I first came across “kanban” while reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

Kanban is actually a Japanese word for “sign” or “billboard”. It’s a management/organizational system that was developed by Taichii Ono at Toyota to improve manufacturing efficiency.

Here’s a quick illustration I did to demonstrate the main concept of the Kanban System:

kanban-overview

Simply put, in any given process, items are moved from board to board, from left to right.

5 Seconds Crash Course

In a manufacturing setting, let’s say we’re making a car and let’s call each board a station. 

In station A, we make the car shell and then deliver to station B where the chassis is made. The shell and the chassis gets assembled when moving to station C, in which the engine is then put into the car. In station D, the wheels are added. And the production line continues to however many stations until the car is completed.

If you notice in each station, there’s a number indicating the amount of items. This shows the maximum items each station can hold at any given time. So if station B already has 3 items (or 3 shell being assembled to its chassis), then no more shell from station A can be moved into B.  Only until station B releases an assembled chassis to station C that it can accept more shell from station A.

The idea is that we know exactly how many car is being produced at any time. It’s also running at peak efficiency since we’re not overloading any station with any more items than it can handle. If there’s any fault, the whole production is stopped immediately to fix the problem. The result is higher quality products by reducing defects from occurring when the production finishes.

And how do we know which station has problem and which station can receive items? Because the kanban system is actually a series of boards that are displayed in the factory, visually describing the production process.

This is just the gist of the whole Kanban System though. If you’re interested to learn more, you can do a search on Google, but I’ve to warn you that it gets rather in-depth and technical. If you’re a visual person, here’s a great video by educatevirtually showing the main concept.

2 Rules You Only Need to Know

Don’t worry if you’re still don’t understand fully. Here are the two key takeaways from the system:

Rule #1

Each board has a task limit to keep the process smooth and to prevent any board from being on hold for too long.

However, there’s not a single correct number of limit – it depends on each process and comes by through experimentation and experience.

 

 

Rule #2

Tasks are being pulled rather than push.

i.e I’ve finished wrapping a gift, and it’s your job to take the wrapped gift and add a ribbon. Instead of giving you the wrapped gift, you get it from me only when you’re done with the gift you’re currently working on.

Sounds simple, but the power lies in changing the mindset.

Let’s say I’m your manager in an office. Rather than continuously throwing work at you, causing you to end up getting burned out and working longer than you needed to (which reduces your energy and efficiency in the long run). You are receiving work only when you’re truly available.

And if you aren’t actively getting work from me, then something must be wrong on your end, which then tells me that you’ll need help. I can then immediately assess if you needed more training, or if the estimated time of completion is off.

If necessary I can delegate the work to someone else keeping the workflow while you get support. This allows a much sooner discovery of the problem, instead of piling you with lots and lots of work and then finding out later that you couldn’t meet the work demand.

Benefits to Us Normal People

So in a factory, in an office or in any business, the Kanban System is a great management tool.

But I realized the same idea can benefit us everyday at home in our personal lives. We have chores to do; we have errands to run. We have fun weekend projects but a lot of times, they take longer to complete because we have other duties we must fulfill that are more important.

Here’s a typical everyday to-do list:

kanban-list

Does it look familiar? If you’re like me, whenever I have an idea or want to do something, I write it down wherever. And I always ended up losing track of what I needed to do. On top of that, my work area becomes a mess.

When translated to the Kanban System, this is what the new list looks like:

kanban-1

 

The 5 items per board is an arbitrary number. The “Done” board doesn’t have a limit since it’s essentially a list of completed items. In one glance, you can fully see what is being done, what is completed and what needs to get done. The main benefit, which I also think is what makes kanban trumps the “list”, is workflow visualization. 

Like what accountants say about finance, “cashflow is king, follow the money”. For kanban, “workflow is king, follow the task”.

In a traditional to-do list, as soon as you’re done with an item, you mark it off. Your current to-do list is then clouded with ugly scribbles. To find the next thing to do, you’ll have to go through the list again and try your best to ignore the crossed one. Simple for a short list; difficult if you have a long one. Even more challenging if your list is everywhere; on a notepad, on a napkin, on a promotion envelope, on a flyer, on a post-it note, in your phone, in your computer…

So what was the last thing you did? Did you buy dog food yet with the specific brand that your wife wanted? Did you remember to marinate the beef with certain spice so that your husband can grill it for tonight’s party?

With kanban, all to-do items will be organized in one place. As soon as you’re done with a task, you remove it from the “Doing” board, but it doesn’t go away; it moves on to the “Done” board.

Now here’s the exciting part. Let’s say your wife or husband doesn’t trust you in the housework you do (let’s hope that’s not true) and wants to double-check everything. Since kanban is flexible, you can easily add a another board saying, “Check”.

kanban-2

Simple, isn’t it? No more fumbling through the long list you made to find that one item you just crossed off or remembering which tasks needed a thorough check. Adding an extra task is simply adding an item to the “To Do” board.  Since you set your own limit on how many tasks can be done, which is 5 in my example, you are forced to prioritize which task is more important.

Suddenly a simple reorganization of your to-do list becomes a powerful personal organization system that improves productivity with a great amount of flexibility in how you organize your tasks.

Introducing Trello

Typically kanban would be laid out using post-its on a wall, a whiteboard, or any board really.

But you know, we’re in a digital age. Less paper is always ideal. Occupying less room is always a bonus. And able to access your kanban whenever and wherever? I think going digital is a winner.

Here comes Trello.

With Trello, the whole kanban experience becomes even more interesting and natural. Trello is a free web service that allows you to make many kanban projects (or boards as they call it).

Here’s how the above to-do list looks like in Trello:

zen-kanban-trello-todo-sample

Adding a task is simply adding a ‘card’ in the desired board or ‘list’. When adding a card, however, it’s when the true innovation of Trello comes in, and the perfect reason to use an online kanban tool.

First, you can color code each card so you can visually group or separate items. In each card, you can either add a single item or a checklist – which is very handy when you want to organize similar activities as the same item. For example, you can add a grocery list under the card that says “Grocery Shopping”.

You can also add a due date for each card that shows up as an unobtrusive label at the bottom of each item. As the due date is approaching, Trello will show you a friendly reminder by changing the color of the due date. If an item is due, it’ll show up a different color to make sure you see it. Isn’t that neat? Now try doing that on a traditional whiteboard…

On top of that, Trello allows you to attach related files to each card! Going back to our to-do list example, if you’re wife asked you to buy a specific brand of dog food, you could either type it, or simply take a photo with your cellphone and attach it to the card.

Did I mention it also has an app for iOS, Android and Windows Phone? Extremely useful when you want to keep your thoughts in one place but having the ability to add to your collection anytime, anywhere.

Some other powerful features of Trello includes:

And I’m only just scratching the surface. If you’re excited like I am, you should head over to Trello now and try it out yourself.

Due to its powerful and intuitive nature of Trello, I couldn’t help but…

The Zen of Kanban

When I started using Trello, it was merely to keep track of my to-dos in a single location.

But I realized I could use it to note down my ideas, very similar to how I would use Evernote.

To me, Trello stripped down all the unnecessary bulk that Evernote offered. It’s correct to say that they’re two entirely different software created for different purposes. But I’ve always found Evernote to be clunky. I’ve always felt I was using Microsoft Office.

With Trello, I’ve finally found something that met my simple needs.

When I was coding a software that assisted my wife to create her knitting patterns, I used Trello to keep track of all the complex features the software required, all the progress that I needed to make for each day and the bugs that I had to fix:

zen-kanban-trello-knitd

For Des+Dev, I used Trello to remind me of the nitty gritty things I needed to do and fix, such as changing layout spacing, adding a header image, etc.

zen-kanban-trello-desplusdev

Yes I blurred out the top secret stuff ;) Trello themselves is probably a great example of zenning the kanban by using it to show the development state of its own software. If you’re a developer, you’re probably used to seeing a long list of development map. But with Trello, the development map is suddenly beautiful to look at. Meteor, a javascript app development framework, is using Trello to showcase its roadmap in the most awesome way.

Pretty neat, don’t you think?

Now It’s Your Turn!

After using the Kanban System for awhile, I haven’t come across any drawback. Quite honestly I think my productivity and efficiency has dramatically improved because it greatly reduced a lot of headaches I had with a traditional list. And Trello just makes this process so much more enjoyable and easier.

You might say that kanban also has a list, perhaps even many, many more lists. However, shorter lists are easier to digest, less intimidating to see, and are simpler for the brain to comprehend (for the same reason credit card numbers are segmented into 4 digits).

The catch is, you’ll have to stick to the first most important rule of the kanban methodology: limit the amount of items in each board list. Trello doesn’t limit the number of items, but this is also something that varies and takes practice. A good number to start is limiting yourself to doing 3 items at most in any given day, and then gradually increase to a number that you can cope with and still be able to complete all the items in the list.

Chet Holmes, a top strategic business consultant who worked with over 60 Fortune 500 companies and the author of the Ultimate Sales Machine, stated in his book that to achieve the optimal productivity in any given day, you really should have a maximum of 6 items on your to-do list. Perhaps you can use that to gauge your tasks and identify the priorities?

Now that you learned what kanban is and how Trello can benefit this learning process of shifting from the traditional long list of to-dos, what are you waiting for? Let’s go trelloing!

Disclosure: I’m in no way endorsed by Trello. I just had to share it because it helped me worked more efficiently, and I sincerely wish you can find it helpful too. The direct links to Trello provided here are referral links that do not compensate me. Instead, they allow me a free month to try Trello Gold. It’s just extra fancy features, but not required to experience the full power of Trello. Screenshots of Trello are the properties Fog Creek Software.