Can’t Focus with all the Noise? Try Kanban…

15 Mar

Too much to do, too little time! seems to be the mantra of today.  With our minds racing at 100 miles an hour and distractions coming at us from every direction (sound, sights, demands, emails, tweets, Facebook pings, instant messages, texts, phone calls, ARGH!!!) it’s amazing that we get anything done that we set out to do…

I’ve stumbled on a solution from software development that I think is equally applicable to our everyday lives and can dim the ongoing noise and clatter of living in a modern world – it’s called “Kanban” (from Japan) and it is the newest cooperative approach to agile software development (for more information see or  For non-technical readers, one of the advantages of the Kanban approach is to “Limit the amount of work in progress” and I’ll explain in a bit how this will benefit everyone who wants to increase productivity and the quality of life!

Turn down the Noise! Most of us who are over the age of 35 can remember the days before ipods and mp3 players when teen years were challenging to find the exact volume for music that was loud enough to hear and quiet enough to stop the lamenting calls from mom and dad.  The same thing happens these days in our heads – there is so much clutter, distraction, and ongoing interruptions as we go about to complete our days that it becomes difficult to focus on any finite group of tasks – and as a result we end up spending our days like robots – shifting focus and effort every time another demand calls for immediate attention.  If we can find a way to limit distractions to those that are urgent or minimal – then we can complete more work in less time. This is the goal of Kanban – more, high quality work, completed in record time, with minimum bottlenecks and maximum focus (my paraphrasing!)  So, let’s see what we can take from Kanban and apply to everyday life…

Kanban works on the notion of having an “Input Queue” or pile of tasks that need to get done – think of this like your weekly or monthly to-do list, from which “work” is taken off the pile and started. This piece of work or task enters the “work in progress” pipeline (my visual term) and goes through what is referred to as “swim lanes” (whatever you are doing goes through steps from start to completion) before it gets to the end where it is completed and is “done”.  At this point, the work is no longer “in progress” but finished or passed on to another person or stage or simply crossed off the queue.  Once a task enters the swim lane (forward moving progress), life happens!  The task might take longer to do or be harder than you thought (and you might return it to the queue for later retrieval or adjust your schedule to accommodate this), you might need additional help, other more urgent requests may come in – there’s all sort of things that can happen before you complete the work. The neat thing about Kanban is that you only work on things that is important (i.e., there is a priority and classification step for the queue) and you Limit Work In Progress to the capacity you have!  Wow, industry principles we can use in everyday life

Kanban Principles for Everyday Living. Here’s my short list for Kanban trials in my own life this week (I’ll  report back on my own results next week):

To-do list1. There is no limit to the amount of things that can go on the queue – but you have to document what’s in the queue! (Like the old to-do list) The difference is that each item must have a description (as short as two words – sort laundry), a requestor (who asked for it, partners who will help, etc), a work type (is it a fix, a routine, something new, what’s it going to take to do it), and priority (date driven, mandatory, nice to do, etc). Over time, items in the queue can be added, dropped, changed, merged, etc.

2. Nothing is taken out of the queue to work on by accident. Unless there is capacity (you have the time, resources, extra help,  or something else has been removed from the work in progress pipeline) – nothing new is added to the work-in-progress pipeline.  This doesn’t mean that we cannot be multitasking or attending to children’s or answering the phone while working on something – it simply means that we LIMIT the amount of items we work on at once.

3. Focus on the WIP (work in progress) and don’t go back to the queue unless something urgent arises. When we have too many things presented as urgent during the day, we end up being paralyzed by choices.  There is a limit to the number of choices we humans can handle at once (think of the overwhelming menu choices at some restaurants) – and when we try to tackle to many things at once, we become ineffective at doing anything!

4. Don’t be afraid to take WIP out of the swim lane /pipeline if it doesn’t fit today. Too often we overestimate our abilities to get something done alone, or the amount of time something will take, or the resources we need to complete a task.  This is one of the beauties of Kanban – a task can be taken out of the pipeline and placed back on the queue for later completion or can be set aside until a bottleneck is removed – and there is no harm done!  We want to limit the amount we put in so that we can guarantee what comes out!  We can also “Block” a task (and not work on it) until something downstream becomes available to complete it (e.g., after someone else picks up a needed ingredient) and work on other items in the pipeline (still within our capacity) . It is a flexible but FOCUSED approach to our work.

5. If an urgent item must be done, put another WIP item aside. Similar to #3, urgent matters can interrupt and take precedence over an item in progress. The key principle here is that we consciously take (or block) the WIP to be able to handle this new item.  We are not constantly surveying the queue to see what else might be coming (diverting our energy and focus), and we are not constantly looking over our shoulders for distractions. We are focusing on and working through whatever item(s) we have the  capacity to do at the current point in time.

6. Inform everyone that there is a limited WIP size! This goes for yourself first, then friends, family, co-workers, strangers, phone callers – everyone!  It is mature and healthy to figure out our capacity and limitations for our WIP limit – and the number should be somewhere less than six, ideally a maximum of four items depending on the size and complexity of the task.  Once you inform everyone of this capacity, they will begin to understand the impact that interruptions, urgent requests, and constant demands make on the work in progress. It is simple common sense (seldom practiced in this area) to know your own capacity for work.  The saying goes – how do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time… If we place a task as large as an elephant in our work in progress pipeline – there is room for NOTHING else!  So, divide the elephant into bite size pieces and place them on the queue and tackle them one bite at a time as your WIP pipeline allows.

7. (This is the maximum number of steps or choices we can ever handle at once!) Revisit the queue only periodically or when you complete work! This is a disciplined step that many of us will struggle with. Only check your email inbox (a queue) once a day or when you’ve completed other work. I’m doing that now. My WIP is this posting and I haven’t checked email or answered the phone during this writing.

That’s it!  What do you think?  Want to try Kanban on your life today and see if it makes a difference in your week?  Let me know how it works for you.

I’ll be back here next week with a Kanban board (visual chart of what I’ve used to track my WIP) and how it worked for me.

Best wishes for a productive week!


Carol Dekkers, Software Measurement and Global Software Development expert, author, speaker. Want to engage Carol to be a speaker at your next event?      Email Ms. Dekkers at or or visit for details.

Read Carol Dekkers’ other blog (Musings about Software Development) at

Copyright 2010 Carol Dekkers – All Rights Reserved ———————


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