Regarding Kanban

Trello, We Hardly Knew Ye

Recorded on January 13th, 2017

Atlassian is buying Trello. Damn.

I knew it was too good, too elegant to last. I knew not to trust it with too much of my brain in it. Trello says they’ll benefit from Atlassian’s R&D, but the track record for these things is not good.

They even ended their announcement with this, the kiss of death:

“We hope you are as excited as we are about our journey ahead.”

I just searched for alternatives and saw no compelling ones. I can look at a full Trello board and still feel calm. All the Trello competitors just feel off and busy to me. There is a real art to UI design and Trello nailed it, on the desktop and on mobile. Sigh.

Limiting WIP

Recorded on September 22nd, 2016

I’m doing too much. No, that’s not quite right. I’m accomplishing too little by trying to do too much at one time. This is me at work and at home, which tells us something about where the fault lies (hint: me). The pattern is: I wake up with 10 things I’m already committed to getting done by, say, the end of the week. By 9am today, 10 more things have landed on my plate, also urgent, also with implied commitment on my part. So now I have 20 things. Those original 10 things, as long as they’re in-process, just got slowed way down by the 10 new things. Theoretically, the first 10 things will now get done half as fast as they would have because they’re competing with 10 new things. What actually happens is that the overhead associated with task switching, administration, and mental stress slows them down even more.

So now, with a plate that’s well over capacity, the temptation is to just hunker down even more and crank through it all as fast as possible, but that’s a losing game from the start. We could have avoided this situation by saying — to whomever: manager, client, stressed colleague — “My capacity is 10 things. If some of those new things are more important than the first 10, then we need to decide which of the old ones will go in a backlog while the higher-priority stuff gets attention. And most importantly, the stuff in the backlog will get no attention from me (or will be completely handled by someone else) while the hottest stuff is on the front burner.”

The wrong way to do this is to say, “Yeah, I’m at capacity with these other commitments, but I want to be a good teammate, so yeah, give me 10 more things and I’ll try to just work harder and figure it out”. The unspoken other half of the conversation is always “…but deep down I know that I can’t handle all of this and you’ll all be disappointed when the 20 things are late, but we’re too busy to have that awkward conversation right now.”

The Kanban/lean people figured this stuff out long ago and gave it the name “work in process” or “WIP”. There are all kinds of creative systems out there to limit your WIP so that you’re not juggling too many things at one time, and so that other people can step in and assist when they have extra capacity. I appear to be hard-wired with a deficiency in this area, because my analog and digital systems never quite enforce a useful limitation on WIP. I’m more of a “pop the stack” person, where I keep adding stuff to the pile and reshuffling the first two-dozen layers of crap in it all day, in hopes that it’ll all work out.

I have no answer here. Just trying to clarify the problem first.

Trello for My 37th Attempt at Personal Kanban

Recorded on March 7th, 2016

Between Drafts, Siri+Reminders, and TaskPaper/Taskmator/Editorial, the individual tasks in my system are fairly well locked in to a structure. I know where things go, I know what projects they’re attached to, and they pop up as annoying reminders when they need to just Get Done Now.

Where I continue to have a hard time is with the concurrent projects and “weekly outcomes”. The projects are necessarily higher-impact and contain the ultimate destinations and time goals. To me, a project is not “have scooped the cat boxes every day for a week”. It’s got to be something at least one notch up the hierarchy.

The weekly outcomes are the places you’d like to end up at after a week of checking items off the list. If the tasks are gassing up the car, setting the GPS, and accelerating, the weekly outcomes are the Wawa’s and Chick-fil-A’s you’d like to have arrived at along the journey by a specific time. They’re the milestones that tell you how to reach the ultimate goal in time to make the trip worth doing in the first place.

If you take on too many projects or outcomes at a time, they all stall out and drag on and on and nothing moves. However, if you limit work-in-process (WIP), it seems like you’re going more slowly, but you’re actually just working on fewer things that get done way faster, with more focus. You pull in another project or outcome when you’ve finished one of the things in your WIP/current queue.

I figure if I keep trying different tools to manage this stuff, one of them will stick. I’ve tried the Getting Results the Agile Way, which I still love, but have a hard time sticking to. I’ve tried the paper Action Day Planner, which is also a great system, but anything that requires me to carry around another notebook is just going to be too much of a pain to rely on. I’ve also tried Markdown outlines in a separate text file in Editorial, but it feels too close to TaskPaper. I know that it ultimately comes down to the dumb human sticking with a system, any system.

The latest experiment is with Trello. It usually starts you out with To Do, Doing, and Done boards, but those “To Do” and “Doing” columns get too close together in my mind. Instead, I took a cue from how Pivotal Tracker does things. PT generally has these columns for work:

  • Done: Where things that are done/accepted go.
  • Current: Where you put the things you or the team are actively working on.
  • Backlog: A prioritized list of stuff for the next sprint.
  • Icebox: This is where you throw things when you don’t want to take time away from the current task to think them through, but you don’t want to forget them, either. It’s like a Someday/Maybe list in Getting Things Done.

I’m trying a setup of Current, Backlog, Done, Icebox. It doesn’t make left-to-right flow sense like a real Kanban board would, where items march through their stages in one direction. For me, Current is going first because when you open Trello to a board on the iPhone, it always defaults back to the first board as the one you see on screen. Current is the one I want to be reminded of first. We’ll see how this works.

screenshot of Trello Kanban boards