(last updated on April 29, 2014)
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 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.
 You can find your local Scrum Club chapter at their website.