The productivity of the team of one: from sticky notes to a personal Kanban board.

I’m a UX team of one in the IT department where I work. The company is slowly maturing in the UX discipline, but like it is with every naturally evolving process, it takes time to move from stage to stage because of necessary changes in operations and, importantly, a shift in mindset.

In the past years, the company has grown, expanding product lines and services. The demand for UX-related work had increased as well, and with the fast-paced Tetris of incoming work, I found myself in a place when different projects or teams demanded actions that couldn’t be easily delegated or deprioritized and had to be done NOW. Work requests were coming through various channels, often siloed and disconnected. Apart from projects’ demands, there were service tickets, emails, post-meeting action items, or sometimes tasks requested during ad-hoc conversations in a hallway. The notepad and sets of sticky notes became the primary tools for capturing to-do tasks at that time.

1. Sticky notes (the first step in the right direction.) 

It seemed necessary to write down what I needed to get done simply to remember to do those tasks.

I kept the list on my computer, plus sticky notes everywhere else: some were glued to the pages of my notepad, some were located on the whiteboard next to my desk, and some with more urgent tasks were attached to my keyboard or computer screen.  I had stickies with randomly picked colors, different notes for different types of work, no formatting, or additional details. Besides those, there were way more tasks that I would get done without any trace of work.

For remembering the list, tracking work, and visibility purposes, I moved everything to one place, a whiteboard in my cubicle.

2. The task list (and why it didn’t work for me.)

Tasks and to-dos notes
Tasks and to-do notes

There wasn’t any order or systematic approach there yet, but the task list was visible and seeing all the tasks was definitely helpful.

“When you visualize, then you materialize,” said Denis Waitley, an American psychologist.

With a tasks list you “check” the completed tasks and remove them from the board. There was little planning with just the action of crossing things from the list. Often, I felt that time runs out too quickly leaving me with tasks that should be done, but for some reason didn’t fit in. I wondered why.
I found answers in the great book “Making Work Visible” written by the expert in the field, Dominica DeGrandis. In her book, the author talks about the “Five thieves of time,” that jeopardize productivity :

  • Too much work-in-progress.
  • Unknown dependencies
  • Unplanned work
  • Conflicting priorities
  • Neglected work.

And those five were the reasons I felt I couldn’t complete my to-do list on time! The most significant two impediments for me were “Too much work in progress” and “Unplanned work”: I realized, I always have a few tasks “in progress,” and I would switch from one to another, or a new one simply because something would “pop up.”

“Multitasking not only makes you less efficient and less effective but over time stresses and even damages the brain.”

-Dr. Jeremy Hunter

“Splitting attention between two tasks decreases the amount of brainpower a person can devote to each task”, says Dr.Hunter, “the result is that neither task is done particularly well. Additionally, the inefficiency and ineffectiveness are compounded by the long-term cost of chronically stressing the brain. This leads to a neurochemical cascade that inhibits memory, reduces concentration, and inpours the decision making. In learning chronic stress can lead to depression, anxiety disorders, and suppressed immune response all of which could be avoided by learning to focus on one thing at a time.” That was an eye-opener for me.

Not only to visualize work and prioritize tasks properly but also to adopt a healthier way of working, I created my first personal Kanban board on the whiteboard in my cube.

3. The Kanban board.

Kanban is simply the visualization of your tasks. The board is the first gradient of Kanban.

My first personal Kanban board on the whiteboard in my cubicle.

Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry in their book “Personal Kanban” define steps of creating your personal Kanban and show how the practice of Kanban can be applied to individual projects and small teams.

Kanban commonly uses a whiteboard with post-it notes. A very basic structure is to divide your whiteboard into 3 columns: Ready | Doing | Done.
The authors point out the importance of keeping your Kanban practice flexible and follow only two basic rules:

  1. Visualize your work
  2. Limit your work in progress (WIP, your “Doing” column)

This helps you focus on the task you’re currently working on, prevents you from feeling overwhelmed, and see your accomplishments at the end of the day.

Julia Wester, the founder of Lagom Solutions and author of Everyday Kanban blog summarizes the steps on how to get your Kanban up and running in a comprehensive visual diagram:

  1. List work types
  2. Define workflow steps per type
  3. Identify and visualize key pain points
  4. Map Key Information to Card
  5. Build Your Kanban Board
Five steps to visualizing your work in Kanban by Julia Wester
Five steps to visualizing your work in Kanban by Julia Wester.
Source: https://lagom.solutions/pdfs/5-steps-to-visualizing-work.pdf

4. Digital Kanban board (including a mobile version of it).

There are a few benefits to using a digital version of a Kanban board, and the main one, in my opinion, is the ease of access:

  • It’s accessible on your phone, computer or a large screen device (an analog of the team’s board you edit during standup meetings.)
  • It’s in the cloud, and you can find your tasks anytime anywhere
  • You can share them with others if needed.
Digital version of the personal Kanban board.
Digital version of the personal Kanban board.

There is a variety of online productivity tools; I found and use a free Kanban Tool, kanbantool.com. I created a Personal Kanban Board there, but there are options for teams as well.

What I learned during the process:

  • I learned that the Agile process is a healthier way of working because of how the biochemistry of our brains functions.
  • I discovered that the process of improving productivity requires time and a shift in the mental model of doing the work.
  • I learned that the process not only takes time to adapt but most importantly, to stick to it and make it the operational principle.
  • And lastly, that the process is scalable and could be applied to a group of any size.

I wrote this article about a year ago, and have been using the Kanban method since then. With the visibility of work, better prioritization, and increase productivity I actually had time to write this blog post. 🙂

Resources:

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