How to Balance Your Crap-to-Fun Ratio With a Personal Kanban, Featuring Shingo-Prize-Winning Author Jim Benson


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Podcast: Just-In-Time Cafe, Episode 31 – How to Balance Your Crap-to-Fun Ratio With a Personal Kanban, Featuring Shingo-Prize-Winning Author Jim Benson -

This episode is jam-packed with goodies! For Today’s Special, Tracy interviews Jim Benson, the coauthor of Personal Kanban.

For the Appetizer we’ll review a free time tracking app called Toggl. For Lean Six Sigma In The News, we’ll find out how the Army uses Lean Six Sigma to stay “mission ready,” and for the Printed Page, we’ll review Jim Benson’s book, Personal Kanban, for a way to reduce our “existential overload” – those weighty “To Do” lists that wake us up at 3am. That’s good news for everyone!

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Podcast Transcript

So the other day, one of the lean managers at a fairly major company came to me and said, ‘I just want you to know that for years we’ve been trying to get people to do their A3s. We’ve been trying to get people to do their Kaizen events. We’ve been trying to get people to analyze things in these various ways or measure this or measure that. The only thing we’ve been reliably able to get people to do is personal Kanban.’ – Jim Benson

Elisabeth Swan: Hi, everybody. I’m Elisabeth Swan.

Tracy O’Rourke: And I’m Tracy O’Rourke.

Elisabeth Swan: And we are from and you’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café Podcast where we bring you fabulous apps, polls, news, books, and people so you can build your problem-solving muscles.

Tracy O’Rourke: Oh no, Elisabeth! There’s a line and I didn’t get coffee yet.

Elisabeth Swan: You’d think we had some poll here, Tracy.

Tracy O’Rourke: Maybe they don’t recognize us.

Elisabeth Swan: OK. Let’s ditch the wigs. I’ll get some coffee and head into the private dining room.

What’s on the Menu (Podcast Agenda)

Tracy O’Rourke: OK, Elisabeth. I already know this is a great episode. But remind our listeners about what’s coming.

Elisabeth Swan: You’re right, Tracy. This episode is jam-packed with goodies. Most exciting is Today’s Special which is your interview with Jim Benson, the co-author of Personal Kanban, great book, great tool, great interview.

For the Appetizer, we will review the time tracking app called Toggl.

In the News, we’ll find out how the Army uses Lean Six Sigma to get mission ready.

And for the Printed Page, we will review Jim Benson’s book, Personal Kanban, and find out how to reduce your existential overload, those witty to-do lists that wake us up early, early in the morning. And that is good news for everybody.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And remember to stay tune for this month’s coupon code in order to get a discount on’s online training.

Elisabeth Swan: Let’s get to the Appetizer.


Tracy O’Rourke: So what do you think of Toggl, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth Swan: I thought it was pretty cool. And for those of you that have not heard about it, Toggl is a free time tracking app. It’s a Google Chrome extension. In most businesses, it’s often helpful to figure out how long it actually takes to do something like freelancers can use it, something like this to track billable time.

In the process improvement world, this is a good way to get process time matrix. I was thinking of this last week, when you and I were working with a client on a swim lane map and we were estimating work time and somebody asked about, “What about jobs that get interrupted? Like how do you track those?” And this was an example. I think it was engineers doing designs and they had clients that they had to go back to for question.

So they’d be in the middle of a design and they would stop and they would have to get a question answered. And so while they are waiting for a response then they had to start another design. And they went back and forth sometimes between five different designs and these guys say, “Well, how do you track that?”

And this is the kind of app that you could just turn on and off. You could label the project and say, “OK, I’m working on design A.” And as soon as you had to stop to get a question answered, you could stop it. So I thought that would be a pretty cool answer to their question.

In that particular situation, I was interested in, “Well, how often do you get interrupted? What are those questions that you have to stop the design for to go ask and could you front load those? Couldn’t you get those answered upfront?” Anyway, that was a separate issue.

But within, we’ve been trying to get a handle on how long it takes to do different tasks. So that would allow us to schedule more effectively like how long is it going to take me to do this so I know where to slot it in my calendar? Including how long does it take to prep for the podcast, so I timed it, Tracy.

Tracy O’Rourke: And what do you think? Do you think there’s some room for improvement?

Elisabeth Swan: Well, there’s always a room for improvement. I was thinking, “Oh, it’s only four hours.” And I thought, “Well, that doesn’t include reading a book, writing a book review, recording podcast, reaching out to folks to see – for interview.” So, what did you think?

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, I really like this because people want to do time studies often and they don’t have an effective way to actually track time. And so, this is a great tool. It allows you to track time by many ways, however you want really, by project, by teams, by work space, by a client, by a task, or you can actually set up a tag and it will track the time for you.

It’s the number one time tracking tool right now on Google. It has got 70,000 users and growing. It’s very secure. So it’s on the Google platform and it meets many ISO security standards and it supports a long list of productivity apps like Asana, Slack, Trello, and Google Drive. So they’re really making a name for themselves because this is something that people have needed for a long time and they make it easy. It took one click for me to start tracking, which is awesome.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah, very cool. And we had one of our staff, Kelvin, was trying it and he loved it because he was trying to get a handle on how long it took him to do tasks and it gave him a baseline which of course, knowing Kelvin, he just did better on it, right? So it spurred him on. But that’s pretty cool. We’re all trying to get a handle on it and that was great.

Tracy O’Rourke: I’m Tracy O’Rourke and you’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café Podcast.

Elisabeth Swan: Up next, it’s Lean Six Sigma In the News.

In the News

Elisabeth Swan: OK, Tracy. Tell us about this Pacific Command. How did Lean Six Sigma help them get mission-ready?

Tracy O’Rourke: So this was a really interesting article. It was found as you said in Pacific Command. It was written by Major Charles Fyffe, and it’s about the Army improving operational readiness for watercraft tugs and they’ve made some significant improvements up to 40%. So these tugs, they’re modular warping tugs for those that might have an interest in the kind of tug it was.

Elisabeth Swan: What does that mean modular warping tug?

Tracy O’Rourke: I think they’re very specific. They’re needed apparently to support the Modular Causeway System, which includes the trident pier and discharge facilities. And this effort, this improvement effort, was a collaboration between the 7th Transportation Brigade and strategic partners in the Pacific Region primarily Army Field Support Battalion – Northeast Asia.

The problem was that two tugs need to be mission-ready at all times, and they weren’t meeting that. So, they wanted to follow the DMAIC process. They found some key root causes like long maintenance times and the fact that some parts were unavailable when they were needed. And those were the things that they addressed as part of this project.

So the improvements that the team made resulted in an increase in operational readiness rate, 40%. And more importantly, they reduced the non-availability time of these tugs from 48 hours to only 4 mission-ready. Nice work.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. And Tracy, I know you’ve done work with the Armed Forces and you said mission readiness is often a very common metric.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes, absolutely. So they have to be ready. If something happens, if some emergency happens, how ready are we to respond to that? And I’ve had other organizations, the Air Force, where being mission-ready was critical. And I said, “Well, what kind of mission?” And I think I said this before and he said, “Well, I can’t tell you otherwise I have to kill you.”

Elisabeth Swan: Well, I’m glad he didn’t kill you, Tracy, because then I would not be able to do the podcast with you.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right.

Elisabeth Swan: That would be sad.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes.

Elisabeth Swan: Well, that’s cool. I mean it’s the ultimate effectiveness measure for the Armed Forces, being mission-ready. Very cool. Thank you for that.

I’m Elisabeth Swan and you’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café Podcast. In a short while, we’ll get to hear Tracy’s interview with Jim Benson, consultant, speaker, and co-author of Personal Kanban. But first, it’s the Printed Page.

Printed Page

Tracy O’Rourke: So Elisabeth, you took this book to heart, didn’t you? Or should I say you took it to your bulletin board.

Elisabeth Swan: I did. I took it to my bulletin board. Thank you. So this book is Personal Kanban and the subtitle is Mapping Work | Navigating Life, and that subtitle speaks volume. It really does exactly that.

And I actually saw Jim and Tonianne, his co-author, at a workshop at an LEI Conference in Carlsbad, California. We were both there a little over a year ago. And he totally sold me on the idea of a personal kanban. So I’ve been operating one for a while although reading the book, I realized a bunch of mistakes I made so I upped my game which was also really helpful.

So let me start with the idea behind a work kanban. And this is – kanban is attributed to Taiichi Ohno of the Toyota Production System that translates to signboard, billboard, visual board. It’s just a visual sign. It could be electronic. It could be physical. It lets people know that it’s time to reorder material or create a product or service. Take a step. It’s part of just in time manufacturing. It helps with the concept of poll, the idea that you don’t start a task until it’s time, until the task before that has already been completed.

So the kanban board is based on that concept. It’s a visual board and it has three columns. There’s to-do or ready, there’s doing, what’s being worked on, and done, what’s completed. And you poll tasks through the board to completion. This is also a foundational piece of the Agile System, which is used by software developers. Then they can see what software modules are waiting to be done, what is done, who is doing it, what stage it’s at.

And it’s amazing how simply taking tasks that are in your head, which they use the term, existential overload, which I totally get at 3 AM, and putting them on paper because it completely changes how you view your work.

And these boards can change in complexity and have a lot more columns, which these authors do a good job of describing. But Jim and his co-author, Tonianne DeMaria, they took this concept and they created something called the Personal Kanban. So it’s using the kanban board to replace your to-do list. And it’s amazing how simply taking tasks that are in your head, which they use the term, existential overload, which I totally get at 3 AM, and putting them on paper because it completely changes how you view your work. You see the tasks.

So it’s an incredibly readable book. They provide lots of examples and options for the way you can set up the boards. It’s an easy read. They’re really funny. And I obviously brought it into my own workspace and it has made my life a lot more manageable. Just seeing those tasks go from ready, doing, and done, I think there’s a phrase where he says, “Putting it in the done file is like brain candy,” the act of just dragging it over the line.

What do you think, Tracy?

Tracy O’Rourke: So what I think is amazing about this personal kanban concept is I have seen clients recommend reading it to their employees and then have this concept spread like wild fire. And it’s visible. It’s visual. So everybody has got their kanban boards and it was really intriguing to me that the challenges that most people face with change management and people not wanting to change and resistance, it’s almost like it didn’t apply here. It didn’t exist. Everybody had one.

I’d walked around and there were some sections that every single person had a kanban board and they loved using it. And that was really intriguing to me about a new concept and trying it and liking it and wanting to try it. And so to me, it seems very transformative and we’re going to talk about that with Jim I think because it’s very interesting. That just blew my mind.

The other thing is we have a friend, Colleen Kindler, and she was telling us that her daughter uses the kanban board for her homework and she would have a task that she would have to do by week and she would move them across the board and guess what? She is now headed to the University of Wisconsin and she got a scholarship and it’s all due to the kanban board.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah, exactly. Now, that’s pretty good. That’s definitely a return on investment.

Tracy O’Rourke: Exactly. It’s also so simple. I think the fact that it’s Post-It notes on a board and you just use a Sharpie pen like that makes it tactile and simple and kind of satisfying just moving those things. It’s cool.

Elisabeth Swan: Remember to read the full review on our website.

Elisabeth Swan: Coming up next is Today’s Special. Tracy, can you give us a little preview of your interview with Jim Benson?

Tracy O’Rourke: Absolutely. So Jim has written a few books but he says that Personal Kanban is his best seller by ten times the number of his other books. And we’re going to get a chance to talk with him about what Personal Kanban is and why this particular tool is so transformative. He has some really good stories to share.

Today’s Special

Tracy O’Rourke: You’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café, I’m Tracy O’Rourke. And today, joining me is Jim Benson. Jim is a CEO of Modus Cooperandi, co-founder of the Modus Institute and creator of the technique, Personal Kanban, and author of the Shingo award-winning book of the same name, Personal Kanban, that Jim co-authored with Tonianne DeMaria. Welcome, Jim. Thanks for coming to the café.

Jim Benson: It’s my pleasure.

Tracy O’Rourke: So any interesting personal fact you’d like to share with our audience?

Jim Benson: Well, I don’t know how interesting it is but I love food, all food. And we, Tonianne DeMaria and I, get kind of the luxury of being able to travel all over the world every year and I get to eat all the best food. So if anybody out there has a need for a restaurant recommendation in almost every major city on earth, I think I can probably provide you at least with what I like.

Tracy O’Rourke: Very nice. It’s amazing you’re not 300 pounds.

Jim Benson: Yeah. I am currently one and a half pounds above what my doctor has called my max weight. So I’m trying my best not to do that. It’s hard.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes, it is. I agree with you. Traveling and being – resisting good food everywhere is difficult to do.

Jim Benson: Very.

Tracy O’Rourke: So, we would love to talk about one of your books. You have three books out. Is it three books that you have or is it more?

Jim Benson: Yeah, there is four.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK.

Jim Benson: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: So we are really here to talk about your book, Personal Kanban. Would you say that has been the most popular book that you’ve written?

Jim Benson: Oh, yes, yes, by a factor of 10.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wow! That’s great.

Jim Benson: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: So, I’d love to share with our audience what Personal Kanban is and a little bit more about why maybe people need it. So, I’ll just say that you wrote in one of your – on your website, you wrote Personal Kanban is about choosing the right work at the right time.

So tell us, what is Personal Kanban in a nutshell and why do people need it?

Jim Benson: OK. In the podcast in a nutshelliest of nutshells, Personal Kanban has two rules, to visualize your work because you can better manage what you can see and to limit your work in progress because you can’t do more work than you can handle. Most of us manage our projects blind and do way too much work at once.

So what we did was very simply put a value stream on a wall which has the simplest value stream possible. Its options doing and done, stuff you haven’t done, stuff you’re working on, and stuff that is complete. And then you pull your work through that doing column or those doing columns if you’ve got more verbose value stream. And you have a hard limit on the things that you can be doing at a time.

We recommend three for individuals just because it’s a good cognitive number and the goal of it is to reduce cognitive load, to make it clear the relationships of the options that you have, to create an environment where you can focus, finish, and then fine tune your work at the end.

Tracy O’Rourke: So how has something so simple been so transformative?

Jim Benson: Oh, my God! I have been doing this for over a decade and every day something happens where I go, “Oh, I can’t believe you did that.” It is like the greatest thing ever for like – for both being like super egomaniac and then also for being super humble.

The two quick stories I guess to kind of – to bookend this is at the very beginning, we got an email from a woman who lived in Pennsylvania who had a father who did everything for her and her sisters. He became very ill. He was diagnosed with stage IV cancer of pretty much everything. And the sisters kind of all freaked out, not because they weren’t capable people but because the relationship with their dad, the system of their family if you will, was he was the one who fixed everything. He was the one who did everything.

So, they took his treatment plan, put it into the options column of a personal kanban and then they look at it and they are like, “Wow! That is awful. I don’t want to do any of that.” But it’s just stuff to do. So they were able to externalize the work. It became less threatening and then they were able to focus on their dad and the work at hand. So it’s a super personal side of that.

Now, we work a lot with teachers and parents and therapists, doctors who have use personal kanban to like work with kids. It’s amazing to watch it with kids. But then on the other side of it, we’re about to do a series of interviews ourselves with people. It’s kind of like powered by personal kanban.

And so far, we have banks, theme parks, fire departments, hospitals, schools, obviously software companies, insurance, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. We’ve come up with currently 14 entirely different verticals but some of them are amusing for me like theme parks and fire departments. So there’s in Michigan, there’s a whole city full of fire departments that are entirely run on personal kanban.

Tracy O’Rourke: Did you think that it was going to be this revolutionary when you wrote the book? I mean we all want that, right? We want …

Jim Benson: Yeah, yeah. Yes, I wanted it to be that revolutionary but what we honestly thought at the beginning was it was going to go in two places. That people would just kind of use it at their desks quietly and then the other thing is that it would probably be used in software a lot because that was kind of where we first laid Post-It notes to whiteboard, if you will.

So the other day, one of the lean managers at a fairly major company came to me and said, “I just want you to know that for years, we’ve been trying to get people to do their A3s. We’ve been trying to get people to do their Kaizen events. We’ve been trying to get people to analyze things in these various ways or measure this or measure that. The only thing we’ve been reliably able to get people to do is personal kanban.”

Tracy O’Rourke: Wow! One of the things you said, there are two rules, limiting work in process, and I love your book because you mentioned some stories that I think stood out for me about your dog, Cookie, when you were a kid and how many Coco Pops can you throw on the air and how many is the dog going to catch?

And then you also have a story in there about a juggler with 9 torches in the air and he actually burns himself.

And so, it’s this idea of this limiting your WIP. So, why is that so important? And how does one do that in a nutshell?

Jim Benson: In a nutshell, yes. So the limiting your WIP is right up there with sticking to your diet as a thing, right? But the thing is, is that you can’t improve a system that is actively overloading itself. The individuals in the system will not have the capacity to engage in continuous improvement and a system itself can’t withstand the continuous improvement.

So at some point, somebody needs to pull the lever and slow the line down whether it’s a cognitive line, whether it’s a collaborative line, whether it’s a literal assembly line. Your tuck time cannot exceed your ability to create quality product.

Politically and personally, it is nearly impossible for us to limit our work in progress because we’re all going squirrel, squirrel, squirrel, squirrel, squirrel, squirrel, squirrel, and those squirrels are all like running around with like thousand dollar bills taped to their back. And you might be able to grab one squirrel and harvest that thousand dollar bill but we’re all grabbing for all of them and getting nothing, right?

And so for us like initially, we were talking about just limit what you’re doing right now. Just slow down and limit what you’re doing right now. But then that obviously works its way that concept scales. So your team shouldn’t be doing more than it can handle. The section of your company shouldn’t be doing more than it can handle. And your corporation, the same way.

So getting corporations to only have a few goals, getting corporations to understand that if they do just a few things at a time, they’ll finish something, they’ll realize the ROI on it faster, and then they can move on to another something. They don’t have to have year-long projects. So that year-long projects drive me crazy, that big batch thing.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And so, it seems simple, right? And you even wrote a book about it. So I’m guessing that people really struggle with this concept of actually doing it, right? So you wrote, Why Limit WIP. And I was wondering, is it different for everyone, scheduling WIP? You said star with two or three items that you’re actually working with.

Jim Benson: Well, from the individual’s standpoint, you have people who have varying controls over what work they receive, the rate they receive it at, how they can communicate up and downstream, the impacts of that rate or that style of receipt. It’s awesome.

Like being on a Six Sigma podcast means I don’t have to explain any of that. That’s a lot of fun. It’s like an ultimate shorthand here. So you have transactional work. You have responsive work. You have inventive work. You have creative work. You have iterative work. There are all these different styles and kinds of work.

And in both Lean and Six Sigma, we focus a lot on the hand-offs but we don’t ever – we don’t as a group, as business process people in general, we don’t focus enough on the other side of that, which isn’t the hand-off but the hand-ins, the collaborative moments.

When we build value streams and we start looking at the things – I just started drawing silos above each of the Post-It notes in the value streams and say, “OK, we’ve got 62 awesome silos here. I’m so glad that we’re able to divide all this up.”

Now, where can we actually work together? And what I find is that when you get people to start working together, the environment allows the limiting of work in progress naturally.

Tracy O’Rourke: I see. So that was actually one of my next questions was, how has personal kanban affecting morale or how does it affect morale and how does it drive successful cultural change in the office environment? And so, what you’re saying is this idea of silos and really starting to work together because there’s a limit of WIP can really increase morale.

Jim Benson: Every so often the world gives you gifts. And last December, I received a big one. Literally made me like cry. So we’re working with a very large construction company, with Turner Construction in New York. And we are using personal kanban to build buildings, big, big, big buildings like buildings of $750 million to $1.6 billion price tags.

And at one point in that process in the giant value stream of building a building, they have something called a Procurement Department. And the people in the Procurement Department have to spend all that money usually in somewhere between 12 and 16 weeks. So I walk in and I put a pile of $1.6 billion on your desk and you have to go hire all of the subcontractors, you have to buy all the steel, you have to buy all the cabinets, everything that goes into this building. So as you can imagine, that’s a lot of work in a very short period of time.

So working on this particular project, we have a nice Obeya Room setup and there’s a beautiful kanban on the wall and there are all these tickets. And all of the HR people from this multinational company descend upon the New York office for a little conference and they stopped by one day to see the Obeya Room.

So Kevin Chase who is the Procurement Agent on this particular project who is my hero, he is standing in front of the room and he is basically saying, “This is how I use the board. This is how the things flow, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And one of the HR people said, “Kevin, does this affect your work-life balance?” And all of the HR people go, “Ha ha HR question.” And that was kind of funny. And then Kevin kind of laughs and he says, “I work here. Nothing is going to impact my work-life balance.” He says, “I can’t spend all this money in like 16 weeks. There’s no way I can just do that.”

But he says, “But here is what happens.” And he said, “Before this board, I sat at my desk and I did my work. I never talked to the operations team except for maybe weekly or maybe more than weekly or less than weekly meetings. Those meetings were always going over a spreadsheet.”

He said, “If something went wrong, things are moving too fast. I never could tell anybody. I just had to kind of fix it and hope that the fix worked well. Because this is such high stake stuff, that’s a lot of pressure on all of these decisions that I make.”

He says, “So, on this board right now, everybody sees when something is in peril, when my boss or any of the other people up and down the chain see that something in in peril, they know it immediately. And we can talk about it immediately. So since we started using the board, I talk to the operations team every day. I sit with them every day. So the level of collaboration between Procurement and Operations literally five times if not more what it was before.” So, probably 20, 30, 40 times what it was before because going from just a status meeting to actually working together is a huge thing.

So then Kevin said this. He said, “So this does not impact my work-life balance. It does impact my quality of life and it helps me act with confidence.”

Tracy O’Rourke: Wow!

Jim Benson: And I was just like, “Yeah!”

Tracy O’Rourke: Wow! That must have made you feel great.

Jim Benson: And part of it was because it was like it’s working. It’s like, that’s working. But the other thing was to hear it eloquently said by someone who is directly benefiting from it and frankly, had every reason in the world to say, “This adds a lot of work to me and I don’t want to touch it and they’re just making me do i and whatever.” But I didn’t put those words in his mouth.

So hearing it understood was ridiculously powerful. And so the interesting thing now is we can’t see beyond the office that we’re working with in this huge company. We didn’t know how it was spreading throughout the rest of the organization.

So he was at a conference last week and all these other people from other parts of the company were coming up saying, “Hey, we’re doing the thing that you guys started doing up there and it was, I guess the second part is that you said cultural change, it’s actually spread beyond an office where we thought we were isolated.”

Tracy O’Rourke: Because they saw success and probably they wanted what he had with that board.

Jim Benson: Yup.

Tracy O’Rourke: Very nice. I love that story by the way. Thanks for sharing that. That was awesome.

Jim Benson: You’re welcome.

Tracy O’Rourke: So, did you actually cry?

Jim Benson: I hate to say it but not bawling. But certainly, tear up and visibly moved.

Tracy O’Rourke: That’s so awesome. I love those stories. I love the stories and the work that we do. And process improvement, continuous improvement, those are the moments that really stand out. So that’s awesome.

So I have a question for you. You’re a busy guy. You’re on the road a lot. How do you bring your personal kanban board with you?

Jim Benson: In a variety of ways. The first is Modus, my company, then we have our classes, our online classes, and then we have the work that we’re doing with our clients and then we have other products that we’re building. And so, all of those things in one way or another need to be managed both as discrete units and overall.

At the same time, I’m a human being and when you take a human being and you put it on a plane a lot, it starts to become forgetful. You lose track of what day it is, who you’re supposed to get things for. So, we have a variety of boards, some – and actually, if you look at any of my laptops, my laptop ends up becoming a board and there are like Post-It notes stuck in different parts of my laptop.

And in a hotel room I end up in, I don’t think I’ve ever left a hotel room without Post-It notes still stuck on something.

So even though we have boards and Lean kit and Trello and other things floating out there for various projects, if we don’t have huddles at regular intervals and those huddles have to demand that you’re looking at the board then the board is very quickly out of sight, out of mind.

The board itself for an individual or for a team is only as valuable, only valuable if you look at it. A non-visual, visual radiator is worthless. So even though we have boards and Lean kit and Trello and other things floating out there for various projects, if we don’t have huddles at regular intervals and those huddles have to demand that you’re looking at the board then the board is very quickly out of sight, out of mind.

So, I will have a board in Trello and I will actually, when I leave, I will pull a bunch of things into doing, into my own doing column which would normally break a WIP limit. But what that is, is it’s an indication that Jim understands that he should be doing these things while he is running around. And then the next time I bring up the board, I can move the things to done to get done.

But we have product style boards, which actually the tickets are the object of value. So for online class, that would be like the actual videos or we also have task-based boards which are kind of like the traditional personal kanban which is options doing and done and it’s just the tasks that move through it.

But we have to be diligent because we are an intentionally understaffed company, which means that we’re constantly saying, “Should I work on this project or should I do this accounting or should I do this or should I do that?”

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. Well, I will say, we practice personal kanban. So is a virtual team. We are a small team like your organization. We are completely – there are two people in Hawaii, one in San Diego, one in Las Vegas, and one in Cape Cod. So we love Trello and we have really …

Jim Benson: And the sun apparently.

Tracy O’Rourke: Exactly. When you can live anywhere, you pick pretty cool places. So we love Trello. We love the kanban. We call it the team board. And we’ve got various boards. And you’re right, we have huddles around these boards regularly and we also have sort of reminders. So we put due dates on everything and then you can clean out the cards if there are late dates and then you can move the dates.

And so, we love it. It’s very effective for us and we really enjoy it. I don’t know if you are a fun of Trello. It sounds like you use it.

Jim Benson: We use it.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And for a virtual team, it’s a great solution. It could be a great strategy.

Jim Benson: Yeah. It has – I mean what I like about Trello is that it’s super simple so you can just throw something up and start working with it. It doesn’t provide you with any statistics. It doesn’t have swim lanes. It doesn’t allow you to build complex boards at all. But as far as like getting together a group of people and needing to get something done, right now it’s the simplest thing to use out there.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. So we’re almost out of time here but I wanted to talk with you just in case our audience wants to hear about your two other books that you’ve written, Why Plans Fail. And we could take a little bit about the other book, Why Limit WIP. So can you tell us a little bit more about those two?

Jim Benson: Sure. So Why Plans Fail is a book about the psychology of work. If people have read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, it is a worth – succinct version of that in a way. It’s kind of half business novel and half not. True story, I was just finishing the last edits when Thinking Fast and Slow was published and I was like, “Oh no!” And suddenly, I had to like put it off a month and then go in and put all these references to Thinking Fast and Slow even though I didn’t know it exists. People were like, “You totally stole from Kahneman.” I was like, “No.” So that was “hilarious.”

But the nice thing about it is takes behavioral psychology and it puts it firmly in a business context. Why Plans Fail is – it has like six or seven sections and it takes some specific cognitive biases and it shows how those play out in the office. And that’s important for our profession because we tend to fall into rationale act or thought a lot. And we don’t recognize that there are propensities for people to think in certain ways especially when they’re doing A3s that are very harmful for finding the actual root causes.

For Why Limit WIP, it follows a guy named Grendel through an intolerable work situation into a much more tolerable work situation and how he and the people that he worked with created strategies and coping mechanisms to actually limit their work in progress.

I’m quite proud of that book. I like it a lot. It has been a harder sale because it’s more esoteric. But it’s a short book and I don’t know, I would be very pleased if more people read it because I think it has been effective when I’ve used it with clients.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, I am going to read that one next.

Jim Benson: OK.

Tracy O’Rourke: So you got one more person reading that book.

Jim Benson: Yay! There you go.

Tracy O’Rourke: So, is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience today that I didn’t ask you about, Jim?

Jim Benson: So, one of the things that you and I were talking about before we started the interview was that for years, there has been kind of like this attempt at process wars in one way or another. So we’ve got like Lean thingies and we’ve got Six Sigma thingies and we’ve got scrum thingies and we’ve got all these different ways to manage work, PRINCE2, and whatnot.

But in the end, all work is done by individuals in teams to produce value.

But in the end, all work is done by individuals in teams to produce value. We tend to create business processes to produce value. Sometimes we pay attention to the teams. We almost never pay attention to the individuals. That means that almost all the processes that we ever create end up being sub-optimized because not only can we overload people but people can get overly excited and just take on too much work because it’s interesting, because it’s fun, because it’s what they waited their whole lives to do.

So as coaches, as process people, we need to watch out for the kind of the WIP health if you will of individuals. And you can’t tell people, “Stop doing that.” But what we can do is we can kind of see like what are the levers that we can change either in the value stream or in the collaborative nature of the organization. So if people start to get overloaded, don’t necessarily immediately go to like limit their WIP limit but ask them and yourselves, what of those things that you’re working on could you work on with somebody else?

And you’ll get an exponential quality increase from that because they’re focusing better and they have to explain it to somebody else.

Tracy O’Rourke: Interesting.

Jim Benson: So that’s my big thing. Personal kanban feels like an individual thing for me but it’s totally a collaborative tool.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes, wonderful. So where are you spending your time these days, Jim? You’re writing all over the place. I mean you told me you were going to be gone for three weeks. You got a lot of stuff going on. How much of that work is personal kanban versus other things?

Jim Benson: That’s the thing is like personal kanban is kind of my Trojan horse. People are like, “We like a box of personal kanban,” and then I show up and then good management actually pops out.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right.

Jim Benson: They’re like, “Oh, I didn’t see that coming.” The upcoming is I’m in New York for a week and then I’m in San Luis Obispo for a week and then I guess at first, I’m going to Leavenworth, Washington for a few days. So that’s kind of those two and a half weeks. Then I’m home to change my clothes and then it’s Iowa and New York again. See? I told you.

Tracy O’Rourke: Do you suffer from the same thing as I do, you wake up and you go, “Where am I?”

Jim Benson: That’s it. Where am I? So my parents whenever they call now, they actually start with, “Where are you?” Even though they have Facebook, they should be able to follow that. But every year, we will touch every continent. That has happened since 2010.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wow! That’s great. So how can people find you? What’s the best way to find you?

Jim Benson: Probably the best way to find us is on the website.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wonderful. Well, thank you, Jim. I appreciate you coming to the café to talk with me and make me laugh and share some great stories. Thank you so much, Jim.

Jim Benson: Yeah, Tracy. My pleasure.

This Just In

Elisabeth Swan: Don’t forget to check out our latest success story. Kristin Kielich of UC San Diego saved 2,000 hours a year in the employee onboarding process. Great story.

Sign up for next week’s webinar, How to Make the Swimlane Map Work for You. And remember to tune in to our next podcast episode where Tracy interviews Daniel Hinz, Chief Procurement Officer of King County, Washington.

Tracy O’Rourke: And did you know that Elisabeth and I just wrote an eBook? It’s The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit: A Surprisingly Simple Guide to Your Lean Six Sigma Journey. It just came out on Amazon and it’s free with Green Belt or Black Belt Training. You can also order it on our site. Check it out. We are super excited about it.

Elisabeth Swan: We’re authors now, Tracy!

Tracy O’Rourke: Woohoo! We get to talk about our own book now.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s right! Good. Next podcast. Thanks for hanging out with us at the Just-In-Time Cafe. Come back in two weeks!

Thanks for Listening!

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