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Spotlight on Productivity: 5 Steps on Managing your Projects Kanban Style

This post is number three in the Spotlight on Productivity series, in which I examine productivity challenges associated with academic/knowledge work and take stock of current thinking and tools to help us get things done.

In the first post of this series, I characterized academic / knowledge work as having to juggle multiple project. In the second, I argued that the cognitive toll on managing productivity can be alleviated through relegating planning to a productivity system. This is where I introduced David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system. GTD is useful to shortcut decision-making on tasks. Today, we look at how to manage decision-making with projects.

(By decision-making with projects, I don’t mean project management. Project management has more to do with a set of technical skills involved in managing within projects. My focus here is simply how to juggle between multiple projects.)

Kanban Style

Kanban is a process originating from Toyota manufacturing that now sees adaptation and application to software development and personal productivity. Kanban, Japanese for “billboard” or “signboard”, is a visual method for managing logistics. The way Toyota uses it goes like this: Suppose you’re assembling dashboards for cars. To assemble this dashboard, you need various components that are already pre-assembled upstream: odometer, RPM meters, clocks, car audio panels, navigation systems, etc. As each dashboard gets assembled, components get used up. This drop in component level triggers a signal to upstream manufacturers to manufacture more components just in time for use in the next round of manufacturing. How this differs from typical manufacturing processes is avoiding having large batches of inventory sitting around. By keeping track of the rate at which components are used up, the quality of the components, you benefit from improved product quality and increased productivity through working in small batches, hence “just in time”.

Applying Kanban to Personal Productivity

What we can take away from Kanban are two principles. The first principle is the importance of visualizing productivity. By visualizing productivity, you have a more powerful way of understanding the complexity and demands of your work. Here are five steps to jumpstart the process.

1. Make a list of all the project you are involved in.

2. Make a list of all the publications you are currently working on. Identify the status of each of these writing projects (e.g. conceptualization, initial drafting, waiting for review, editing, copy-editing, submission to journal, revision, etc… )

3. Identify which of the projects/publications are inactive at the moment. (In GTD language, this is your Someday-Maybe/Waiting list.)

4. Identify tasks within each project.

5. (optional) Flag tasks with impending deadlines.

Mapping out your projects this way give you a high-level view of that various projects you’re involved in, and the complexity of the tasks involved.

Here is the second principle. According to Personal Kanban, a site dedicated to applying kanban to personal productivity, it is also important to limit ‘work in progress’. Their reasoning is simple. You can only do so much in a day.

Here is my own Kanban Board that I have been using for some time to help visualize my projects. Here’s a link to a PDF that you can print and use on your own.

personal kanban

In the next post of this series, we’ll complete this personal kanban process by identifying tasks for work-in-progress. We’ll do this through looking at David Seah‘s incredibly useful tool, Emergent Task Planner. Stay tuned. 🙂


By Chi Yan Lam

Dr. Chi Yan Lam is a Credentialed Evaluator and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of evaluation at the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Health Sciences, Queen’s University; he is also a full-time evaluator practicing in public service. He specializes in evaluating large-scale, complex programs and incorporates multi-, mixed- and design methods in his evaluations to answer questions of importance to program administrators and policy makers working on educational and social programs. His articles on evaluation have been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the American Journal of Evaluation and the Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation. He has been a holder of the professional designation in evaluation since 2014.

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