In the Park

Kanban, Trello and productivity: first impressions and comparisons

My friend Mike Vardy suggested to me, when I was supervising a group of graphic designers, that I might want to look at the Kanban productivity system. I didn’t do it then, because I wasn’t directly supervising their projects (I was supervising their supervisor), and because I did not need another new thing to learn at that time.

What attracted me to try Kanban was a combination of things: it was something new to learn (I’m always open to that!), Mike had described it as a system for visually-inclined people, and it is minimalist.  After being forced to set up a fairly complicated set of filters and tags in Todoist to keep track of my demanding job as a communications director, I was hungry to simplify.

(The ToDoist system of tags and filters totally worked to make my life easier by the way, and I may go back to it if I’m ever again in charge of a large department like that.)

After reading about the Kanban system, I looked for an application to support it. All my research led me to Trello. I had tried Trello before, but without the knowledge of Kanban, it wasn’t intuitive to me now to get the most out of it, so I abandoned it.

Screenshot of Klassen Jeffery Household Trello board

However, after using Trello with Kanban for the past two weeks, I’m a convert. Plus, it works great as an editorial calendar. I may even suggest it to the client I’ll be working with next month.

Keeping it simple

Kanban has only two simple rules, visualize your work and limit your work in progress.

Here’s how it works, in three simple steps:

  1. Divide up a board into columns. Start with three: “Backlog,” “Doing” (or “Work In Progress”), and “Complete.”
  2. Put each of your tasks onto a card or Post-it Note. As you work on a task, move it to the “Doing” column. As you finish it, move it to the “Completed” column.
  3. Limit your “Doing” (or Work In Progress) items to a few at a time (I have only 3, but some people have 5). To start on a new task, either move another one to “Complete” or back to “Backlog.” I have added a few other columns to my various boards on Trello: one is “DFO” – Due from Others; where I park tasks I can’t complete because I’m waiting for action by someone else.

Using visuals

In the ParkI love using graphics in my boards. On my Personal board I have a column called “Inspiration,” where I collect all those funky memes I come across. I keep them there for a while to inspire me. Our shared Household board has pictures of tasks we need to complete, like a clean BBQ – to remind us we need to clean ours – or the bags of clothes we need to donate. I have collected a couple dozen generic CC-licensed graphics to use for my Professional and Editorial Calendar boards.

In short: my Trello boards look pretty and motivate me to get stuff done. I eagerly open my Kanban boards each day to see what’s up next. I work on the three most important tasks, one at a time, and as the “Completed” column fills up, I can see my accomplishments.

Comparing Trello to ToDoist and Basecamp

I have used Basecamp and ToDoist before, for editorial calendars, project collaboration, and personal task management. Trello has a great calendar view almost as good as Basecamp’s, which makes it attractive for editorial calendars.

Tori's Trello Editorial Calendar board - calendar viewLike Basecamp, you can discuss each project/task with a team in Trello. Unlike Basecamp, you can’t just reply to an email and have it show up in the Trello conversation thread, you have to be in the app. This will probably keep me from using Trello with clients.

Update: Twitter user @MichaelPryor pointed out to me that you can indeed reply by email to a thread in Trello:

“just FYI, you can hit the reply link in notification emails and comment and it will go back on the card without going to trello.” -Thanks Michael!

The beauty of Basecamp was that I could have a project shared by a committee of people from different organizations. As long as I could get them signed in to the Basecamp project once, I could control which team members would get an update via email of each comment I posted. They could then simply hit “reply” with their feedback; no need to sign in again to post within the app.

Unlike ToDoist, I can’t see all my upcoming tasks in one go in Trello and the filtering mechanism isn’t that robust. I used filters a lot in ToDoist. For instance, if I had a meeting starting in 15 minutes, I would filter by those tasks I had marked as “less than 5 minutes to complete,” pick one, and knock it off before heading out to my meeting.

However, I think that is a feature of Trello and Kanban, not a bug. After all, you’re supposed to be more productive by limiting your Work In Progress, right?

Like the example above, I still have some aspects of Personal Kanban and Trello to figure out. Another example: what do you do with recurring tasks? Keep moving them back into the Backlog column? I’ve downloaded Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life to read up some more. The jury’s still out on whether I’ll use Kanban when my life gets busier, or perhaps I’ll drop those items I didn’t need to focus on in the first place, leaving more room for what’s ultimately more important.  

Further reading:

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