The PIP and WIP board design

My last post showed you how to get started using a Kanban board to manage what you were doing. This was very much Agile Researcher 101. Using a board with such a basic design should already allow you to improve the flow of your work and focus on what is truly important. Taking this further is a matter of making the design of your board evolve to adapt to your very own context and making sure you are not trying to juggle with too many balls at the same time. A necessary step to really understand the fundamentals is to study Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry’s book: Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life ; Jim and Tonianne also have an excellent Personal Kanban online course [Affiliate link]. It is then a matter of experimenting to see what works for you and what does not.

Since I am often asked what my own board looks like, I would like to share the design I currently use for managing my own research work – Please note that I am sharing the design of the board but that I have chosen to use blank stickies to illustrate this post for privacy reasons. This is in no way given as an exemple to follow : it is working quite well for me at present, but it may not be adapted to the specific needs of someone else.

Changing the design of your board is usually a way to solve a problem. My problem soon became very clear when I started visualizing my work : I am very good at starting things, but not so good at finishing them. Therefore the number of projects I had on the go was getting out of control, This is nothing terribly original.

Reducing my WIP – work in progress – was very useful, but I realized that I also had too many PIPs – Projects in Progress – which were not tracked in a sufficiently explicit manner.

This made me think hard about the question of the articulation articulation between projects and tasks and I decided to experiment with a new board design which would make explicit the distinction between projects and tasks.

A while back, I had used a board design which followed very closely the priority filter pattern, based on Corey Ladas’ Scrumban. It included the following columns:

| Priority 3 | Priority 2 | Priority 1 | Ready | Doing | Pen | Done |

I have found that it worked extremely well and really helped improve the way in which my work was flowing. I could however not help but notice that when the time happened to break down a given project on which I wanted to concentrate on in discrete tasks to execute, I kept been placed in a situation where the number of such tasks was much higher than I expected. As a result I found using this pattern increasingly frustrating, as I needed to rearrange the whole board by moving items backwards to make things work and keep some discipline.

I have therefore tried a new board design which would make explicit what involved projects and what involved tasks.

The left hand side part of the backlog is only concerned with the strategic level, with each project represented by a sticky note. It uses a simple priority filter to establish priorities among projects. The four columns on that part of the board are from left to right:

| Priority 3 | Priority 2 | Priority 1 | Ready |

The right hand section of the backlog is concerned with the tactical level and is used to track the active projects and the tasks associated with them — as well as the smaller tasks which I aim execute in the coming week.

To the left of this section, a column is used to track projects which are active, i.e. which I have actually started. I call it PiP, project(s) in progress. This is what could be termed Meta-WIP, to use an expression Jim Benson once used: “projects are meta-WIP. Limiting to a few projects enables delivery. Limiting to a few tasks creates focus.” Further to the right is a much broader column, with a width which easily fits 5 stickies. The upper part is used to place tasks connected to the active project(s). The tasks placed at the same level than the sticky materializing the project they belong to in effect form something like a swimlane (ie horizontal column), although I have chosen not to materialize it on my board, as the number of tasks for a project can vary a great deal. The lower part is used to track all the small tasks which don’t belong to a projet that I may have to execute.

In the most recent iteration of this board, an additional horizontal section has been added to that part of the board, for also tracking recurring tasks.

Personal Kanban: Planet Lean interviews Jim Benson

A very brief update to my weekly blogpost on Kanban for Researchers: Getting Started, with this video from Planet Lean. It is an interview with with Jim Benson, the co-author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, and provides an excellent short overview of the approach.

The transcript of the interview is available here:
Jim Benson, Personal Kanban – how visualizing tasks can help us make sense of a busy schedule and reduce our stress, Lean Planet, 30 April 2015.

Jim uses here an easel pad to illustrate how to create a Personal Kanban board. Typically people tend to use a white board, a wall or a digital board (such as LeanKit, Trello, etc.)

Example of Personal Kanban board
Example of Personal Kanban board

The Agile Researcher Approach : Getting Started

We all have a multitude of things to do : tasks to perform, people to interact with, responsibilities to fulfil, and even fun activities to attend. Our brain, however, finds it difficult to juggle multiple priorities. Meanwhile, the best laid plans must compose with reality, which is inescapably full of uncertainty and random surprises. We need to know how to be both firm to stay on course to move towards our initial goals, and sufficiently flexible to make them fit an always-changing reality.

Using a Kanban is most useful in this respect. This simple yet powerful tool will enable to gain control over your work and your life by making what you have to do visible. This is based on Personal Kanban which has two rules and only two rules:

  • 1. Visualize your work
  • 2. Limit your work in progress

It’s that simple.

You won’t fully grasp the merit of the approach until you have tried it. My challenge to you today: build your first Kanban. Much of my practice is based on using experiential learning — i.e. learning by doing — and the best way for you to see the value of Personal Kanban is to use for a week. Give it a try, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Visualizing your work: an experiment

This experiment simply consists in visualizing your work using post-it notes.

Material required

    • post-it notes
    • a wall, or a whiteboard if you have one
    • a felt pen

Stage 1

Divide your wall or your whiteboard into three columns. Write TO DO on a post-it, and place it on top of the left column; write DOING on another post-it, and place it on top of the middle column; and finally write DONE on a third post-it, and place it on top of the right column, as illustrated below.


Stage 2

Next, make an inventory of all the tasks you have to do this week, irrespective of whether they are new tasks or not. Use one post-it per task and place it in the TO DO column.


Let’s now pause a few seconds to reflect. How does visualizing all the work you are doing or want to do feels?

Stage 3

Now let’s get to work. Every time you start working on a task, place it in the DOING column.


But there is a catch: you need to limit the number of tasks in progress. Think about the act of juggling: if tasks were oranges, how many could you juggle easily without dropping any? Most people would say 2 or 3, but you may be a skilful juggler who can handle 4 or more. Decide on a number – let’s say 3 – and add it on top of the DOING column as a reminder: this is your Work In Progress (or WIP) Limit.

Once a task is finished, move it to the DONE column.


As the week progresses, pay attention to how it feels to move a post-it in the DONE column when you have completed a task.

Stage 4

At the end of the week, stand in front of your wall, or whiteboard, and take a few moments to reflect on your experience. Have a look at the DONE column. How does it feel? Are you surprised, or is it just what you expected? Have you noticed any change to the flow of your work, or to the number of tasks you have completed this week compared to a normal week?

Please do let me know how your Kanban experiment went by posting a comment. To find more about Personal Kanban and in particular the basic psychological principles that make Personal Kanban so powerful, as explained in Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry’s book Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life. Jim and Tonianne also have an excellent Personal Kanban online course [Affiliate link].

Managing your Work as a PhD Student : The Agile Researcher Approach

I would like to follow up on last week’s post by going deeper into the three key dimensions of managing your life and your work as a Ph.D. student: self-management, thesis management, as well as information and knowledge management.

Too many balls to juggle

One of the main challenges of doing a Ph.D. resides in the fact of having to conduct a substantial research project – with all that this implies, while having to go about the usual demands of daily life. Some doctoral students are also expected to teach courses – the norm here in North America. Producing an excellent thesis is often not enough: in order to succeed in academia, a Ph.D. student must also build a great CV and network extensively. This involves developing a portfolio of teaching experience, giving conference papers, publishing journal articles, organizing conferences or seminars, and playing an active part in the research community. In some cases, this is in addition to having a part-time job to make ends meet, and to fulfilling family responsibilities.

It is therefore no surprise that the risk of “dropping the ball” is high among Ph.D. students.  This is why it is crucial to have a solid system in place to help you manage your work – and more broadly your life as a whole.  Investing time and effort to put a robust system in place from the start makes a lot of sense for Ph.D. students. Few do, however, and while some universities have been creative in their effort to develop training programmes, they seldom offer appropriate training in what is perhaps the most important aspect of preparing students to fulfil their potential: managing the many balls they have to juggle. The good news is: it is never too late to put a good management system in place.

The Agile Researcher approach

Filtering to stay in control

The truth is: you can’t do everything, and learning to identify what not to do is as important as knowing what to do if you want to keep your sanity and succeed as a researcher.

This is where filtering comes into play. Only by adopting a rigorous triage protocol to filter systematically everything which solicit your attention, will you be able to manage all the demands on your time, and more generally on your life.

1. Self-managing

You need a system to manage what needs to be done in both your professional and personal life. This is what I call the tactical level of self-management.

For this purpose you can either use a task list, or a visual board. I have used both in the past. Tasks lists (on paper or using dedicated software) can work. In my experience, using a Kanban board is vastly superior: I will present this tool in more detail in subsequent posts. There is, however, no best practice: what works well for you is good for you.

Irrespective of whether you use a task list or stickies notes on a visual board, your system should allow you to keep track of all the different things you need to do, or more precisely you could choose to do.

This system will be your HQ, your bridge, for managing at a tactical level what needs to be done without dropping anything. This will involve all aspects of your life without neglecting the personal and fun dimension. It will help you realize that what you can realistically do is, by necessity, limited, and that you need to concentrate on what matters most. The name of the game is not to become more and more productive by doing always more and more (like the hamster in its proverbial wheel), but getting the right things done (like the fox). It will also help you see the proverbial elephant in the room:  you need to be extremely selective in what you are doing, because you can’t do everything.

Managing your Ph.D. thesis project(s)

Have you noticed how I write about project(s) rather than simply project(? This is because doing a Ph.D. often involves managing a portfolio of projects rather than a single research project. I will get back to this idea in a future post. What you need to know at this point is that an Agile approach is way superior to traditional project management to help you complete your Ph.D. Traditional project management is not adapted to the reality of research work. Developing a research project, defining a research question, writing up a thesis involves creativity. It is not about following a set of instructions, like you would do to put together a sofa from IKEA. You need a system that accounts for the back and forth of the mind. Gantt charts look pretty – logical and methodical, with milestones to be followed religiously – but they don’t fit the bill. A research project does not evolve in a linear fashion. Major shifts can happen following the discovery of a critical piece of information.

A system that accounts for the non-linear nature of research does not have to be complicated. The solution The Agile Researcher proposes is a simple system, based on the Kanban method, which consists in visualizing the work that needs to be done, and allows for rapid re-prioritization. This will help you become involved in dynamic planning and management of your project.

Managing information and knowledge

Keeping your documents organized with a robust filing system is also vital. This will allow you to manage information and knowledge you have developed. It seems to be something so straight forward that often little thought is given to the fundamentals until it becomes a problem that requires a lot of time to fix. In future posts, The Agile Researcher will introduce you to a series of fundamental principles that will save you time and headaches down the road.

I propose to further elaborate on each of these points in the next few posts in this series.

For the time being, I would love to hear from PhD students what has been the main challenge, they have been – or are being – confronted with?