Edele Gormley

How I use Personal Kanban

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I’m a fan of lists. I make lists for lots of things - groceries, housework, packing for a holiday, moving home and so on. It’s not really that much of a surprise that I’m a list-lover when you consider that a backlog is essentially a list of to-do items. So where does Kanban come into it all?

To-do list
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

My mother has always written a shopping list by hand before she goes to the supermarket. I guess that’s where my habit originally comes from. Even in today’s smartphone world, I sometimes still use the same technique as her - it helps to prevent impulse buying (yes, the supermarkets know you’ll grab a bar of chocolate whilst you’re waiting at the checkout!). While physical lists on pieces of paper can be very helpful, it’s possible to lose them within the aisles of the supermarket, or for them to get crumpled at the bottom of my bag, or simply to not have a pen when I need one.

I also used this paper-based list thing for other activities. Take holidays for example: it’s kinda nice to put a physical piece of paper in my suitcase to remind me what I brought with me. But using technology brings with it a bunch of advantages that it’s hard to ignore. At first I used the generic notes app that most smartphones come pre-installed with, but they’re not really built for my needs. I tested out reminders, so I could add items to the list and it would remind me when I was near a supermarket based on my phone’s GPS. But somehow this also wasn’t right. I tried and tested various apps before I ended on Trello, which I’ve been using daily for over 5 years now.

The Trello board itself has gone through various iterations over the years, starting with a simple 2 column layout for “To get” and “Got.” I like the re-usability aspect of Trello - I don’t have to write out a completely new list every time, I can simply move items I frequently buy from the ‘Got’ list to the ‘To get’ list. I’ve created a habit of ordering my list based on my usual supermarket’s layout. Items nearer the door (fruit and veg) appear at the top of the list, whereas items at the back of the supermarket, (the freezer aisle) are at the bottom. If you’ve ever used Trello, you’ll know how it can be frustrating to drag multiple items up and down a lengthy column, which drove me to iterate on my two-column layout: I created new columns based on where I keep things in my kitchen. So, I have a column for ‘fruit’, another for ‘vegetables’, ‘fresh herbs’, ‘fridge’, ‘non-food items’ etc. This allows me to categorise the items I use, and keeps each column shorter. The benefit of this, is I simply need to check the area of my kitchen to see if I need to re-purchase, and then drag it from the relevant column to the ‘To get’ list. The below gif shows me moving some items I needed to buy to make a salsa.

My Personal shopping board in Trello

You might be thinking, but Kanban is all about pull and work-in-progress (WIP) limits, how does this apply here? I believe there are some elements of Kanban present in my shopping list. For example, items are only added to the ‘To do’ column based on whether or not I need them - which is similar to the customer demand driving the Kanban process. I have a WIP limit on the ‘To get’ list, which tells me I need to go to the supermarket when there are 10 or more items in this list. For the other columns, I don’t use WIP limits but the ability is there if I need to in future. For example, I have 3 shelves in my fridge, each shelf can hold about 4 cartons of milk and juice - I could very well have a column called ‘Milk and Juice’, with a WIP limit of 12 to account for the 3 shelves (3 shelves * 4 cartons). But I don’t feel the need to do this, and I’m pretty happy with the system I use.

Creating the shopping list is a continuous task for me - once I know I’m running low on an item, I simply drag it to ‘To get.’ This is a shift from when I was creating my paper list, where I would write the list in one sitting. Now, I can look at the list regularly, and when there’s 10 or more items, I know I definitely need to go to the store. But sometimes, when I’m near a shop I’ll just take a look at the list and if there’s anything urgent in there I’ll buy it without waiting for the WIP to be exceeded.

My housework and holiday packing lists work the same, I have separate boards for each of these but both follow the same pattern. I actually have a couple of holiday boards, depending on where I’m going and the length of the trip. Funnily enough, I’m usually taking the same things with me on every holiday: chargers, toiletries, headphones, and so on. There’s only a couple of variations on this theme, which means I can have a couple of pre-made boards ready to go. For example, if I’m heading on a beach holiday I’m probably going to be wearing flip-flops or sandals and therefore don’t need socks, but on a 4 day city break I probably will.

So, there you have it. Some people might think using Kanban techniques in your personal life is overkill. But, I’ve been making lists since I was a child and this is my way of managing them. Plus, the buzz I get from ticking all the items of a list is worth it - kinda similar to how a development team feel after a big feature release!