The Personal Kanban Design Pattern Catalog
Design Patterns for the Individual
Basic Personal Kanban
Subproject Approach Special Personal Kanban
Throughput Approach "Kidzban"
Task-Based Personal Kanban "Authorban
Time Capsule Approach
Polar State Tracking Reflections and Coping Mechanisms
Personal Kanban and GTD Orange Days
"Biblioban" Pomodoro and Personal Kanban
Design Patterns for "Teams"
Mission-Based Personal Kanban
The Churn Chart
Personal Kanban is an open concept that encourages people to visualize their work
and limit their work in progress (WIP). To understand the basics of Personal
Kanban see: http://personalkanban.com/personal-kanban-101/
All too often personal productivity tools claim they have the workflow for personal
work all mapped out. However, personal work tends to be highly contextual. Some
projects you embark upon alone, others you work on with a team. Some you can
see to fruition, while others require outside input. Sometimes work flows in a linear
path from start to finish, other times it is recursive with lots of loops.
What follows is a series of design patterns, ways you can employ Personal Kanban.
Please keep in mind this document is intended to serve as inspiration, and should
not be confused with a how-to manual. Take these suggestions, customize them,
improve upon them.
New design patterns are emerging daily. Watch the personalkanban.com site for
- Jim Benson
-Tonianne DeMaria Barry
Washington DC, December 2009
In life and in business, we create value. For Personal Kanban, “personal” relates to personal
value. Personal Kanban tracks and visualizes items of personal value – tasks, work, and goals.
Industrial-style kanban – as it was conceptualized by Taiichi Ohno and notably implemented at
Toyota – tracks industrial objects of value (tasks) as they travel thru a production stream that is
often predictable. These objects have primary value to the organization. This model, while flexible,
still tracks relatively well-defined objects through a relatively well-defined value stream. Tracking a
crank case over its assembly process is markedly different from tracking the workflow of your
upcoming move or your daughter’s wedding.
In contrast, “Personal Kanban” tracks items of personal value as they travel thru a less predictable
path. These objects are often smaller and more varied.
In Personal Kanban, even when tracking the tasks of a team, the object of value – and by
extension the resultant epiphany about the nature of that work – is still connected primarily to the
Small teams work better when using a group Personal Kanban because such epiphanies are not
only shared, but they can likewise be distributed. A realization that something can be
improved does not have to be limited to your individual work.
Individuals Are Overloaded
Humankind has the best of intentions.
Innately sociable, we have an
almost reflexive willingness to cooperate.
We want to be productive. We want to
help others. To these ends, we take on
numerous little and not-so-little tasks.
Combined, these tasks form our backlog.
Few of us really understand the true weight
of our backlog.
Our backlog is something we carry. But we
can only carry so much and remain
A goal of Personal Kanban is to understand
how much backlog we can actually carry, so
that we can avoid being overloaded.
The Basic Personal Kanban
The most basic Personal
Backlog - Tasks
waiting to be done
Doing - What you are
working on right now
Done - Tasks that are
The procession from the left to
the right side of the Personal
Kanban is called your "value
...more Personal Kanban 101
Personal tasks are often repetitive or
open-ended. Daily phone calls with
your kids, an on-going email thread
with your college roommate, or follow-
up with potential clients are tasks that
need to be carried out, but don’t fit
neatly into a kanban. If you need to
check in with 3 customers on a daily
basis, putting a card on your kanban
every day that says “check in with 3
customers” is foolish. Repetitive tasks
like this – while they may create value
– can also be seen as overhead.
What you can do with these types of
tasks is sequester them in a “Recurring
Tasks” category. On your Personal
Kanban, you can list these in a
sequestered box, simply checking
them off when complete. Then, erase
the checkbox when they need to be
...more on the Sequestering Approach
Personal work is messy. It seldom begins and ends as
we'd like. Consequently, tasks are often left in states
where we've done our part, but completion depends on
the input of others.
In such cases we use something called "The Pen," a
place where tasks rest while they are awaiting action to
be taken by others before we can resume work again.
It helps to note on these tasks what is causing the delay.
It could be that completion depends on a return phone
call, or on an external decision. (And yes, for really
frustrating tasks you may need to blow off some steam in
In our Personal Kanban, we've limited ourselves to 20
tasks in the pen. We rarely let over 6 tasks sit in there.
You don't want it to become a black productivity hole
where work disappears.
On a daily basis we try to review what is in the pen, and
attempt to tasks out of there as quickly as possible.
(A sheepish note on procrastination and Personal Kanban
- it's possible, but you get caught! Look at "Eye Exam!"
We've completed literally hundreds of tasks while I've
consistently put that one off...)
The Subproject Approach
Personal Kanban is not a static to-do list.
Instead, Personal Kanban tracks tasks so
individuals can measure their work and the
value they derive from it.
Your Personal Kanban can have multiple
"swim lanes," and they in no way need to
be coordinate. A task-based swim lane can
rest above one or more subproject swim
lanes with a full value stream.
This allows you to see your current work
simultaneously in both a task view and a
The more you can move large projects into
workflow-based subprojects, the more
control you'll have over them, and the more
insight you'll achieve into their flow.
You have some choices with the subproject
approach when it's combined with the
...more on the Subproject Approach
The Throughput Approach
In the throughput approach, small items are
placed daily, and addressed first. The larger
items can be handled throughout the day,
and will remain on the board as long as it
takes to move them to completion.
The goal here is to ensure that at least a
minimum amount of small tasks are
completed regularly, to help avoid the pain of
a marathon "Time Capsule" day.
Take into account that there will be “flares” –
tasks that arise and are completed during the
course of a day that don’t make it onto the
board. Say your lawyer calls and asks you to
track down an email and forward it to her.
That takes you maybe 15 minutes, but it
never makes it onto the board.
Don’t move small completed tasks off a
throughput board until the end of the
day. The goal is to focus on a certain
number of small and large tasks.
...more on the Throughput Approach
Task-Based Personal Kanban
Sometimes we are presented with a major task
that occurs over a short period of time, and
requires we track more sub-tasks than will fit in
our usual WIP. These times also require
additional information than can be conveyed on
static sticky notes.
To combat this, we use a task-based Personal
1. Tasks are listed in a static list down the
2. The tasks have a work flow
3. The work flow for each task is checked
off upon its completion
4. There is a column for notes as work is
The task-based approach assumes that many
of these tasks will be unfinished at any point in
time. WIP in the task-based approach is what
you are actively working on.
Having a small sticky note that you can put on
the line you are working on at any given time
can be handy. During a time of mayhem (i.e. an
office move) you can assume that interruptions
will be frequent.
...more on the Task-Based Approach
Time Capsule Approach
Sometimes little tasks accumulate as
we focus on the "big things" that need
to be done. In these situations, the
"Time Capsule Approach" can help.
Simply pull the small tasks off your
Personal Kanban, and place them on
your desk. If you are using an
electronic Personal Kanban MAKE
THE STICKIES. Why? Because this is
a tactile exercise. You physically
move a task from Backlog to in
process to complete.
Psychologically, this is fulfilling. It
takes the stress out of hurrying and
replaces it with the satisfaction of
slapping that sticky in
the complete position.
You can combine this with Pomodoro
or other time management strategies
and blast through a tremendous
amount of work. ...more on the Time Capsule Approach
Polar State Tracking
A Polar State Tracker is a visual control that At the end of the week, you add up the total.
tracks YES / NO or DONE / NOT DONE
events. There are several goals here:
1. To remind us to do repetitive tasks
Each line represents a week. 2. To show us how often we actually do them
3. To highlight the variation over the spread of
Each oval represents a day of the week, several weeks
Sunday through Saturday.
There is also a "Notes" section, were you can
Polar State Trackers are handy for tasks record reasons for variation or changes in your
you perform daily, like opening the mail or "habit."
bringing out the recyclables. Monday it ...more on Polar State Tracking
happens, you check off the first box, Habit Tracker by James Mallison
continuing to check the box for each
successive day of the week.
Personal Kanban and GTD
David Allen's "Getting Things Done" (GTD) and Personal Kanban can be mutually reinforcing. Below are some ways
they work well together.
GTD benefits from Personal Kanban's flow and WIP limiting. Visualizing the work flow is a more natural system than
lists or folders. It helps manage the backlog, remove expired tasks, and allows constant refinement of work
GTD, on the other hand, extends Personal Kanban by helping achieve focus, setting long term goals, and sticking to
goals while not losing them in the constant flow of tasks.
There are several much longer posts about GTD and Personal Kanban at the link below.
...more on Personal Kanban and GTD
For the General Reader - "Biblioban"
For the avid reader, the "Biblioban" elegantly provides focus
and priority to a long and overwhelming reading list. It
describes the process from left to right, first prioritizing the
reading, then taking you thru to book completion. With the
exception of the backlog and the completed step, each of
the steps display WIP limit. WIP limiting enables the
narrowing of prioritization and tight focus on the act of
reading, while a WIP of two allows for a fiction and non-
fiction book on the go. To complete a book, we pull a book
off the backlog through the process to add to the flow of
books being read over time.
...more on the General Reader "Biblioban"
Teams are often fragmented.
People tend to have conflicting ideas regarding their
People tend to have diverse interpretations of what
the definition of "done" entails.
People tend to have varying assumptions regarding
their specific role.
People likewise have different understandings of who
is doing what.
A visual control such as Personal Kanban provides a
shared context, thus removing many of these issues.
People quickly see the goals embodied in the work.
They see a common interpreation of what done
means. They normalize their assumptions about their
work. They understand who is doing what, when, and
Mission-Based Personal Kanban
Some days you get together with a colleague and you need
to run through a project quickly. The project is of short
duration, and requires the creation of a set of “things.”
Pictured here is a Mission-Based Personal Kanban I
created in about 3 minutes when my editor and I needed to
quickly populate my book's website with fairly uniform
The green list down the left side represents specific blog
posts that needed to be written. Across the top in
alternating blue and red are the actions that needed to
occur for each post. The blue tasks were mine, the red
tasks were hers.
As we worked through each task, we drew a box to show
the one we were currently working on. A line through the
box meant the task was completed and could be “pulled”
into the next item in the value stream.
The value stream here is:
Draft -> Edit -> Accept -> Publish
Due to the directed nature of this project and the uniformity
of tasks, we had a WIP of one. Each of us worked on one
task until it was completed, and then we’d move on to the
In a very simple pattern, this method establishes a value
stream, limits WIP, assigns tasks, and provides a visual
control for the project.
...more on Mission-Based Kanban
Routing-Slipban – This pattern is pictured
here as a circle but it can, of course, assume
any shape you choose. Routing-Slipban owes
its admittedly inelegant name to the now-
antiquated paper trail tracker that used to
accompany documents as they circulated
throughout an office. People would read the
material, take appropriate action, pass on the
envelope to the next person on the list and
the process would repeat.
With Routing-Slipban, the attached stickey
note includes a short routing slip showing
who has and has not touched the
task. When an individual is done with a
task, they move it into the backlog of
whomever they feel should handle it next. I
would assume this pattern would be best
used by small groups where the individual
members had a very clear idea of whose
attention was appropriate for this task next.
(This pushes work and therefore can be
...more on Recursive Patterns
The Churn Chart
We created this pattern in response to a project at the World Bank. The Churn Chart lists elements
in churn, the people responsible for them, their relative state of completion, and any issues they
may be facing. If the group can meet regularly (or if an automated system can be developed) Churn
Charts are useful for reporting how close to done the element is in that phase.
...an entire InfoPak on the Churn Chart and the World Bank project
Games – even video games – are also generally tactile. There are specific
body movements to make, controllers to hold, buttons to press. This
kinesthetic feedback reinforces the conceptual exercise of goal attainment.
The "Kidzban" has this same kinesthetic feedback. You move a tag to
“done,” you feel the achievement.
Components of a Kidzban:
Ready – Total backlog of tasks. No limit.
Set – Tasks selected to do next. Limit 3.
Go – Tasks now in progress. Limit 1.
Done – Finished!
Here, one large sticky note for the project, and smaller stickies for tasks
within the project are used. They can be populated with either words or
Morgan first moves 3 tasks from “Ready” into the “Set” queue. She then
pulls one of these into “Go” when she starts it. When the task is complete,
she moves it to “Done,” replenishes the “Set” queue, and pulls the next task
into “Go.” When all tasks are done, she moves the large project sticky note
Kanban works with a kid’s brain. Cause and effect of chores and rewards is
clearly laid out. Imagine never having to ask again “did you do your
chores?”You may still have to quality check the work, but you won’t have to
nag them to action. The kanban will do the nagging for you. And, oddly
enough, it’s fun!
...more on Kidzban
Surprisingly, many authors I’ve spoken with have expressed how they wound up hating their book. One explanation
for this is that a book represents literally millions of individual tasks that are undifferentiated. Undifferentiated tasks
cause stress. For authors, stress detracts from the creative process. I would hazard to guess that thousands of
amazing books were never published because they crumbled under the author's existential overhead.
While writing Instant Karma, Tonianne and I have truly benefitted from our Personal Kanban. Now the items in the
workflow are the way Tonianne and I work, not necessarily the way you should work. We follow these steps:
1. Pre-Writing – Jim quickly writes initial text for a chapter. He has three chapters going at any given time. His
fast writing style would overwhelm Tonianne as she is focused and detail oriented.
2. Scrutiny – Tonianne takes one chapter at a time and runs it through the ringer. Editing and re-editing sections.
Researching vignettes. Checking sources. Giving Jim directed re-writing assignments.
3. Internal Review – The chapter is then sent to another editor who gives it a once over.
4. Crowdsource Prep – Jim and Tonianne take the reviewed chapter, respond to comments, and release it for
5. Crowdsourcing – The chapters go to a very large group of reviews who provide yet another round of
6. Through 10. If everything looks nice, it’s ready to sell.
... read more about
I am famous (perhaps too famous) for detesting
administrative work. I'll do anything to avoid it, and
so it frequently piles up. Understanding this, in
our online Personal Kanban I now differentiate
those hateful administrative tasks by coloring them
bright orange. That way if I dynamically
deprioritized them in a subconscious attempt to
avoid them, they continue to call out to me,
confronting me daily as they overrun my backlog.
Being able to visualize these annoying tasks
demonstrates the weight of their existential
overhead, until finally I have to give up and just
plow through them en masse.
Whether through shape or color or font, use a little
creativity to call out certain kinds of tasks that may
require special attention – either they need to be
grouped or you just need a little extra reminder
about their importance.
Pomodoro - Productivity Workouts
While Personal Kanban manages your work extremely well,
maintaining focus is something you might need a little help with.
Getting the tasks out of WIP and into Done sometimes requires that
The Pomodoro technique says set that egg timer for 25 minutes,
work straight until it goes BRRRRRING, then rest for a bit, and
repeat as needed. During those focused bursts of work, you are
directing your undivided attention on the task at hand. Thinking
hard, working hard, eschewing distractions. Once the timer goes
off, you can kick back and let your brain say “ahhhhhh.”
It’s just like an effective workout – you don’t walk into the gym and
spend an hour doing 100 pound curls. You do short bursts of
directed and focused activity.
Personal Kanban dovetails nicely with Pomodoro. Your work in
progress is handled in these 25 minute bursts of activity. Your
Personal Kanban is always filtering and prioritizing what fits into
those bursts. It takes on the role of your trainer – watching what
you do, recommending the next set, helping you understand your
exercises and optimize for the next ones.
... just like a workout, during your
True focus requires clarity, concentration, and Pomodoro breaks it’s a very good
commitment. Personal Kanban gives you the organization to focus, idea to hydrate.
while Pomodoro structures your time.
...more on Pomodoro and Personal Kanban
Personal Kanban is meant to be epiphany heavy, but
process light. The approaches contained in this
InfoPak are meant to provide simple suggestions for
visualizing how your work actually flows. Some tasks are
going to be horrible. They are going to take longer than
you expect, be harder to complete than anticipated, or
even just really annoy you.
Life's too short not to focus on things that make you happy
while avoiding things that don’t. So why not start taking
notice of what you don’t like to do or what takes you away
from doing the things you like?
Retrospectives shed light on patterns that help you make
when to delegate tasks
when to refuse work
what processes you might want to recreate
whether of not you want a new career
when to cry
The act of looking back on your work and making positive
changes is called a "retrospective." Personal Kanban
gives you the information you need to look back, evaluate,
...more on Retrospectives and Personal Kanban
About Modus Cooperandi and Personal Kanban
PersonalKanban.com | Modus Cooperandi | Other InfoPaks
Monthly webinars on Personal Kanban and related
applications. See the Personal Kanban site
(personalkanban.com) for topics, schedule, and prices.
Consulting / Training / Team Launches
We offer direct training for corporate clients. Teams learn to Consulting projects tend to focus on working
improve their communication both internally and with the rest with teams and individuals to identify clear and
of the organization using the visualization and clarity low-impact processes to quickly create value.
facilitated by Personal Kanban. Training includes the See our recent project at the World Bank for an
techniques of Personal Kanban, the integration of Personal idea of the issues we might cover.
Kanban for individuals and teams into workflows, value Supporting Documents
stream mapping, metrics, and the use of retrospectives to
create cultures of continuous improvement. A series of information packages designed to
discuss these issues with decision makers is on its
Training should never occur out of context, so most training way.
includes an examination of actual team workflows,
management styles, communications channels, policies, and
Reach us by e-mail
practices that impact productivity and value creation. During
on the web at www.moduscooperandi.com
the course of the training, we help teams discover better
ways of managing and communicating that will survive
follow us on twitter at @personalkanban
beyond the training session. Our training is never a talking
via phone at +1.206.383.6088
head, it is highly relevant and participatory.
or skype at ourfounder
Images Used in this InfoPak
Images under Creative Commons License from Flickr:
"Solitude" by UrvishJ
"Overload!" by AntwerpenR
"Family Portrait" by Hrtmnstrfr
"I Hate the Sound of Breaking Glass" by Netream
"Stethoscope" by Biology Big Brother
"Pomodoro Timer" by Abhishek Baxi
"Soliloquy" by Only Alice
"Morgan and her Kidzban" courtesy of Janice Linden-Reed.
All other images by Tonianne DeMaria Barry or Jim Benson.