Why Managers Should Study "I Love Lucy," Kill Their To-Do Lists, And Get Zen

Don’t overburden your employees. Just... don’t do it.

Jim Benson is the developer of a way of visualizing work called "personal kanban," and the co-author of a book on the subject. We caught up with Benson to learn more about workflow, "I Love Lucy," and how being nice is good business.

FAST COMPANY: You’ve developed a workflow idea called "personal kanban." But first, what is "kanban"?

JIM BENSON: "Kanban" is a Japanese word. It means "sign card." The kanban comes from Toyota’s manufacturing process. On the Toyota shop floor, parts come with a big plastic ticket. There are only so many of those tickets on the floor at a time, and those ensure that there are never more objects in production than the system can handle. So if they knew that their system on a given day could make five to six drive trains in an hour, they’d make sure there were only five to six cards out, so that they wouldn’t overburden the system.

This mainly reveals that I’ve never worked in a factory, but the first thing I think of is that "I Love Lucy" scene in the chocolate factory.

Jim Benson

I’ve used that clip before. That clip is actually really awesome for a couple of reasons. One, because it shows that when there’s more work than you can handle, things go crazy. The other thing is that when the boss comes out the first time, she says "Do all this and if you miss anything, you’re fired." The second time she comes out, she says everything looks okay, even though it doesn’t. The boss leaves the second time and says to speed things up. What the boss sees is an inaccurate view of what work actually is.

I always thought of that scene just as comedy, not managerial Zen.

We’ve created a different kind of kanban. We want knowledge workers to be able to see the amount they currently have. Most people write down their work on a list, but in a couple hours, it’s not relevant anymore. What we do is take a whiteboard and create three simple columns: Ready, Doing, and Done. In the Ready column, you populate that with Post-it notes of things you’re supposed to do. In the Doing column, you set a limit—we recommend three things, though it can be higher or lower. So now instead of having a theoretically unlimited capacity for work, you now have a very visible limited capacity for work.

When you complete something, you look at the Ready list, and you say, "Okay, I’ve got one slot out of three. What is it I can put here that’s of highest value?" We have a horrible tendency not only as people but as organizations to take on way more work than we can handle, and then to manage that work by volume—and by that I mean by whoever is yelling loudest at the time.

What’s the point of the Done column?

Each of those columns are vital, because the Ready column is showing you options—previously your to-do list was a death sentence, but now it’s turned into options. The Doing column says "Here’s the list of things I’m working on; I can’t start anything else until I complete one; finish it!" Then the Done column allows a growing real-time retrospective of your work.

Your own background is eclectic, including time as a psychologist.

When people say they want to learn about management for knowledge workers, I will send them to works like Man’s Search for Meaning and Toward a Psychology of Being. Because I want them to understand philosophically that when we are nice, when we actually create a working environment that empowers people to make decisions, they will become intrinsically motivated and quickly start fixing things on their own.

Let’s bring this back to my level of sophistication. So managers need to learn to be okay with letting chocolates pile up?

No. The problem with that boss was she never came in to see what the capacity of the line was. As a knowledge worker, I have a certain capacity, and if I exceed my capacity, the tool I use—my brain—will bog down. And I’m going to get lower quality work more slowly. But if you give me a few things to focus on, I’ll knock stuff out, and you’ll get higher quality work much faster.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd be a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

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  • AllisonSmiles

    Thank  you for such a powerful truth.  Sometimes we are so focused on changing the world, we forget to keep it simple.  Im in awe of Ready, Doing, Done! Im guilty of taking on more than I know I can do.  Plan and progress lead to prosperity.  Thank you again.  All the best. 

  • Jim Benson

    Hi  (or Allison..)

    That was our goal, to provide the minimum amount of structure necessary to act - without overburdening. Thanks!

  • lumb3rZack

    This is how my industry was run for the last 80 years... inefficiently.  The author's point must be predicated on the fact that companies have trouble implementing software properly... software is highly superior in every way (except for simplicity) if utilized correctly.  The simplicity of a columnar approach is really just a method of user experience design into existing software.  Again, I strongly believe many solutions are based on un-trainable employees and bad middle/upper management who can't actually affect change.

  • Jim Benson

    I think I'm exactly half in agreement with you. :-)

    The issues we've found in software is that the story of the work changes so often and is so complex that people (team members, management, customers) cannot keep ahold of it. Using a Personal Kanban with software development teams helps everyone (whether on the team or not) to keep a clear picture of current, past, and future conditions.

    I try to not blame people, but look for changes in the system. The system is usually what stops people from being able to change.

  • Richard G. Edwards

    I would also be interested in software that could make this happen. There must be something out there already that would allow you to drag and drop easily in 3 columns?

  • Try http://kanbantool.com/ it is really simple, clear and intuitive. It took me the whole 15 minutes to figure it out, really. And along with aforementioned advantages, it starts tracking time when you drag and drop your task into your "Doing" column. Pretty great.

  • Yves Hanoulle

    I would propose you first start with post it's and when you have a system that works (aka with the right columns, then move to software.)

    If you can't get it to work on a board, you won't be able to make it work with software.

  • Jim Benson

    I would recommend that you google either Kanbanery or LeanKitKanban. There are many others.

  • Victoria Smith

    Another nice addition to "Ready. Doing. Done" would be "Incoming" for those tasks/projects you committed to doing and know are about to hit. Knowing what's on the horizon (not quite "Ready," but close to landing in our inbox) is also critical. 

  • Jim Benson

    Yes, the board is your own. You can change those columns at will. Add as many as you feel is necessary. On the Personal Kanban site we have many different design patterns.

  • Sarah Royal

    This is an excellent idea, but I don't have enough physical desktop space to organize the three-column post-it plan. Anyone know of any digital desktop/online program that has a click-and-drag, three-column post-it functionality? Or the closest thing?

  • Jim Benson

    Hi Sarah, 

    I would suggest Kanbanery or Lean Kit if you absolutely need an online tool.

    I would not use excel, as it is cumbersome and unsightly. 

    Trello is a good start, but it doesn't allow you explicitly limit your Work in Progress - which is key to making the system work.