Kanban, Event Modeling, and GTD

Kanban, Event Modeling, and GTD

SUMMARY: I attended a “Scrum Club” meeting to learn about agile software development methods and kanban, and noted the similarity to the GTD productivity system. Kanban boards are particularly interesting to me, as they make abstract processes more visible through the use of physical artifacts.

I first heard the word Kanban at a presentation of the local Scrum Club. Scrum, if you’re not familiar with it, is a team methodology to create working software QUICKLY through short production cycles called sprints. This is in contrast to the waterfall model of software development, which defines the entire process from concept to deployment as a series of blocks that follow each other on a march to the end. Waterfall, in my mind, is like starting with one giant boulder of time, from which the team must carve a working model of a city in as efficient a manner as possible to conform to the blueprint. SCRUM, by comparison, is like starting with many pebbles of time and working those individually into functioning buildings one-at-a-time; the finished city evolves one working building at a time. This isn’t a perfect analogy, of course, but in general the first approach requires much more care and diligence to make work while wasting time backtracking, while the second approach risks less by avoiding backtracking and using smaller rocks of time.

Anyway, getting back to the story, at the Scrum Club meeting[1] Kanban was described in terms of Scrum…and I can’t remember a word of it, so I didn’t look it up. Then a few weeks ago, I read the word “kanban” again in Google Wave with Colleen™, but didn’t ask about it…I just assumed it was another Cool Colleen Thing that I would understand in time. But THEN, a few days ago, Stephen Smith commented on my recentering and refocusing post, mentioning how he’s using his kanban board to organize next-actions and other GTDish detritus.

Board? Did someone say BOARD? Let it be known that I am a friend to ALL BOARDS of ALL SIZES and USES!

And that’s when I finally actually looked up kanban on wikipedia, and found that it means, literally, visual card/board. You know, like index cards. I love index cards. As I skimmed the wikipedia article, it became clear to me that kanban embodies something I’ve been reaching toward in other ways, such as the Storytelling By Design series I grappled with back in 2006. My essential realization was the idea that physical props have the ability to effect a chain reaction of events, and by designing those props we could do quite a lot to effect change in people and the world. In a way, that is what kanban seems to do in the manufacturing process. By providing physical cues like cards, balls, or whatever objects are used, actions are triggered on the factory floor that help the entire system run smoothly. My impression is that it’s not unlike event-driven programming, made physical.

Anyway, my fellow index card nerds, you might want to check out Stephen Smith’s Personal Kanban post over on his blog to see what the index card board looks like in the context of GTD. I’m going to have to look more into kanban, because I suspect there are ideas in there that can help me flesh out my Storytelling By Design theory.

[1] You can find your local Scrum Club chapter at their website.


  1. Amanda Pingel 14 years ago

    Ooh, that IS pretty.  I could drool over that….

    But… I just rearranged my time management system, and it’s working really well.  How many times can I rearrange my system before it becomes obviously an excuse to procrastinate? 

    But I want….

  2. Peter 14 years ago

    Kanban is a good find. It reminded me of something else I’ve seen – the Behance energy line (http://the99percent.com/tips/5516/laying-your-energy-line). It’s got me thinking whether it wouldn’t be worthwhile to merge the two – start with an energy line but make sure you have “idle” or “pending” at one end and “done” at the other. Then use colors or symbols on the cards for context and rows on the board for projects (or visa versa, depending on whether it’s more important in your personal work style to easily distinguish contexts or projects.)

    This is getting too complicated already, isn’t it?

    It’s also spectacularly non-portable. But intriguing.

  3. Stephen Smith 14 years ago

    Hi Dave, thanks for the link, and I am glad that you like the idea of arranging your Next Action and Project cards on the board “according to your strategic intent”. (Yes, that is Dave’s line, not mine. But I’m takin’ it!)

    >>Amanda, you wouldn’t have to completely re-design your workflow system to incorporate Kanban, you can think of it as a Task manager for a specific project and incorporate it into one of your larger projects that has a large backlog of Next Actions.

    I have found that it is helpful for me to look at all of my NAs as part of a set larger, global Projects that I call “Life” and “Work” and “Job”.
    I will be putting together a follow-up post soon, please stay tuned, I’d love to get your feedback.

  4. Jim Benson 14 years ago

    Hi Dave, Amanda and Stephen,

    Great discussion, I love this stuff.

    For portability, I’m going to be coming out with a post on this soon. People have done everything from make tiny Personal Kanban that they can carry around with little cards, to making one out of a file folder (the top fold is backlog / doing, the bottom fold is done), to using on-line services like Zen (agilezen.com) and printing them out – then updating the Personal Kanban when they get home.

    We are working on more elegant solutions to portability.

    For Work Flow … You absolutely should start with what you believe your current work flow is, then examine where your assumptions are incorrect or where improvements can be made. One of the big points of Personal Kanban is that it helps you see where these changes are possible. And seeing is believing.


  5. Gary Constantine 14 years ago

    If you’ve got the real estate, floor or wall, there is nothing like a big board for posting your bits of what you write, on them.

    The bid advantage of big space is big visibility, and unless you are extremely disciplined in reviewing all your subset GTD methods, stuff just gets lost, hence; undone.

    For years I’ve experimented with a dozen methods for GTD, both digital and analog, and found there is nothing more efficient and flexible than a piece of paper that you can post front and center.

    After experimenting with various sizing, packaging, and organizing options, while attempting to be “green as possible”, over the last several years, I’ve basically taken to a system I call POHIC, or pile of half index cards, which are standard 3×5 inexpensive index cards cut in half, and organized in clear baseball card holder jackets, with tabbed subject separators, and store them in a 3 ring binder. Youve got 3×3 tiles on each side, or 18 subtopics (using both sides) to bulletize on, for each subject.  Just add another basecall card storage jacket if you need more than 18 subtopics.  If you need to stand back and look at the week/month ahead, pull the jackets out of the binder and spread them on a table, and start managing/priortizing. 

    Advantages; $:effeciveness ratio the best I’ve found so far!  Never runs out of batteries, fast to work with in adding/tossing half cards, has reversible paper/jacket sides, easy to write on/doodle, consolidate, organize, add to, toss out, can scale up to view all subjects and store easily back in the binder!  Minimal waste system/low guilt factor and even then the spent half cards are still recycleable!

    Disadvantages; Not as cool as a high tech overdesigned gadgety device you spent way too much money that will be obsolete in 14 months anyways.  You might suffer a few paper cuts, you have to find a way to cut your index cards in half, and potentially appear as OCD when you are out at Starbucks with all these little paper scraps with notes and doodles all spread out, its worth it!

    Point I’m making, don’t overthink it, simplify.

  6. Jason 14 years ago

    If you like online boards for task management I suggest http://kanbantool.com – my favourite tool for managing my personal goals.