My home life is quite chaotic. With three children, a long commute and generally making ourselves busy with visits to relatives and exciting places, finding time to do useful things at home is difficult. During the rare weekends we have nothing planned, my wife and I often build up lists of things to do – only to look at those lists on a Sunday evening and feel frustrated that nothing has been done.
I have begun to realise that the problems we face at home are similar to those that we often see in the workplace; difficulties in communication, collaboration and prioritisation. My wife always thinks that I “ignore” her list, but I always feel as though I never stop working – usually on things that I know must be done before the end of the weekend, like washing school uniforms.
Last weekend, I wondered if I might be able to apply concepts from work to solve these issues. I introduced my wife to Kanban.
We started by clearing a space on the fridge. Effective communication requires visibility – knowledge of what’s being worked on and why. The photos, crayon drawings of chickens and butterflies and the school lunch menus and newsletters had to go. Once we’d done this, I wrote up all of the items on my wife’s “TODO” list onto post-it notes and added some things of my own. I spread these out around the fridge, randomly. The chaotic nature we were working in was perhaps characterised by the contents of one of the sticky notes: “Find our printer”.
Next, we ordered these post-it notes on a two-axis grid: Important vs Urgent.
Important vs urgent
This was inspired by Eisenhower’s Decision Principle – the idea that some things which are urgent are actually unimportant and can be ignored. The theory argues that when you are continually working on things which are both urgent and important then you are working in a state of “chaos”. This is something I recognise. The theory suggests that you should work through these things first, until you reach a point where you can almost entirely concentrate on the “important-but-not-urgent” things. Once you reach this state you should ideally try to prevent important things from becoming urgent. Things which seem urgent but aren’t important are merely distractions, whilst things which are neither are procrastination.
Once we’d arranged the post-it notes we numbered them in order, starting at the top-right and working our way diagonally to the bottom left.
We then set up another set of axes: Ease vs Usefulness. You might be used to referring to usefulness as “value” in the workplace.
Ease vs Usefulness
The idea this time was to try and identify things which were “low-hanging fruit”; things which would add value very quickly. Collapsing the empty boxes stacked in our dining room wasn’t particularly urgent or important compared to some of our other tasks, but it wouldn’t take long and would clear lots of space for doing other tasks. In my team at work, we’ve also discovered that lots of small wins is better for morale than working one one long (albeit rewarding) task for an extended period of time.
Again, we numbered these tasks from top-right to bottom-left.
I noticed that, as you might find in sprint planning or estimation sessions at work, the act of prioritising these tasks in a collaborative manner helped us to communicate to each other why we thought individual tasks were important. We knew what we needed to do, why we were doing it and what outcome we’d achieve by finishing the task.
We then drew up three very basic Kanban headings: “Ready”, “Doing”, “Done”. We added up the numbers on each of the post-it notes and ordered the tasks in the “Ready” column.
You might notice that we didn’t set WIP (work in progress) limits on the columns. We took in the whole list, and we limited WIP in “Doing” by having avatars (fridge magnets) showing which task each of us was working on. This meant that, at most, we could be working on two tasks at a time (one each), or we would be working collaboratively on a single task.
At first, the whole process seemed like overkill. Ultimately, it helped a lot. We didn’t get everything finished, but it was an ambitious list. Because of our sorting mechanism, we managed to complete a lot of important/urgent tasks we’d been putting off for a long time, as well as a lot of tasks which delivered a lot of value to our home life. I definitely think we’d use this process again.
While we were working on our kanban board, something interesting happened. Our five year old saw us writing on sticky notes and wanted to get involved. My wife found her some mini post-it notes and she set up her own kanban board. Once we’d set the board up, she wrote out most of the tasks herself and started working through them.
To my astonishment, later on that evening she called her grandma and – entirely of her own volition – explained what Kanban is. So if you’re ever having trouble explaining Kanban to a team for the first time, remind them that my five year old can do it!
Unfortunately, we never did find the printer…