Our Kanban Boards Are Backwards!

If you’re using a Kanban board to visualize your work, in its most general form, it probably looks something like:

Screen Shot 2018-02-09 at 5.59.11 PM

It turns out that this is exactly backwards with how we intuitively visualize time. As Jabe Bloom points out, the “set of columns reflects an inversion of our innate understanding of the flow of time.”1 Instead of time flowing from left to right in a Past, Present, Future order, it is inverted, and on a Kanban board it flows from right to left.

Screen Shot 2018-02-09 at 6.05.42 PM

Contrast this with what a Kanban board would look like if it was coherent with how we usually think about the time arrow.

Screen Shot 2018-02-09 at 6.07.59 PM

Once I rearranged a Kanban board this way, I have a hard time thinking of it differently. There are multiple things that become coherent with this arrangement.

  • The new arrangement is coherent with how left-to-right readers visualize the arrow of time. By coherent, I mean a very abstract coherence in the sense that “Happy” is coherent with “Up” or that “Sad” is coherent with “Down”.
  • When “walking the board”, we are taught to walk “backwards” from DONE to TO DO. Well, in this new arrangement, there is nothing backwards about it. Walking the board becomes coherent with the board arrangement and the flow of time.

  • The cards end up traveling from right to left. For some reason, that is more coherent with “pull”. To contrast with a standard Kanban board, cards traveling left to right seems to me more coherent with “push”.

  • Looking at “TO DO” column in the future and on the right, feels more coherent with “TO DO” being our vision of the future that we are “pulling” into reality one card at a time. It also, to me, highlights better my opinion that a backlog is just a place where everything goes stale without us worrying about it.

  • The clutter of a “TO DO” column seems easier to dismiss when it’s on the left. When it’s on the right, the clutter of “TO DO” goes from “we have a lot of work to do” to “we have no coherent view of what we want in the future.” The difference is very subtle, but I think it’s there.

Will changing your Kanban board this way make you 50% more productive? No. However, while I see no compelling reason for the predominant TO DO, DOING, DONE arrangement, there seems coherence to be gained by switching to DONE, DOING, TO DO.

Endnotes:

1 Bloom, Jabe (2012). The Moment of Pull – Meditations on time and the movement of cards. Retrieved 9 Feb 2018.

2 While this Kanban board arrangement came to me while reading Jabe’s “The Moment of Pull,” it is not a new idea. For example, see: Rybing, Tomas (2015). Mirrored Kanban Board. Retrieved 9 Feb 2018.

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