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.
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.