Why I Use a Paper Kanban Board

My most recent post about how to Visualize Your Work So You Can Say No showing a couple of different kanbans was quite popular. Several people ask me how I use my personal kanban.

I use paper. Here’s why I don’t use a tool:

  • I am too likely to put too much into a tool. I put all this week’s work, next week’s work, next month’s and next year’s work, even though I’m not going to think about anything that far out. Paper helps me contain my To Do list.
  • When I collaborate with others, they want to break down the stories (large as they may be) into tasks. No!! I can’t take tasks. I need to see the value. See my post about From Tasks to Stories with Value.
  • I change my board, depending on what’s going on. I often have a week-based kanban because I retrospect at the end of the week. I often—not always—have a “today” column.

This is what my board looks like this week. it might look like this for a while because I’m trying to finish a book. (I have several more books planned, so yes, I will have a bunch of work “in progress” for the next several months/rest of the year.)

I have several chapters in This Week. I have two chapters in “Today:” That helps me focus on the work I want to finish this week and today. As a technical editor for agileconnection.com and as a shepherd for XP 2017, I have work in “Waiting to Discuss.” I will discuss other people’s writing.

Earlier this week, I had interactions with a potential client, so that work is now in Waiting for Feedback. Sometimes, I have book chapters there, if I need to discuss what the heck goes in there and doesn’t go in a chapter.

I haven’t finished much yet this week. I am quite close on two chapters, which I expect to finish today. My acceptance criteria is ready for my editor to read. I do not expect them to be done as in publishable. I’ll do that after I receive editorial feedback.

Could I do this on an electronic board? Of course.

However, I limit my WIP by staying with paper. I can’t add any more to the paper.

Should I have WIP limits? Maybe. If I worked on a project, I would definitely have WIP limits. However, the fact that I use paper limits what I can add to my board. If I notice I have work building up in any of the Waiting columns, I can ask myself: What can I do to move those puppies to Done before I take something off the Today or To Do columns?

I’ve been using personal kanban inside one-week iterations since I read Benson’s and Barry’s book, Personal Kanban. (See my book review, Book Review: Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life.

I recommend it for a job search. (See Manage Your Job Search and  Personal Kanban for Your Job Hunt.

You should use whatever you want as a tool. Me, I’m sticking with paper for now. I don’t measure my cycle time or lead time, which are good reasons to use an electronic board. I also don’t measure my cumulative flow, which is another reason to use a board.

I do recommend that until you know what your flow is, you use paper. And, if you realize you need to change your flow, return to paper until you really understand your flow. You don’t need a gazillion columns, which is easy to do in a tool. Use the fewest number of columns that help you achieve control over your work nad provide you the information you need.

Question for you: Do you want to see a parking lot board? I have images of these in Manage Your Project Portfolio, but you might want to see my parking lot board. Let me know.

Update: I wrote Postpone Work with a Parking Lot. Now you can see my entire process.

Another update: I just wrote How Agile Creates and Manages WIP Limits.

10 Replies to “Why I Use a Paper Kanban Board”

    1. David, lovely. Thank you. I had forgotten to add a section in the book I’m writing about how you can generate charts with paper on the wall at the same time you do a standup. No muss, no fuss. I had forgotten to add that. (I’m in first draft, so I’m sure I will forget many things I will remember before I finish.)

  1. It’s awesome you use the paper version of kanban board. I think for personal usage it’s often enough, more, you have your WIP limits and it’s great. Problem appears when you have some team work, then you really need to create sth like https://pl.pinterest.com/pin/517491813403656762/ shared by all the team members 😉 But still, for one person, it’s paper version may be great.

    1. Kaya, If you have a geographically distributed team, you might not be able to use paper. On the other hand, how many pieces of paper does your team move in a day?? My experience is that many teams do not move more than one card/sticky per day. They can still use paper, because someone can move a card and take a picture.

      If the team is collocated, there’s no reason to use anything other than paper. IMNHO.

      1. I’m amazed by how many people’s first reaction to the dislocated team member(s) is to suggest that a paper (tangible) artifact is inferior and “just won’t work here”… because we have one (few) remote people.

        It is very difficult to get these close minded people to see the benefits they are exchanging for the perceived easy of synchronization they assume the electronic tool will magically provide.

        So what are the prerequisites for that electronic tool – to automagically provide that synchronization across team member’s mental models of the state of the project’s work? Is it really as easy as the task state’s flag getting set from one state to the next… Or in a more complicate typical case – the task’s state must revert to a previous state so that an important discovered task (not on the board) can precede and this must be communicated to multiple team member’s mental model.

        You suggest a simple solution to the sync. problem… take a picture… I’ve suggested multiple physical boards… that falls in line with individuals having personal kanban boards and swim lanes for work they are interested in but not directly involved with… how much they care to sync that swim lane would be an interesting reflection on their engagement in the team.

        1. David, I love the restaurant kanban movie. Terrific!

          I have suggested multiple physical boards in the past (one in each location). I like your twist on the swim lanes and how often people choose to sync the lanes. That’s where your board can tell you a whole lot more than any tool can tell you.

          Tools hide all kinds of information. They hide the apparent size of an item. They hide how engaged people are. They can even hide progress, because “the tool doesn’t allow us to add another column.” I’m fighting that fight with my technical editing work on agileconnection.com. I think it’s because our administrator is gone and we have no one with access 🙂

          I love paper boards. Love them. In my (upcoming) agile project management book, right now I have a rant about them. I’ll probably tone down that rant before the book goes to review. It will still be strong encouragement for a paper board.

  2. Tool or paper, it is about overall engagement; when you use paper, there are many other metrics that are missed in the equation. When you have distributed teams, cards are not as functional.
    My point is that cards nor an electronic board are silver bullets; tools ( paper, electronic) are aids to get the work done.

    1. Angel, you are right–paper is not a silver bullet either!! I do like your perspective that the tools exist to get the work done.

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