Home Kanban for Domestic Bliss

My wife is an architect. I’m a leader of big technical teams these days, but for many years after I was a dev I was a project/program manager. Our friends and family used to watch Grand Designs and think that we would make the ideal team — she could design, I could manage the project of building or converting whatever dream home we wanted.

Then we bought a house.

A Victorian terrace in the north-east of England that needed, well, a fair bit of work. The big decisions were actually pretty easy: yes, we should knock through a double doorway from the dining room to the lounge; yes, we should strip out everything from the utility room and redo it; yes, we should roll back the hideous carpet in the bedrooms upstairs and see if we could restore the original wood flooring.

Those could be managed like a project.

What couldn’t be was all the other stuff. Incremental improvements are harder to schedule, and in a house that’s over a hundred years old you never know what you’re going to find when you clear away some tiles, or pull up the carpets, or even just spring-clean the kitchen (“Erm, hon? The paint seems to be coming off. Actually, so does the plaster…”). A bit like going in to fix bugs in code or upgrade a machine — sometimes you end up quite far down the rabbit hole.

And so, as we tried to fit in those improvements in our evenings and weekends, we found ourselves disagreeing. Arguing, even. We were both trying to do the right thing (make the house better) but since we were fitting it in where we could, we often didn’t get to talk and agree in detail what was needed (exactly how to make the house better). And it’s really frustrating when you stay up late doing something, just to find that your other half didn’t mean that they meant this instead, and so your effort was wasted.

Then I saw this tweet from my friend and colleague Jamie Arnold, who was using the same kanban board approach at home as we had instituted at the UK Government Digital Service to manage our portfolio.

And despite Jamie’s questionable taste in fancy dress outfits (look closely at that board), he is a proper genius when it comes to processes and particularly agile ones. So I followed his example and instituted a home kanban board.

What is this kanban of which you speak?

Kanban boards are an artefact from lean manufacturing — basically a visualisation of a production process. They are used to show you where your bottlenecks are, or where one part of the process is producing components faster than another part of the process can cope. Identifying the bottlenecks leads you to set work in progress (WIP) limits, so that you get an overall more efficient system.

Increasingly kanban is used as an agile software development approach, too, especially where support work (like fixing bugs) needs to be balanced with incremental enhancement (like adding new features).

I’m a big advocate of kanban when you have a system that needs to be maintained and improved by the same team at the same time. Rather than the sprint-based approach of scrum (where the next sprint’s stories or features to be delivered are agreed up front), kanban lets individuals deal with incidents or problems that need investigation and bug fixing when urgent and important. Then, when someone has capacity, they can just go to the board and pull down the next feature to develop or test.

So, how did we use it?

One of the key tenets of kanban is that you visualise your workflow, so we put together a whiteboard with columns: Icebox; To Do Next; In Process; Done; and also a section called Blocked. Then, for each thing that needed to happen in the house, we put it on a Post-it note and initially chucked them all in the Icebox — a collection with no priority assigned yet.

Each week we looked at the Icebox and pulled out a set of things that we felt should be done next. This was pulled into the To Do Next column, and then each time either of us had some time, we could just pull a new thing over into the In Process column. We agreed to review at the end of each week and move things to Done together, and to talk about whether this kanban approach was working for us or not.

We quickly learned for ourselves why kanban has WIP limits as a key tenet — it’s tempting to pull everything into the To Do Next column, but that’s unrealistic. And trying to do more than one or two things each at a given time isn’t terribly productive owing to the cost of task switching. So we tend to limit our To Do Next to about seven items, and our In Process to about four (a max of two each, basically).

We use the Blocked column when something can’t be completed — perhaps we can’t fix something because we discovered we don’t have the required tools or supplies, or if we’re waiting for a call back from a plumber. But it’s nice to put it to one side, knowing that it won’t be forgotten.

What helped the most?

It wasn’t so much the visualisation that helped us to see what we needed to do, but the conversation that happened when we were agreeing priorities, moving them to In Process and then on to Done made the biggest difference. Getting clear on the order of importance really is invaluable — as is getting clear on what Done really means!

The Blocked column is also great, as it helps us keep track of things we need to do outside the house to make sure we can make progress. We also found it really helpful to examine the process itself and figure out whether it was working for us. For instance, one thing we realised is it’s worth tracking some regular tasks that need time invested in them (like taking recycling that isn’t picked up to the recycling centre) and these used to cycle around and around. So they were moved to Done as part of our weekly review, but then immediately put back in the Icebox to float back to the top again at a relevant time.

But the best thing of all? That moment where we get to mark something as done! It’s immensely satisfying to review at the end of the week and have a physical marker of the progress you’ve made.

All in all, a home kanban board turned out to be a very effective way to pull tasks through stages rather than always trying to plan them out in advance, and definitely made collaboration on our home tasks significantly smoother. Give it a try!

About the author

Meri Williams is a geek, a manager and a manager of geeks. She’s led teams ranging in size from 30 to 300, mostly with folks spread across the world. After starting her career as a developer, she moved on to project and then product management before moving into engineering and operations management.

A published author and speaker, she sponsors scholarships to encourage more young women into STEM careers in her hometown of Stellenbosch, South Africa. You can follow her on Twitter at @Geek_Manager or read her blog at blog.geekmanager.co.uk

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