, but since most of the Kanban practitioners were so enthusiastic about using stickies – something which really struck me when I went to a meeting of the WIP Society in Manchester – that I decided to give it a try. I was extremely surprised to see that going low tech in such a way worked well. I love the kinaesthetic dimension of moving the post-its on the board.

Do you see any areas where the Kanban could handle things better? Are there any elements that you would improve in the Kanban flow?

Well, it is very much a matter for you to conduct little experiments to find out what works best in your personal context. Personal Kanban is based on Lean thinking, which places the emphasis on Kaizen, ie continuous improvement. Think of your Personal Kanban as a tool which is allowing you to conduct little experiments which allow to improve incrementally. There is no such thing as a perfect Personal Kanban design and there are no two boards which are the same. Your own board will be evolving as your work is evolving.

Does it handle all tasks well or are there some that don’t fit into Kanban?

As ever, personal productivity is a matter of common sense. Using a Kanban works extremely well in my experience, however when you have big batches of repetitive tasks it would be an overkill to create a post-it, or a card on an digital Kanban board, for each of them.

This is very much the case about emails. Indeed there are very important emails which deserve a particular attention and as such perhaps do deserve the creation of a card on your Personal Kanban board. However, it is far more expedient to just process most of them as a batch during a time slot you allocate for this purpose.

Personal Kanban makes a clear distinction between pushed work and pulled work. This is between the work which is push towards you and the work you choose to pull and execute. Developing an awareness of this is in my view really important, when dealing with emails. Email is the perfect illustration of pushed work and it is vital to remain in control of what you choose to do. It is all too common for people to lose sight of the big picture and spend too much time processing emails, instead of focussing on their core mission.

When processing your in-box, using a system of tags or folders based on what columns of a Personal Kanban board can be very helpful. For instance, a way of processing emails I have sometimes been recommending involved using the following categories: Priority 3, Priority 2, Priority 1, Ready, Today, Doing (with a limit of WIP). It can help a lot to establish priorities and replace you in the driving seat, especially if you have a chronic tendency to yield to pushed work at the detriment of the work which it is truly essential for you to pull and execute, because it helps you deliver on your core objectives.

*Do you use any specific tools to support Personal Kanban in day to day activities? In your experience, does electronic or paper work better to manage the Kanban boards?
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My favourite formula is to simply used post-it on a wall!  If hyper-geeky software developers have gone low tech and rely on post-it for their complicated software developments projects, it can indeed just work fine for the rest of us!

However, since my job as an executive coach and trainer is to be able to advise clients on the whole range of tools available to them, I have been extensively experimenting with online tools. I force myself to switch regularly between the two approaches: paper-based and digital. My favourite software is LeanKit.

Do you use Personal Kanban on the go? How do you handle that aspect?

Indeed, I also use Personal Kanban on the go. What works best for me, when I am using a paper implementation, is to use a signature book, what we call in France a “trieur-parapheur”, to keep my post-it.

When it comes to the digital implementation, LeanKit makes it easy to access your boards, since it has both an iPhone and an iPad application.

Could you give us an example of your daily routine involving Personal Kanban?

Yes, this starts with a daily stand up in front of the board to review it and update it as necessary. This involves, choosing what I will endeavour to do on the day, by pulling a a few cards into the Today column, as well as the Doing column. It will then be a matter of getting started and work on each of the items in the Doing column, the work-in-progress, with a view to executing them before starting anything else. Each item which has been completed will then be moved in the done column. The idea is for the board to be always in front of you, so you can refer to it, when you need and update it on an on-going basis. New tasks you can think about during the day can be placed on the board immediately.

When do you review your board, how much time do you spend on setting it up etc?

Setting up your first Personal Kanban board is very simple. In its simplest form it would could involve only three columns: Backlog (ie that is all your tasks), Doing and Done. This would provide you with a simple tool which would help you understand your work. It will then be a matter of adapting your board to your context.

Personal Kanban does not provide you with an already made solution, but allows you to progressively develop, through trials and errors, a design which is suited to your needs.

Furthermore, as and when your context will be shifting, you will be easily adapting your design to reflect your changing work reality.

Reviewing your board, is very much an on-going process. Think of your board as the dashboard for your workflow, which you would update in real time. There are times when you feel the need to pause and reflect more carefully about where you stand. Your Kanban will provide all the information you need to make informed decisions about your work.

It is common to review it at the beginning and the end of the day and to conduct a retrospective, a more thorough examination of where your stand and what you have achieved. However, there are no prescription about how often. This can can be at a weekly interval, like with GTD, but also whenever you feel the need for it, especially when your work context is shifting. Flexibility is the key word with Personal Kanban.

**What would be the number of projects/actions on your board.

Whatever is pertinent to your specific context.

Using a Kanban board imposes a number of constraints, as the number of projects and tasks you can place on a board is necessarily limited. So is the number of projects and tasks you can actually execute.

Just like you can have a work-in-progress limit and set a limit to the number of tasks you undertake, it can make a lot of sense to limit the number of on-going projects, in other words having a project-in-progress limit.

I think this notion is very helpful, for it really addresses one of the problems people seem to be struggling the most with when implementing GTD. It is true that part of the GTD process involves drawing a list of all the projects and next actions one need to execute within a period of 12 months. This is all to often wrongly understood as a prescription to consider all the projects in question as active projects. Much to the contrary, a well tuned GTD system, should — unless I am quite mistaken — involves limiting the number of projects which can be conducted at the same time. GTD makes a clear distinction between on the one hand active projects and next actions, and what belongs to the someday-maybe list.

When you use a list system, especially in an electronic format, it can be very tempting to multiply the number of projects with all the next actions they involve. This can have a very negative effect, as youvery easily feel overwhelmed in front of both such a huge list of projects and all the next actions which go with them.

The limitation inherent to the board and the number of stickies you can fit on it, really forces you to concentrate the mind and distinguish between what should have your attention now and what should not. Its limitation is in a sense of strength for it leaves you no choice but to take a reality check.

How much your GTD practice has evolved since you started using Personal Kanban?

What has surprised me most about implementing GTD with Personal Kanban is how eminently compatible the two really are. I have the feeling that this way of doing has really helped me to take my practice to the next level, by slightly paradoxically adhering more closely to the principles of GTD. It has really forced me to think again about the fundamentals. The beauty of Personal Kanban is that its visual dimension really allows you to really have a conversation about your work, wether it is with yourself, your colleagues or your performance coach, if you have one.

Where can people find you on-line?

I am very active on Twitter, where I am @pascalvenier and my website is http://www.pascalvenier.com

On Personal Kanban, I would particularly recommend two blogs : Personal Kanban – Visualize, Learn, Improve blog, run by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry and The Personal Kanban Gallery, a collection of boards curated by my friend Gerry Kirk. I have also written a series of three blog posts on my experience of implementing GTD with Personal Kanban, which may also be of interest to your readers: Doing GTD Kanban Style.

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