Personal Kanban: Planet Lean interviews Jim Benson

A very brief update to my recent post on Personal Kanban for PhD Students: Getting Started, with this video from Planet Lean. It is an interview with with Jim Benson, the co-author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, and provides an excellent short overview of the approach.

The transcript of the interview is available here:
Jim Benson, Personal Kanban – how visualizing tasks can help us make sense of a busy schedule and reduce our stress, Lean Planet, 30 April 2015.

Jim uses here an easel pad to illustrate how to create a Personal Kanban board. Typically people tend to use a white board, a wall or a digital board (such as LeanKit, Trello, etc.)

Example of Personal Kanban board

Personal Kanban for PhD Students: Getting Started

We all have a multitude of things to do : tasks to perform, people to interact with, responsibilities to fulfil, and even fun activities to attend. Our brain, however, finds it difficult to juggle multiple priorities. Meanwhile, the best laid plans must compose with reality, which is inescapably full of uncertainty and random surprises. We need to know how to be both firm to stay on course to move towards our initial goals, and sufficiently flexible to make them fit an always-changing reality.

Using a Personal Kanban is most useful in this respect.

This simple yet powerful tool will enable to gain control over your work and your life by making what you have to do visible.

Personal Kanban which has two rules and only two rules:

  • 1. Visualize your work
  • 2. Limit your work in progress

It’s that simple.

You won’t fully grasp the merit of the approach until you have tried it.

My challenge to you today: build your first Kanban.

Much of my practice is based on using experiential learning — i.e. learning by doing — and the best way for you to see the value of Personal Kanban is to use for a week. Give it a try, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Visualizing your work: an experiment

This experiment simply consists in visualizing your work using post-it notes.

Material required

  • post-it notes
  • a wall, or a whiteboard if you have one
  • a felt pen

Stage 1

Divide your wall or your whiteboard into three columns. Write TO DO on a post-it, and place it on top of the left column; write DOING on another post-it, and place it on top of the middle column; and finally write DONE on a third post-it, and place it on top of the right column, as illustrated below.

Stage 2

Next, make an inventory of all the tasks you have to do this week, irrespective of whether they are new tasks or not. Use one post-it per task and place it in the TO DO column.

Let’s now pause a few seconds to reflect. How does visualizing all the work you are doing or want to do feels?

Stage 3

Now let’s get to work. Every time you start working on a task, place it in the DOING column.

Once a task is finished, move it to the DONE column.

That’s simple enough! You now have a simple task board. This would be very helpful and would allow you to visualize your work.

To turn a Task board into the simplest of Kanban board, we need to introduce a WIP limit. How to go about it?

Stage 4

Stage 4 is all about introducing a WIP limit to turn your task board into a Kanban board.

This is were the second rule of Personal Kanban comes into play. You need to limit the number of tasks in progress. Think about the act of juggling: if tasks were oranges, how many could you juggle easily without dropping any? Most people would say 2 or 3, but you may be a skilful juggler who can handle 4 or more. Decide on a number – let’s say 3 – and add it on top of the DOING column as a reminder: this is your Work In Progress (or WIP) Limit.

As the week progresses, pay attention to how it feels to move a post-it in the DONE column when you have completed a task.

Stage 5

At the end of the week, stand in front of your wall, or whiteboard, and take a few moments to reflect on your experience. Have a look at the DONE column. How does it feel? Are you surprised, or is it just what you expected? Have you noticed any change to the flow of your work, or to the number of tasks you have completed this week compared to a normal week?

Please do let me know how your Kanban experiment went by posting a comment.


Beyond this there are three way forward to understand better the approach:

Managing your Work as a PhD Student : The Agile Researcher Approach

I would like to follow up on my last post by going deeper into the three key dimensions of managing your life and your work as a Ph.D. student: self-management, thesis management, as well as information and knowledge management.

Too many balls to juggle

One of the main challenges of doing a Ph.D. resides in the fact of having to conduct a substantial research project – with all that this implies, while having to go about the usual demands of daily life. Some doctoral students are also expected to teach courses – the norm here in North America. Producing an excellent thesis is often not enough: in order to succeed in academia, a Ph.D. student must also build a great CV and network extensively. This involves developing a portfolio of teaching experience, giving conference papers, publishing journal articles, organizing conferences or seminars, and playing an active part in the research community. In some cases, this is in addition to having a part-time job to make ends meet, and to fulfilling family responsibilities.

It is therefore no surprise that the risk of “dropping the ball” is high among Ph.D. students.  This is why it is crucial to have a solid system in place to help you manage your work – and more broadly your life as a whole.  Investing time and effort to put a robust system in place from the start makes a lot of sense for Ph.D. students. Few do, however, and while some universities have been creative in their effort to develop training programmes, they seldom offer appropriate training in what is perhaps the most important aspect of preparing students to fulfil their potential: managing the many balls they have to juggle. The good news is: it is never too late to put a good management system in place.

The Agile Researcher approach

Filtering to stay in control

The truth is: you can’t do everything, and learning to identify what not to do is as important as knowing what to do if you want to keep your sanity and succeed as a researcher.

This is where filtering comes into play. Only by adopting a rigorous triage protocol to filter systematically everything which solicit your attention, will you be able to manage all the demands on your time, and more generally on your life.

1. Self-managing

You need a system to manage what needs to be done in both your professional and personal life. This is what I call the tactical level of self-management.

For this purpose you can either use a task list, or a visual board. I have used both in the past. Tasks lists (on paper or using dedicated software) can work. In my experience, using a Kanban board is vastly superior: I will present this tool in more detail in subsequent posts. There is, however, no best practice: what works well for you is good for you.

Irrespective of whether you use a task list or stickies notes on a visual board, your system should allow you to keep track of all the different things you need to do, or more precisely you could choose to do.

This system will be your HQ, your bridge, for managing at a tactical level what needs to be done without dropping anything. This will involve all aspects of your life without neglecting the personal and fun dimension. It will help you realize that what you can realistically do is, by necessity, limited, and that you need to concentrate on what matters most. The name of the game is not to become more and more productive by doing always more and more (like the hamster in its proverbial wheel), but getting the right things done (like the fox). It will also help you see the proverbial elephant in the room:  you need to be extremely selective in what you are doing, because you can’t do everything.

Managing your Ph.D. thesis project(s)

Have you noticed how I write about project(s) rather than simply project(? This is because doing a Ph.D. often involves managing a portfolio of projects rather than a single research project. I will get back to this idea in a future post. What you need to know at this point is that an Agile approach is way superior to traditional project management to help you complete your Ph.D. Traditional project management is not adapted to the reality of research work. Developing a research project, defining a research question, writing up a thesis involves creativity. It is not about following a set of instructions, like you would do to put together a sofa from IKEA. You need a system that accounts for the back and forth of the mind. Gantt charts look pretty – logical and methodical, with milestones to be followed religiously – but they don’t fit the bill. A research project does not evolve in a linear fashion. Major shifts can happen following the discovery of a critical piece of information.

A system that accounts for the non-linear nature of research does not have to be complicated. The solution The Agile Researcher proposes is a simple system, based on the Kanban method, which consists in visualizing the work that needs to be done, and allows for rapid re-prioritization. This will help you become involved in dynamic planning and management of your project.

Managing information and knowledge

Keeping your documents organized with a robust filing system is also vital. This will allow you to manage information and knowledge you have developed. It seems to be something so straight forward that often little thought is given to the fundamentals until it becomes a problem that requires a lot of time to fix. In future posts, The Agile Researcher will introduce you to a series of fundamental principles that will save you time and headaches down the road.

I propose to further elaborate on each of these points in the next few posts in this series.

For the time being, I would love to hear from PhD students what has been the main challenge, they have been – or are being – confronted with?

The Agile Researcher approach

Let’s start by explaining what the “Agile” in Agile Researcher means.

What is agile?

I like to keep things simple, and looking up the word in the dictionary can be a starting point.

The English Oxford Living Dictionary defines agile as being “able to move quickly and easily”. This sounds good; this sounds very good… But wait! We also find an associated meaning, which is “able to think and understand quickly”. This sounds even better. We have here qualities that are eminently useful to a researcher, and deserve to be developed.

According to the same dictionary, agile is also associated with “a project management method used especially for software development that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans”. It contrasts it with Waterfall, “a method of project management that is characterized by sequential stages and a fixed plan of work”.

The difference between flexibility and overbearing structure is very much what The Agile Researcher is all about.  The research process is not linear; thinking and analysis is not linear. This is where traditional project management fails the researcher. What The Agile Researcher is proposing is a new way of thinking about thesis management and research in general. To succeed, a researcher needs to be agile. The Agile Researcher simply recognizes this fact, and helps researchers come out of the traditional thesis management closet to fully embrace the agile side of research.

The Kanban Path to Agility

There are many approaches to Agility.

The most fascinating and powerful approaches I have come across is Kanban which is, in my opinion, the most pertinent path to agility for research work.

Kanban started with the pioneering work of David J. Anderson, which initially involved a search for a way to eliminate bottlenecks in software development projects, by creating an adaptive way to manage queues. The way in which Toyota used a system of kanban cards to replenish stocks just-in-time soon became a source of inspiration. In due course, the use of sticky notes on a board, already used in some agile circles, became part of the method. A community of practice developed, and much innovative thinking took place around the visualization of workflows. Toyota’s Thinking System, or Lean, with its focus on respect for people, managing flow and encouraging continuous improvement, also became a source of inspiration for the emerging Kanban community.

Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry’s Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life has described how knowledge workers can apply the Kanban approach at the individual – and small team – level. I strongly encourage every researcher to start their agile journey by reading this book. I have myself practiced Personal Kanban since January 2012, and find it immensely useful. So much so that I translated it in French, my mother tongue and the proface to the the French edition Personal Kanban: Visualisez votre travail | Pilotez votre vie came out in June 2016.

Developing an Approach ideally Suited to the Specific Needs of Researchers

The Agile Researcher approach takes as a starting point the practice of Kanban. It builds upon it to apply it to the reality of research work to create an all-encompassing system.


This system involves both professional work and private life. I must confess that I completely reject the idea of Work-Life balance : for me, work is part of life, and life includes work. They are both indiscernible and interconnected. What’s important is making sure to enjoy both. Personal Kanban is a lot about self-management with a purpose: feelings less stressed, more in control, and consequently enjoy life better. Having fun is something you need to take very seriously too.

Management of your PhD thesis project, or other research project

One of the specific characteristics of the work of a PhD student – my main target audience – is to have one big project to manage: the PhD thesis. The agile nature of research makes a Kanban system particularly suited to this kind of project. That’s what could be called a Thesis Kanban or a Research Project Kanban, which is adapted from the practice of the Portofolio Kanban. I will explain a lot more about this in subsequent posts.

Managing Information and Knowledge

Beyond self-management and the management of a research project, researchers also have significant needs when it comes to managing information and knowledge. You know the feeling: you start reading an article for your research and by the time you have finished, you have a list of 10 further articles that could also be relevant.  Your reading list can so easily get out of hand – as well as your research notes, your references, the pdf of articles or the photos of archive documents you have gathered.

The Agile Researcher proposes a simple yet robust system that draws on the state of the art in Agile thinking and Lean thinking, whilst also drawing on the best there is in the fields of both time management and personal effectiveness. I look forward to introducing you to this innovative system in my upcoming blog posts.