“An organized mind leads effortlessly to good decision making,” writes Daniel J. Levitin.
Using a notebook, calendar, filing cabinet, or computer to gather and store our ideas and information is a form of external memory. It extends the physical capability of our brain.
Levitin, a neuroscientist, writes in his book The Organized Mind, “These external memory mechanisms are generally of two types, either following the brain’s organizational system or reinventing it, sometimes overwhelming its limitations. Knowing which is which can enhance the way we use these systems, and so improve our ability to cope with information overload.
“A key to understanding the organized mind is to recognize that on its own, it doesn’t organize things they way you might want it to. It comes pre-configured … When the systems we are trying to set up are in collision with the way our brain automatically categorises things, we end up losing things, missing appointments, or forgetting to do things we needed to do.”
Our brains categorize things into groups so we are not overwhelmed by details:
1. Appearance (grouping similar looking things together, like pencils or insects, which usually can be further sorted into more detailed groupings based on their visual appearance)
2. Functional equivalence (grouping things with similar use, purpose, or function, like a pen and crayon)
3. Particular situations (grouping items based on a situation, like items you would remove from your home if there was a fire)
These categories inform how we organize our homes and work.
Writing things down on a page, sticky notes, or index cards as they occur to us is a way of clearing the mind. It means the mind doesn’t have to remember, or hang on to that information, now that it is being kept in an external memory.
“When we have something on our minds that is important – especially a To Do item – we’re afraid we’ll forget it, so our brain rehearses it, tossing it around and around in circles ... Writing them down gives both implicit and explicit permission to the rehearsal loop to let them go, to relax its neural circuits so that we can focus on something else, explains Levitin. “Writing things down conserves the mental energy expended in worrying that you might forget something and in trying not to forget it.”
Levitin writes of an index card system he credits to efficiency expert and author David Allen. It is similar to a kanban board system, in a way.
Allen’s system encourages us to use 3x5 index cards and write down tasks as we think of them throughout the day. When you have large number of task cards, you sort them into categories. The categories can be anything that works for you, from Do Today / Do This Week / Can Wait, to perhaps Shopping / Errands / Home / Work, to something like Do It / Delegate It / Defer It / Drop It.
The idea is to shuffle though and look at all of your task cards every day, ideally each morning, and re-sort, add or delete regularly, as needed.
According to Levitin, “our brains encode information in scenes or chunks,” and this “renders large-scale projects doable by giving us well-defined tasks.”
Akimbo Art Promotion’s kanban board
The first time I’d seen a kanban board was at Akimbo Art Promotions. It’s a system that my friend Kim Fullerton, Director of Akimbo, uses for personal projects and for team work on company projects.
“It’s a visual way of seeing workflow, and where you’re at with projects,” says Kim as she introduces me to the idea; “It’s a tool that’s easily adapted.”
The word kanban means signboard or billboard. And the system was originally developed by Toyota for factory car manufacturing efficiency.
There are many ways of setting up a kanban board. At it’s simplest, is a whiteboard that includes the following sections: TO DO – DOING – DONE across the top. You identify your project(s) on the left side and use one sticky note per task related to the project.
Each task is moved from To Do though Doing when the task is in progress, ultimately to Done when complete. Simple. And as Kim noted, “if something sits in To Do too long, take it off and throw it in the garbage.”
Kim learned about kanban boards from the team at the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair, who have developed a large and complex board for organizing their annual festival. As Kim said, “a more complex kanban board may have things like months, so you can move a To Do through time, like if you have to start in March, and it takes four months, move it through the time you are working on it.”
The kanban board system works best for projects that need progress and forward movement – not things you would do routinely. Projects that have multiple tasks to accomplish them successfully.
The visual summary of the progress may be your only whole-picture perspective of a project, and looking at the tasks as the project is in progress can trigger creative thinking. It also involves all team members working on that project.
You can see where the weight, or the bulk of a project is, based on whether the individual tasks are in the Doing section, or the Done section, or all still To Do. Its both big-picture and specific task oriented.
For example, one of Kim’s team members did an assessment of her company’s social media, and, as Kim put it, the assessment resulted in a document full of smart ideas. The tasks that need to be implemented were put onto the sticky notes that are now on their board.
“Usually this board is the first place tasks appear,” says Kim, “the tasks come straight from my head on to these sticky notes. But in the case of the social media section on our board right now, that came out of the document. I pulled out the key things, and then had her cross reference and add or move things around. And at the end, some things will go back into a reformulated version of the document.”
The board system is also used slightly differently for Akimbo’s content editorial process. For that section, each sticky note has the name of one of their writers. To Do means assign a story to this person, Doing means this person is working on a story, and Done is the roster of writers they have worked with, who are likely to be moved back into the To Do and Doing sections.
Kim commented that she would love to use the kanban approach in an online system. There are existing online systems like Monday.com or Asana.com. But for those of us who work primarily on a laptop computer, the smaller screen can be a barrier to getting the full benefit of the overall visual. The simple whiteboard on a wall can be more effective for the big picture.
“You have to look at it every day,” Kim noted. So your Kanban board needs to be right beside your desk, or another location where you will encounter it regularly, have the space to look, read, “and have time to think about it, so you can move things around and move things forward.”
“It can shift your thinking. Like I don’t need to do that - I can delegate it. The shift for me was being able to look at the board and realize that I can think about things in a different way. That can also happen when you are looking at this, you start to see relationships, sometimes, between things ... like you can combine that with that and that… or it would be really interesting to do that.
There’s a great feeling for everyone involved to see all of the tasks in the Done section.
Kim Fullerton, Director of Akimbo Art Promotions, in front of their Kanban board
“I photograph the board along the way as well. It’s a reminder or history - a memory of what we did this time, and if we do that project again next year, it will help us to plan next time.”
“Some of these will go into the garbage when the project is done and some of these will go info other forms where we need to remember, like the targets noted here.”
One issue that Kim mentions is that you still have to schedule time for each of the tasks on the Kanban board. Perhaps one solution is to create a calendar item when the task sticky note is created.
In Real-World Kanban – Do Less, Accomplish more with Lean thinking, Mattias Skarin details the core practices of Kanban, as they apply to knowledge work:
1. Visualize workflow. Knowledge work is largely invisible, often hidden in hard drives and in email inboxes. Visualizing workflow allows us as a team to act and learn based on a shared overview. This is helpful to spot bottlenecks and recurring quality problems.
2. Limit Work-In-Progress (WIP). The purpose is to balance demand and capability. By limiting the work-in-progress, we allow our teams to work at a sustainable pace with quality output. Limiting WIP is often the first step to shift the emphasis from starting to finishing.
3. Manage flow. To improve, we manage our constraints and measure flow. The two most common measurements for flow are throughout and lead time.
4. Make process policies explicit. It is hard to make improvements if every team member has a different standard. An explicit policy is necessary so that there is a shared agreement among team members working with the Kanban board. An example can be a definition of “done” per column before moving work forward.
5. Implement feedback loops. A Kanban system will only reflect your side of the story, how you see your quality. You will need to implement a feedback loop as well to help you learn if you are getting it right during product development.
6. Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally. Evolve using problem solving, experiments, and scientific methods. The big idea behind the Kanban method as applied to knowledge work is to improve evolutionarily from the current state using small steps.
Kim summed it up, “When you juggle so many things, you have to have these systems in place… and this also helps me to compartmentalize. Once things are here [on the board], when I am dealing with big projects in other parts of my life, like my condo reno right now, I’m not worried about this. … With this system, you’re not working with lists and sending yourself emails at 2am.”