Kanban For Lawyers
Kanban For Lawyers
John E. Grant
Buy on Leanpub

Part 1: Start Here and Now

Chapter 1: Do this Now

Most books begin with a bunch of “why” statements, or a history of the topic, or some other bunch of words designed to convince you that buying the book is or was a good idea. We’re not going to do that.

You’ve started reading — that means you’re at least minimally interested in using Kanban. That’s good, but the best way I can get you really interested in using Kanban is for you to start using Kanban. We’ll get to some history and why stuff later, but starting with Kanban is so darn easy that it simply makes no sense to delay.

The number one thing I hear from people once they start using Kanban to visually manage their work is that they can never see it another way. And they love it.

So if you are ready to commit to improving your productivity, your delivery of client value, and the way you feel about your law practice, I ask you to do the following:

  1. Grab a pad of sticky notes. Any shape or size. (If you honestly don’t have sticky notes, some paper and tape will do.)
  2. Find a pen.
  3. Look around and identify a wall with some empty space.

Great. Now you have all the tools you need to start Kanban.

I’m dead serious about you physically doing this. Kanban is participatory, not conceptual. If you just scanned the above list and thought to yourself “Ok, I’ll go get those things in a bit after I read some more” then stop. Go back. Now please actually do those three things right now. Thank you.

Okay. Now write on a sticky note “Build Kanban Board.”

Look at your wall. Mentally divide it into three vertical columns. Take the sticky note you just wrote and put it in the left-hand column.

Now write each of the following on three more stickies:

  • To Do
  • Doing
  • Done

Put the “To Do” sticky at the top of the left-hand column on your wall, above your “Build Kanban Board” note. If you need to move your existing note around a little to accommodate the new one, please feel free to do so.

Now put the “Doing” sticky to the right of the “To Do” sticky. Then do the same thing with the “Done” sticky, to the right of the “Doing” one. The spacing is up to you — make it feel right.

Then take your “Build Kanban Board” sticky and move it into the “Doing” column.

This next part is very important. Do not skip it!

Step back from your wall and look at it. Take a moment to appreciate that there is one thing right now that you are doing.



I’m sure you have lots of thoughts in your head about things that you could be doing, maybe even should be doing. We’ll deal with those things very soon. But right now, at this moment, you are doing one thing: Building your Kanban board.


Now take your “Build Kanban Board” sticky and move it to the “Done” column.

This next part is also very important. Do not skip it!

Step back from your wall again and look at it, especially that item in the “Done” column. Appreciate that you have just taken something from start to finish. It took very little time, almost no financial investment, and not a lot of effort. But it is done. Finished. Complete. So savor the accomplishment! It is a small accomplishment so a small savoring will do: maybe a deep breath or a quick sip of tea. But savoring accomplishments is essential to your success with Kanban, so make sure you do it.

Nicely done. You have started, and that is the most important thing.

Chapter 2: A Retrospective

Wait a minute — we’re one chapter into this book and already we’re having a retrospective? Seems a little premature, doesn’t it?

Bear with me.

When I said before that completing your “Build Kanban Board” task was a small accomplishment, I was lying. You have actually accomplished a great deal.

First, you have conceived, implemented, and tested a Minimum Viable Product1. That is, you have created a simple thing of value that you can actually use right now to accomplish your work. Oh it is going to get better — a lot better actually — but you’ve built something: A good start.

Equally important, you’ve learned something from the act of building (and from the act of using) your creation. You are now a little bit smarter, a little more experienced. Everything from here forward will be improvement.

Second, you have made your workflow visible. Granted, what you have on your wall right now is a crude approximation of your workflow, but the basic structure is there. We’ll tease out some more detail shortly (maybe a lot of detail eventually). Even this simplistic level of workflow visibility, however, will begin to unlock the incredible power of the Kanban Method.

You have also made your work visible. Well, one task is visible for now. But you saw it! An actual, tangible task that you took from conception to completion through your workflow.

As lawyers, especially modern computer-oriented lawyers, our work is largely invisible. We do lots of things every day, possibly every hour, but we don’t really see most of them. A contract reviewed, a motion drafted, some research done — all of the progress typically lives in our heads, or at most in the ones and zeros of our devices and the ephemeral glow of our displays. We may print off something on occasion, but we quickly send it away to somewhere else. Our work is hard to see.

As humans, this is foreign. We evolved while doing physical, tangible things. If we needed to gather food, we went out into the physical world and plucked edibles until we couldn’t carry any more or it was time to eat. If we needed greater capacity, we wove physical baskets that started with nothing but a pile of reeds and, through a process, finished with something significantly more valuable.

This series of events — identifying a need, inventing some methodology for meeting that need, and then refining the methodology to satisfy the need more effectively — is the baseline for all human progress. It is what distinguishes human progress from evolutionary progress, where a random mutation renders an individual slightly more or less fit to succeed in its particular environment (and, if all goes well, successful mutations are passed along to the next generation).

There’s the thing: Evolution requires generations to progress, but Humans can conceive, build, test, and improve much more quickly. Think about that.





Just pondering those steps feels like progress.

My point is that we are much better at interacting with the physical world than the virtual one. If you disagree, then ask why our virtual devices are constantly becoming smaller, more portable; from ENIAC to desktop to laptop to mobile to wearable. I tend to think it is because most people want our devices to accompany us into the world at large where they compliment, not supplant, our physical experience.

Kanban gives all of your invisible, virtual work a visible, physical analog. It isn’t quite the same as doing actual physical work, but it is enough to trick your lizard brain into experiencing the work in a more familiar way. This, in turn, allows your brain to start doing what it does best: recognize patterns, categorize items, perceive threats and dismiss trivialities. Once you can actually see your work in a Kanban board, you will experience a sense of order and control that has probably been missing from your work-life for some time.

The third thing you have accomplished (or the fourth, it isn’t important) is that you’ve experienced the power of working on one thing at a time, and of working on it until it is done. In manufacturing this is called Single Piece Flow. There is decades of evidence showing that Single Piece Flow — as opposed to the alternatives: multitasking and batch flow — is the best way to get lots of things done in a fixed amount of time. There is other, more recent, evidence that we humans are really lousy multitaskers (texting and driving is a familiar example), and don’t get me started on batch flow; a false idol of misperceived efficiency if there ever was one. But we’ll dive into the concept of Flow very soon.

Finally (for now), you are about to complete a Retrospective. This should become as familiar a part of your personal cadence as brushing your teeth. This first Retrospective isn’t actually a great example; I’ve been a little long-winded and we haven’t followed much of a structure. But we can fix that now.

As you develop a habit of retrospection2, I find it helpful to ask the following three questions:

  1. What went well that we should keep doing?
  2. What didn’t go well that we should stop doing?
  3. What should we try next time that is different?

This chapter so far has focused on the first question. Although you may not fully understand all of the whys yet, many things went well when you used Kanban for the first time. We won’t always go into such detail, but acknowledging and appreciating success helps to reinforce it. Early success, no matter how small, establishes a foundation for progress.

As for the second question, I’ll leave that mostly up to you. Perhaps you didn’t choose the best section of wall, or your writing was hard to read, or you ran out of room on your stickys, or who knows what else. For me, I’ll admit again that this first retrospective is taking too long.

This isn’t the time to beat yourself up. The shortcomings aren’t nearly as important as the successes, for they can always can be fixed. This also isn’t the time to do the fixing; it is a time for thinking. More diagnosis, less prescription.

Spending time just thinking may be harder than you suspect since our culture predisposes us to want to take action. To everything there is a season, however, and the season for reflection is every bit as important to your cycle as the season for doing.

The third question also requires some discipline, especially in the early stages of Kanban. Already your mind may be racing through different ideas about how you can improve your board, define your tasks, or maybe get other members of your team up there. These are great, and we’ll want to consider them all, but not immediately. For each idea you have, write it on a sticky note and put it on the wall to the left of your To Do column.

Wait… To the left of “To Do?” That sounds like we need to add a column to our Kanban board. Let’s start there.

A Word about Kanban Board Software

When I wrote the first edition of this book, software-powered kanban boards were a new and somewhat rare thing. There were a few standalone tools like Trello that used a kanban interface as their primary view into work. There were some more traditional project management / personal productivity tools like Asana or Monday that offered a kanban interface as a supplement to assignment-list-style management. And there were some high-powered tools designed primarily for technology teams, like Jira, that used a kanban system specifically to manage those teams’ use of the Scrum method (more on Scrum later).

Today, kanban boards are everywhere; including in many legal technology tools. Several market-leading companies like Clio, Lawmatics, and NetDocuments have incorporated some form of kanban view into their interface; a few even make kanban the only option for managing certain tasks. There are at least three specific “kanban for lawyers” software products that are built around a cards-and-columns interface.

For most of my career I’ve adopted a software-agnostic approach to kanban boards. To the extent I espoused a point of view, it was strongly in favor of starting your kanban journey with a the sort of tangible, on the wall kanban board that I am describing in the first part of this book.

I still believe that the best way to learn the kanban method is to spend at least some time working with a physical board. Sticky notes have zero learning curve and are easy to re-arrange as you prototype different ways to visualize your work. What’s more, for knowledge workers who have grown accustomed to digital interactions, there is something satisfying in the act of bodily interacting with a physical representation of your work. Especailly when you move that work all the way to “Done.” 3

In the first edition of this book I (paternalistically, in retrospect) cautioned readers not to submit to the siren-call of slickly marketed software based kanban, taking several paragraphs to extol the virtues of physical kanban that I described in just a few sentences above.

My current approach: Use what you’ve got.

If you have a kanban interface in your existing software, give it a try. If you subscribe to a golbal megacorp’s software-as-a-service service and that subscription includes access to a rudimentary product that uses cards and columns to arrange work, give it a try.

I’m less agnostic about software these days because some tools just work better than others. Specifically, I draw a distinction between tools that use cards-and-columns and those that truly support the Kanban Method discussed in Part 2 of this book. If you must know what software I prefer, you’ll find my recommended tools in the “Resources” section of AgileAttorney.com.

But you don’t need the perfect tool to get started. Migrating your kanban board from one tool to another is relatively easy, and you won’t know what kind of tool you really need until you better understand what your needs will be. There’s nothing like building that working prototype to improve that understanding, and I’d far rather you spend your limited time and attention building a board than noodling around the internet looking for the ultimate magical software (which, of course, doesn’t really exist, despite what the marketers tell you).

Chapter 3: Fleshing out your board.

Okay, now we’re ready to make some real progress. First thing: On a sticky write “Expand Kanban Board v1” and put it in your “To-do” column. Now move it to your “Doing” column. See? Progress again. (Yes it is hokey, but it’s still progress!)

The “v1” is, of course, shorthand for “version 1,” which implies that we’re not going to get this thing completely right the first time. That’s okay. In fact its not only okay, it is necessary for iterative improvement. We won’t necessarily be tracking each version of our activities like they were software releases, but for now we’ll use the “v1” to remind you that you don’t have to nail something on the first try. You just have to try to make it better.

Now we’re gonna need some more wall space. Perhaps the spot you picked will do, but we’re about to at least double the number of columns on your board so you may need to create some room. Maybe use your whiteboard if you have one, or take your diploma off your wall (for now), or even use your window.

Good. Now grab your pad of sticky notes and make three new headings: “Backlog,” “Queue,” and “Waiting.” We’ll talk about what they’re for in a bit. If you’ve got different sized sticky notes, then these headings might be a good use for the larger ones (4” x 6” works well, but the size isn’t critical).

Rearrange the columns (and their contents) so that they are in the following order from left to right:

1 Backlog | Queue | To Do | Doing | Waiting | Done

Under these headings you will have a few tasks. “Build Kanban Board” should still be in the Done column. “Expand Kanban Board v1” should be in the Doing column. If you wrote down some ideas for improving things at the end of our Retrospective, then you can place those stickies in the Backlog column.

Why don’t they go in the To Do column? Good question, and the answer will help us understand the reason for each of the columns on the board. But first let’s talk about the concept of Flow. We touched on it in the Retrospective when we mentioned “Single Piece Flow,” but that does Flow really mean?

In a river, the Flow is obvious4. The water will run downhill, and it will find the path of least resistance to the river’s Goal: The ocean or lake where it accumulates. But the path of least resistance isn’t always the most direct path.

At a large scale there will be hills or mountains in the way. These force the river to bend, sometimes back on itself in an oxbow, in order to ultimately reach its Goal. Even the smoothest flowing river will have a few hills to contend with.

On a smaller scale, there will be boulders or logs or stumps that interrupt the Flow. These create turbulence that slows the river’s progress and sometimes even creates an eddy—a place where the river swirls backwards a bit instead of progressing toward the Goal. Get enough of them together and the water will begin to pool upstream, growing deeper and building up pressure until it can overcome the obstacle and must then rush ahead to try to make up for the interruption.

On a smaller scale still, there are disruptions under the surface of the water that interrupt Flow: smaller rocks, tree branches, maybe that old boot from the cartoons. These too create turbulence, though at a certain rate of Flow the water will run right over them and the turbulence will be hard to see.

Factory Flow works much the same way. In a typical factory, the raw materials enter at one end of the building and Flow through a Work Stream consisting of People, Processes, Policies, and Tools until a finished product emerges at the shipping docks at the other end. As with a river, this Flow can be interrupted by many things large and small, but the Goal is to get finished product out the door in response to customer demand.

And as with a river, factory Flow must deal with resistance. If a Person or Tool isn’t available to do work, or a Process or Policy causes delay, then the Flow will stall and the unfinished work will begin to pool in front of the interruption. The manufacturing world refers to these interruptions as Constraints, or sometimes Bottlenecks, and plant managers are constantly working to create smoother Flow by addressing them.

Your Work Stream is no different, it is only harder to see. Your Goal, however, is to create finished products by moving Work through your system of People, Processes, Policies, and Tools until some product or service that delivers Customer Value emerges at the end.

Now look again at your wall. By now you have probably figured out that your Kanban board represents your Work Stream. This is how we make your work more visible, and also how we will see when and where your Flow is getting interrupted. It is still pretty basic, and we will continue to tease out more detail, but it should be plain to see that your Goal is to get tasks (as represented by sticky notes) to progress smoothly from left to right until they are Done.

Make sense? Good (although if it doesn’t, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I can try to help you figure it out). Now let’s start filling up your board. We still need to talk in more detail about what each column is for, but that conversation will be easier if we have some actual tasks to work with.

One quick note on design: You may feel like making your board a little more formal at this point, and I’m all for that. You need to live with this thing and it should reflect your aesthetic. The simplest and most common thing to do is to add some lines between the columns to make them a little clearer. If you’re working with a wall or window, some painter’s tape (I’m partial to blue) is a good tool for this. If you’re using a whiteboard you can just draw them for now. And if you don’t have either don’t sweat it; the lines are decorative, not required.

Don’t do anything too permanent yet—you will almost certainly want to make changes. Also, be sure to leave yourself some extra room for the Backlog column—you’ll soon see that it has a tendency to get pretty full.

Great. Now take your “Expand Kanban Board v1” sticky and move it to the Done column. Once again, savor this moment. You’ve accomplished another thing, hopefully learned a little more, and you’ve strengthened your foundation for making even greater improvements. Nice work.

Now grab another blank sticky and write on it “Brain Dump v1,” then stick it in your To-Do column. It probably should have started in the Backlog, but for the last time I’m going to impose my order of events on you. Henceforth I’m going to take a step back into a guide’s role and let you call the shots.

Chapter 3A: Take a Break

And now go take a break. Seriously, do it. Okay, I’m not imposing it on you, but as your guide I strongly suggest it. At least 10 minutes, maybe 15 or 20.

Ideally go do something that will replenish you rather than deplete you. I understand that you have work you need to do. You will always have work you need to do. But you’ve been using your brain and its energy stores for a while now and you’ll perform better if you do something first to fill them back up.

Go take a walk outside, or have a (non-work) conversation with somebody, or go look at some art, or read fiction, or poetry, or listen to music, or exercise, or meditate. Walk away from your computer and leave your mobile thingie in your pocket. Or leave it behind—the world will last a few minutes without your attention. Don’t go check your email, or your social media feed, or move right back into some work-related task. Your brain needs breaks, so give it one.

I’ll keep this tangent brief, but if you’ve somehow missed all of the scientific evidence that shows why breaks actually make you more productive, then go search the web for the phrase “take frequent breaks” or check out the NY Times story at http://nyti.ms/LcUmnU. But after you do, be sure to take a break.

Chapter 4: Brain Dump Part 1, The Done Column.

Welcome back. I hope you are feeling refreshed, now let’s get back to work.

Take that “Brain Dump v1” sticky and move it to the Doing column.

We’re getting to the fun part. Make sure you have a good pen (I like Sharpies) and a good supply of stickies. If you have a few different colored ones, this would be a good time to get them (no problem if you don’t).

If you are using color, pick one to use for your client work. Now write the words “Client Work” on a note of that color and stick it on the wall above your board so you have a visual key to remind you which color means what. Now pick another color and do the same for “Back Office,” and maybe another one for “Personal.” Keep the number of categories small for now; it is easier to add granularity later than it is to combine categories. And really one color is just fine if you just want to get going.

If you’re not using colored stickies but you do want to use categories, then you can accomplish the same thing by putting a mark of some kind in the top-left corner of the sticky. Maybe it is a slash with a colored pen (your whiteboard markers will work), or maybe it is the letter “C” for Client, “B” for Back Office, etc. Whatever you choose, just make sure you make a key. As you will soon see, there is no sense in holding your methodology in your head (and there is a lot of sense in putting it on your wall).

One more thing before we start. Take one sticky, ideally a square one, and turn it 45 degrees so you have a diamond. Draw a big dollar sign on it (or pound sign, or euros—whatever currency motivates you) and place it on your board, right above the line (or imaginary line) that precedes the Done column. This is your payoff line. Your Goal is to move work across that line.

Your board will now look something like this:

1 **Kanban board image goes here

You’ve already got a couple of items in the Done column, but let’s fill it out a little more. Think back over the last few days, no more than a week, and make a sticky for each task that you actually finished recently. It can be for something that was a one-time thing, maybe finishing some client document, or it can be for something that recurs periodically like writing a blog post or sending bills.

If the task you completed was client work, then be sure to grab the right colored sticky (or make the proper mark). Also, if it is work you or your firm got paid for, then write the amount the task was worth on the bottom-left corner of the note.

Also, if you remember it, write the date you first started working on the task in the upper-right corner of the sticky, and write the date you completed it in the bottom-right corner. If you don’t remember, again no problem. We’ll start building this out as we move more tasks through your board.

So your sticky note should look something like this:

1 **Sticky note image goes here

Try to leave a margin down the right-hand side of your sticky when writing your task description—we’ll use it shortly. And keep your task descriptions short; you want to be able to read them from a distance and capturing a lot of detail isn’t important right now.

As an aside, I will say that if you have the room on your wall, getting some larger sticky notes may be a good idea—I like the 4”x4” ones—though the standard 3”x3” ones really are just fine. Ultimately you may want a variety of sizes to signify different things (we may even be adding stickys to stickys). No need to run out to the office store just yet, but maybe make yourself a note that says “Buy multi-sized stickys” and stick it in the Backlog.

Great. Now spend some time—three to five minutes seems about right—filling out those Done stickys. We won’t spend a ton of time reviewing these, but they’re a good chance for you to develop a format that works for you. If you didn’t take a moment to savor the accomplishment of a completed task when you actually completed it, you can catch up on that savoring now.

Just make sure the items that go in the Done column are truly and completely finished. If you start to write out a sticky and realize you still have some work left on that task, go ahead and finish the note but set it aside. We’ll find a home for it soon.

Okay. Once you’ve finished writing out your recently completed tasks and putting them in the Done column (making sure to acknowledge your accomplishments), its time to move upstream to Waiting.

Chapter 5: Brain Dump Part 2; The Waiting Column.

The Waiting column is a special place on your board: it is the one column you hope to be able to skip completely whenever possible. The purpose of the Waiting column is to act as a parking lot for tasks that you have started working on, but somehow they got stuck.

If you’re like most people, dealing with little sticking points is probably a big part of your day. We live in an “interconnected” world with lots of “dependencies.” That means we will necessarily spend a good deal of time waiting on other people or processes to do their thing.

Waiting is not always a bad thing. In fact, there is a very good kind of waiting: you wait while someone—maybe a client or a colleague—finishes their piece of work and delivers to you all of the necessary materials you need to finish yours. We often don’t do enough of this type of waiting; we get impatient and want to start working on our piece. But when we jump the gun on our work we frequently have to go back and change things once we get new information, or we hit a roadblock where we can’t actually finish a task until some additional information is available. At that point we have to stop what we’re doing, store away the Work in Progress on that task, and switch gears to go work on something else.

That lack of good waiting will almost always lead to a more insidious type of waiting that will divert your time and attention and increase the drag on your entire system. We’ll call it wasteful waiting after the Lean concept of Waste5, and it often results from starting a task before it is Ready for your work. Again, if you’re like most people, you probably don’t give much thought to the notion of the task being Ready for you to work on it. Instead you probably focus on whether you feel ready to work on that task.

They are sides of the same coin, but don’t confuse one for the other—they are both necessary conditions for you to be able to work that task to completion. You’ll usually have a good sense of whether or not you’re feeling ready to work on something, but how do you know whether or not the task is Ready for your work? In a few chapters we’re going to talk in detail about the Definition of Ready and its close sibling, the Definition of Done, but it is worth a quick overview now.

In a nutshell, the Definition of Ready is a checklist containing all of the conditions precedent to your being able to complete work on a particular task or stage of a process. All of them. The checklist may contain information, raw materials, tools, a block of time, or completion of a prior task or process phase. For tasks or processes you complete on a regular basis you’ll eventually develop a pretty complete Definition of Ready checklist for each checkpoint along the way. You’ll always be learning and making improvements, but you’ll develop a reliable guide that will tell you whether or not a particular task is Ready for you to begin working on it.

For less common tasks your Definition of Ready may never be totally accurate. But as you train yourself to think in terms of a Definition of Ready you will undoubtedly make improvements on these infrequent tasks as well.

The reason for having a Definition of Ready comes back to the advantages of Single Piece Flow. As I said before, the most efficient and effective way to complete a task is to begin it and work it all the way to completion without interruption. Period. Starting and stopping work on a particular task, or frequently turning your attention from one task to another, has switching costs: Your brain takes time and energy to shut down work on Task #1 and change its focus to Task #2, and the amount of time and energy available to your brain are finite. The more you switch, the more mental resources you waste.

On top of that, the unfinished work on Task #1, the Work In Progress, has a carrying cost. Your brain, and your other systems, must hang on to enough detail about that task to be able to pick it up at another time and continue work. Here too, your ability to do this is limited. You may have a great short-term memory, but it is not infinite. It takes energy to recall specific details and your brain only has so much energy it can use in a single day.

All of this waiting—both the good and bad kinds—lead to tasks that get stuck in your system. And I’ve worked with enough teams to make it a pretty sure bet that stuck tasks are the single biggest source of turbulence in your workflow. The purpose of the Waiting column on your board is to give you the tools and information you need to get those tasks unstuck and restore your system’s flow.

With that background, go to your board and take the “Waiting” column header off the wall. On that sticky (or on a new one if you don’t have room) I’d like you to write the following: “On what?” and “Since when?” These are the crucial pieces of information you need to break those tasks free.

We’re going to focus just on the Bad Waiting tasks at first. Remember, these are tasks that you started working on but had to stop due to some unforeseen dependency. In other words, you hit a roadblock. Often your roadblocks will be external, e.g. waiting on some other person to get you the information you need to continue, but roadblocks can be internal as well. Maybe you need to do more research or get the right tool for the job. Probably you thought it was going to be easier than it turned out to be and you didn’t allot yourself enough time. For now, don’t worry about tasks you haven’t started yet because you are waiting for them to be Ready for Work; we’ll deal with those in a bit.

So grab your blank sticky notes and start writing down tasks you’ve started working on but aren’t able to finish without some additional tools or information. Remember your categories if you’re using them (whether with color or by notation), and, if you know them, write the task’s start date in the top-right corner and the rough value of the task in the lower left (don’t spend a lot of time on these if aren’t top of mind).

At this point the stickies should look a lot like the ones in your Done column. The next step is to note what you are waiting on, and when you started waiting. For now, you can use the space down the right-hand side of the sticky, below the task’s start date. Better yet, I like using a separate sticky note (maybe a slightly smaller one) to capture this information and slap it right on top of the task note (that way the main stickys don’t get too crowded with information).

Notice that I said “on what” instead of “on who.” If you think the who is important, then by all means write it down too. But the actual dependency is the action item, not the actor. Notice also that I suggest noting the date you started waiting rather than imposing a due date. This is a more subtle distinction, but it is my experience that an elapsed time works better in most situations.6 I won’t go to the mat on this one, however, so if you think a due date will work better for you then by all means go with that.

Repeat the process for everything you can think of where you are waiting on something before you can finish a task. Place the stickies in the Waiting column in rough order of importance, with more important tasks going toward the top and less important ones below. What’s important? That’s up to you. A roadblocked task may be important because it stands to make you a lot of money, or it may be important because there is a looming deadline. You don’t need to nail it exactly, just give your tasks some relative priority. You can always move things around later.

Once you’ve written down as many of your “Waiting” tasks as you can think of, take a step back and look at your board again. In the past when we’ve done this it has been to inspire a feeling of satisfaction for having completed a task. This time I want to inspire a sense of urgency.

Look at that thin line between “Waiting” and “Done.” Now look at the dollar sign (or whatever currency you chose) that is above that line. This is your payoff line. Your main goal, really your only goal, is to move tasks across this line. When you do that—when you work a task to completion—several good things happen.

First, you get to savor the accomplishment of finishing a task. We’ve been practicing that, and the reason we’ve been practicing is that it is a great motivator. Success breeds confidence, and confidence breeds more success. So think of how good it will feel to get some of those tasks out of the Waiting column and across the line to Done.

Second, you may very well get paid. Not all of your tasks will have immediate payoff, but for client work in particular, finishing your task means you can deliver something of Value to your customer and ideally get paid for it. This is probably the reason you are in business, or at least one of the most important reasons. Sure if you work in a large firm or as an in-house attorney the payment may not be directly to you, but delivering Value is still the main reason for your job to exist and you will take satisfaction in doing that job well.

Finally, and you may not see the benefit of this yet, but by completing tasks you free up some capacity in your system to handle more work. One of our goals here is to increase the Velocity of your work. That is, the speed at which you complete a task once you start working on it. At first Velocity may sound synonymous with efficiency, but they aren’t quite the same thing.

Efficiency is your ability to complete a task without wasted effort, whereas Velocity is your ability to complete a task quickly. Greater efficiency will almost certainly lead to increased Velocity, but it isn’t the only thing keeping you from greater speed. As I keep saying, the amount of Work In Progress you have in your system has a carrying cost, and one of those costs is a tendency to create turbulence for the system as a whole. The more work you are keeping track of—even if you are performing the tasks themselves fairly efficiently—the longer it will take for each task to flow into the Done column.

One of the catch phrases you will sometimes hear about Kanban is “Start less to finish more.” The idea is to carry less Work In Progress in your system as a way to reduce the carrying costs of that work. Lower carrying costs will lead to the remaining tasks flowing through your system at a greater Velocity. And with a greater Velocity, the more tasks you will complete in a given time period and, usually, the more money you will make. This is not necessarily true of efficiency.

Again, this may be hard to see at this point in your Kanban journey. As you keep using your board, learning from that use, and adjusting your methods, however, you’ll see that keeping track of fewer tasks at a time will help you complete those tasks more quickly. Consequently, you will get more tasks done.

So look again at your Waiting column. What does it tell you? Who do you need to call (which is better than email), and what do you need to ask for in order to stop waiting and get that task back to Doing, or even over to Done? Great. Make it so.

Really. Put this book down and spend as much time as you need to triage those tasks in your waiting column and, wherever possible, move them along to Done. Capacity is a beautiful thing, and you’ll need it if you’re going to continue to make incremental improvements to your workflow and productivity.

Chapter 5A: Joe’s Blocks Teaches you WIP

So far I’ve written out the phrase “Work In Progress” to describe that concept, but the Lean world usually shortens those words to the initialism “WIP.”

If you’ve ever worked at a larger law firm or read the law practice management guides of the last century, you’ve probably understood the term WIP to describe a very specific thing: Hours that a lawyer has worked but not yet billed. Technically this is a form of WIP, but it is simultaneously a misunderstanding and an unnecessary narrowing of the term.

Broadly, WIP is a form of inventory—something that you have to store and track and account for in your business or personal space (whether that space is physical, virtual, or mental). In the broader business world, WIP is seen as a necessary evil: You have a process, and raw materials must flow through that process in order to become valuable products to your customer. But while it is in-progress, that unfinished work is WIP. It represents a series of investments you have made that have not yet yielded a realized benefit. And investment without benefit is waste.

It helps to understand WIP if you think of a simple manufacturing workflow, so let’s try a quick hypothetical. Joe’s Blocks makes blocks. The simple ones you think of as a children’s toy. Joe’s factory is a warehouse building on the outskirts of town. They take raw lengths of lumber, cut it into cubes, sand each block smooth, paint it a nice bright color, and package up a group of ‘em to send off to Joe’s customers (we’ll imagine, for now, that Joe runs a direct-to-consumer business).

The moment the delivery truck drops off a shipment of lumber at one end of the warehouse, Joe has WIP. He has invested in raw materials, but he has not yet realized any return on his investment. Holy cow, his team hasn’t even done any work and WIP already!

But it gets worse.

As soon as his worker puts saw to wood (really as soon as they show up to work in the morning), there’s more WIP. Joe is paying his employees, he bought the saw (and pays rent on the building to put it in), and the person running the cutting station has expended time and effort forming the correct shape. Investment galore! But all Joe has to show for it are some shorter chunks of wood than he had a few minutes ago. His customers surely aren’t going to pay for that.

And so it goes through sanding (more investment), and painting (still more investment), and so on until that chunk of wood has been transformed into a cheerful toy that will cause somebody to part with their hard-earned resources (money) in order to bestow joy on a child. Then, and only then, does Joe’s Blocks realize a return on all that investment: when there is some tangible transfer of Value.

We’re going to come back to Joe’s Blocks to illustrate some other elements of Lean workflows, because thinking about this stuff in the context of a physical, visible manufacturing facility is a whole lot easier than trying to do it with ephemeral, invisible knowledge work. The concepts, however, work exactly the same.

For now, focus on that problem with unfinished work. There is no inherent value in it—especially from the customer’s perspective. Yes, the steps are necessary to produce value and your customer surely knows this to some degree. But they don’t care. Your customer wants to see the delight on their grandkid’s face when they unwrap their beautiful new toy (or whatever the equivalent of that is for the legal product they’re buying).

When a customer orders something they usually want that thing, not the process for making it. Same is true with a legal service. If you owned a day spa, where the customer really is paying for the experience more than the outcome, then things might be a little different. But most legal process is not a spa day. 7

Chapter 6: The Doing Column.

Phew. We just introduced a lot of new concepts in our discussion of the waiting column. If you’re playing along at home—and again, I truly hope that you are—now might be a good time for another one of those replenishing breaks.

If you feel like you need to check your email or voicemail, or tackle some other bit of work that is tugging at your conscience, I understand. Please remember, however, that doing different work is not a break. Before you move on to some other thing, I recommend you take a real break first to digest this new information and let your brain rebound a bit. If you do, you’ll be much better equipped to carry on with your day.

Ready? Great.

The Doing column is where you’ll put the work that you are actually and actively doing right now. This is not your “I should be doing something” wish list and it is not your “I promised someone I would do this” list. It is where you have committed to doing a task, have started working on it, and intend to see it done.

Right now there should be one item in that Doing column: “Expand Kanban Board v1.” We’ve been working on completing that item since Chapter 3, and we’ve still got some work left to do.

Whether you’ve actually been working on just that one thing this whole time is another matter. If I had to guess, I’d say you haven’t. Heck, I even gave you permission to go do other work a few paragraphs ago. This is normal, and natural, but that doesn’t mean it is optimal.

So the first step in setting up your Doing column is to go ahead and fill it up with all of the things you are actively working on. You may come up with your own criteria for what “doing” means to you, but I’ll suggest the following: A task goes in the Doing column if the following conditions are met:

  1. You have started work on it (or are immediately about to start).
  2. You are capable of finishing all of the required work without any outside help, materials, or information.
  3. You intend to finish it before moving on to something else.8

In other words, you are “doing” a task if you have begun working on it and will finish it on your own.

Take a few minutes now to write down the tasks that fit your definition of “Doing,” one per sticky, and put them on your board (keeping with the card format you developed in the Waiting chapter). While you do this, you may realize you have a few more items where you are actually waiting on some outside resource before you can continue work; you probably guessed that these should go over in the Waiting column. You might also come up with things you need or want to do but haven’t started yet. Write those down too, but put them two steps to the left in the “Queue” column (we are going to have a separate set of rules for the “To Do” column, so leave it empty for now).

A lot of people start to freak out a little once they fill up their Doing column. Many folks are astonished at the number of things they are trying to accomplish at once that they’ve been holding in their heads. Even those who already use checklists or other productivity tools are often surprised at how it feels to see physical representations of their tasks right there in the room with them rather than tucked away in a notebook or on a screen. This minor freak-out is normal, and it is a feeling we’re going to try to harness as a weak version of revulsion therapy.

Finished? Okay.

I won’t pretend to be able to guess how many tasks you just put in your Doing column, but I’ll bet you’re not very close to that Single Piece Flow I keep talking about. (And if you are, you probably don’t need this book). As I keep saying, working one thing at a time, and working on it until it is finished, is the best way to get lots of things done;9 however, it is something of a Platonic ideal. We should all aspire to it, and we might approach or even achieve it with practice, focus, and retrospection. But I’m certainly not there yet, and you probably won’t be anytime soon.

The question, then, is how can we erect a support system to help us move towards this ideal of “one thing at a time,” or at the very least reduce our susceptibility to doing too many things at once.

This gets to one of the great benefits of Kanban (and many productivity methods that precede it): it provides a framework to help us combat some of our perfectly normal (but ultimately harmful) tendencies in our quest for improved Flow.

You’ve already been experiencing the visual representation of otherwise invisible work, which I think is Kanban’s most effective tool. But this next one runs a close second: We are going to establish a constraint on the number of items each stage of your workflow can process at a time. Specifically, we are going to limit the number of items you are allowed to put into your “Doing” column at once.

“Wait a minute,” you say, “we are going to create a constraint? I thought the whole point of this exercise was to ease constraints, not introduce new ones.”

First off, this will be an artificial constraint—it is a construct, not a commandment, and you are free to break it so long as you do so intentionally. That way we won’t be introducing any actual bottlenecks. In fact, this false constraint will have the opposite effect: it will reduce the pressure on your actual bottlenecks, thereby improving the Flow of your work through them.

What we are about to do, then, is establish your first WIP Limit. Remember from the last chapter, a reasonable customer will not pay you until you have delivered something of value. We lawyers sometimes pervert this simple law of economics by assuming that our time is what is valuable to our customers. It is not, and surely you know it is not.10 What is valuable to our customers is outcomes, and customers will pay for outcomes (or, if you’ve set expectations well, for clear milestones along the way to an outcome).11

WIP limits help you deliver Value to your customer more quickly by forcing encouraging you to finish (and ideally deliver) one thing before starting another. It is the antidote to having “too many balls in the air,” because a WIP limit prevents you from launching a new ball until one has landed. Remember that Kanban catchphrase: “Start less, finish more.”

Enough background. If we are going to establish a WIP Limit to your “Doing” column, what should that limit be? This is a personal choice. I’ve mentioned the Platonic ideal of doing just one thing at a time, but most people find a WIP limit of 1 to be challenging, especially at first (though if you think you can do it, by all means give it a try!). Other numbers have their own strengths and weaknesses, but the trick is to find one that works for you.

I’ll offer two possible suggestions. If you just want to pick a number and go with it, I usually say to shoot for somewhere between 3 and 5. The lower the better, but 3–5 seems to be a range that most people can achieve and sustain with a little practice. If you have fewer than 10 items in your column, I’d suggest going for this range. But if you’re used to having lots and lots of balls in the air, then even getting down to five may be too aggressive at first.

My second suggestion, then, is to simply count up the number of items in your “Doing” column and reduce it by 25%. If you put 12 items in there, your first WIP limit will be 9, if you’ve stacked it up with 20 items, try to whittle it down to 16 and see how that feels. But the whittling should be iterative. Once you’ve made it from 20 to 16 (meaning you’ve finished four items without letting new things come in), then you should try to get it down to 12, then to 8, then to that 3–5 range, and then (if you can) down to just 1. It may take a few weeks to get there, but that is OK.

Whatever number you choose, go ahead and take your “Doing” sticky (the column header) off the wall and write your WIP limit in parentheses after the word “Doing” (or make a new sticky if you didn’t leave room). Now, if you’re really motivated, see if you can complete a few tasks to get the number of stickies in your Doing column down to your WIP limit. But don’t worry if this seems like too heavy a lift right now—you’ll be just fine if it takes you a day or three to get down to the limit.

One final thought before we leave the Doing column for now: think about using vertical positioning of your stickies within each column as an indicator of priority. In other words, put your highest priority items at the top of the column and your lower priority ones beneath. And make “Doing” a single vertical column—no stickies should be side-by-side. You ought to be able to give each task a priority relative to the others (and if you can’t then the order of similar priority tasks probably isn’t important). This isn’t to say you absolutely positively have to work on your highest priority tasks first, but if you are going to work on a lower priority one (say because it better fits the time you have available), I want to you do it intentionally. We’ll use this vertical ranking concept for all of the columns on your board.

Now when that “Expand Kanban Board v1” sticky makes it to the top of your “Doing” column, you’ll be ready to continue this exercise by working on the “To-do” column.

Chapter 6: The Doing Column | Key Takeaways

  1. The only items that should be in your Doing column are those where
    • You have started work on it (or are immediately about to start);
    • You are capable of finishing all of the required work without any outside help, materials, or information; and
    • You intend to finish it before moving on to something else.
  2. Establish a WIP limit to encourage work to flow through your Doing column rather than getting stuck there. You may need to finish some things that are already on your plate to get down to your limit, and that’s a good thing.
  3. Put all of your Doing stickies in a single column, and prioritize them vertically (highest priorities up top). Then, when you do your work, always work from the top of the column, even if you don’t feel like it.

Chapter 6A: How to Attain your WIP Limit While Doing Minimal Work.

One more thing before we move over to talk about the “To Do” column: I forgot to mention that you get to cheat!

Okay, cheat isn’t the right word, but if you’re one of those people who has 10 or more items in your “Doing” column, then you may need a little hack to get yourself down to a more manageable number.

Here’s the thing: It is highly unlikely that you are actually working on 10 or more things right now. You may have started working on them, you may have even promised them to someone else, but you can’t actually be working on more than one or two things at a time. (Hopefully I will convince you that it is really only one, but I’ll let that go for now.)

So as you prioritize the items in your “Doing” column by moving the more important ones to the top, ask yourself this: Do I have everything I need to work this thing to Done today? In other words, if you put aside all your other work (including building out your Kanban board), could you finish everything before you go home tonight?

There are only a few possible answers to this question.

First the easy one: If your answer is “yes,” then I recommend that you put away this book and get to it. The book will be here tomorrow, and you should not continue working on your board until the “Expand Kanban Board v1” sticky actually makes it up to the top of your “Doing” column. In other words, don’t continue building out your board until it is the most important thing you should be working on right now.

What if your answer to the question is “no”? Well, there’s a hack that isn’t really a hack at all, it is the whole point of this thing. The most productive way to achieve your WIP limit is to do the work that (1) is ready for your work and (2) most needs to be done. These two criteria can help you figure out where that task should go on your board, because it probably shouldn’t be in your Doing column.

First criteria first. I ask “can you finish this thing before you go home tonight?” and you say, “No, because I need something from somebody before I can get it done.” You’ve probably already guessed that this task actually belongs in the “Waiting” column, complete with an “on what” and “since when” indicator. Of course you should make sure that the person you are waiting on knows that you are waiting. Give ‘em a nudge, give ‘em a deadline, give ‘em a sense of consequence, but also make sure they have all of the things they need to get the thing back to you. Sure you can blame that other person if your delivery is late, but blame doesn’t get the job done and getting things done is all we’re about right now.

But what if your answer to the first question is, “I have everything I need to finish this task, but there is no way I can do it before I go home tonight because I don’t have time.”? My obvious next question will be, “why not?”, to which there are two most likely answers.

One is “because I have all these other things I need to do first,” which, of course, gets you right back to the reason you need a WIP limit to begin with. If this is your answer, then what you have is a capacity problem. It isn’t that you don’t have enough capacity; the idea that we can quickly increase our personal capacity with just the right app or tool is a form of magical thinking that will almost certainly lead to frustration and disappointment. No, the problem is that you do not acknowledge and respect your capacity.

Maybe you have self-doubt, and you think you ought to be able to do more than you usually do. This notion is as common as it is wrong. You do plenty, likely more than you give yourself credit for, but you probably aren’t always doing the right things (in part because you keep trying to do too many). So finish a few of the things that are in your Doing column. Ideally you’d start with the highest-priority items but right now I really don’t care. Just get some things done, maybe start with the easiest things, and then don’t take on new work until you get a few more things done.[^foo651} Once you whittle down your list you can use your WIP limit to first learn your true capacity, then acknowledge it, and then respect it. Once you do, you’ll find that improving your productivity doesn’t come from increasing your capacity nearly so much as from increasing your flow.

The other answer to the problem of not having enough time is that the thing you are trying to do is too big to take care of in one sitting. Here the solution is decomposition: breaking down your larger tasks into “bite-sized” chunks. This concept is surely not new to you: it shares its root with the idiom about taking things “one step at a time.” Hard core project managers may refer to it as a “work breakdown structure,” but we don’t need to get so technical. And while you may be thinking to yourself, “Oh great, now I have another task about figuring our all of the smaller tasks that are wrapped up in this big task,” here’s the hack: you don’t need to plan all of your steps right now, only the next one.

David Allen, in his popular “Getting Things Done” method (and book of the same name), refers to this as the “Next action decision.” Others refer to it as the “next actionable step.” The concept, of course, is much older than GTD: the Tao Te Ching (dated to around the 5th or 6th century BCE) famously states (roughly translated) “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” The idea is that you’re a smart person and you don’t need a detailed roadmap get where you need to go, you just need to get started with the work of getting there. So figure out what is something you can do to capture some measurable progress on your big task and do it. Maybe give it its own sticky but somehow link it to the other one: I like using a smaller sticky of the same color, though I’ve seen others match them through symbology (letters, numbers, or otherwise). Regardless of how you do it, the key to decomposition is this: right after you finish one sub-part of the task make sure you’ve written a new sticky for at least one other thing you need to do to get the parent task to “Done.”

Finally, one other way to get some tasks off of your plate is to delegate them to someone else. I’m not going to dive into effective delegation strategies, but there are plenty of resources on the web (I like this one) to help. The main thing to keep in mind with delegation is that hand-offs are often one of the biggest sources of additional time spent on a task or project. As soon as you put something on someone elses plate, you’re stuck dealing with their priorities and foibles on top of yours. Often you’re better off just carving out time to do it yourself, at least until you’re confident in your ability to sync up with your team on priorities.

Chapter 6A Takeaways

  • One way to be more productive at first is to do all of the easy stuff first. But be careful that you don’t wind up doing only the easy stuff.
  • Decomposing larger tasks into more manageable chunks, along with always knowing what is the next actionable step for the larger task, will help.
  • Delegating is often a good idea, but there is a difference between delegating and dumping your work on someone else. And when delegating, beware of the added time due to hand-offs.


1The Minimum Viable Product concept comes from Eric Reis’s excellent book The Lean Startup. The key to a Minimum Viable Product, or MVP, is that all three of those words is important. You can probably see how this simple kanban board you just built is indeed minimal. What really separates an MVP from other ways of creating new things is that it must be Viable — it is a thing you can actually use to accomplish what you are trying to accomplish. It is not a single tire you hope to put on to a fancier car someday but that can’t transport you on its own, it is a simple skateboard that will get you where you want to go. And it is a Product, which I’ll distinguish from a Concept. It is a tangible thing that you (and others) can wrap your head around, evaluate, and formulate some actionable opinions about.

2As you start with Kanban (and Agile methodologies in general) I’d say more frequent retrospectives are better. Every week or two isn’t too often at first. Once you get the hang of it, you may or may not want to stretch them out over time. I strongly recommend doing them at least quarterly.

3The analogy of factory flow to a river’s flow originates with Taichii Ohno, regarded by many as the father of Lean manufacturing.

4The analogy of factory flow to a river’s flow originates with Taichii Ohno, regarded by many as the father of Lean manufacturing.

5In Lean parlance, Waste is any activity that doesn’t add Value to your product or service (Value being measured from the perspective of your Customer). “Waiting” is traditionally one of the Seven Wastes of Lean (some people count eight), but as I said above there is good waiting and bad waiting. Failure to engage in good waiting (i.e. waiting until a task is truly Ready for your work) will inevitably lead to some of the other Wastes, namely Pre-processing and Re-work. Bad waiting comes when the task is Ready, but you, for some reason, are not. Expect more on Waste in Chapter 7.

6Many people have a funny relationship with deadlines where once the due-date has past, we actually let up on our efforts to finish since we feel like we’ve already lost. An elapsed time, however continues to increase pressure to get it that thing taken care of.

7Yes, there can be parts of legal practices where the value is in the experience. Take an initial consultation on a divorce, or a visit in jail from your defense attorney. For events like those, there is tremendous value in the lawyer’s ability to help a client to make sense of a complex situation, and to feel the emotional relief that comes from having an experienced advocate on your side. I’m not going to address that part of legal practice in this book (for the most part) because it isn’t terribly process-intensive. If anything, my concern is to help you get all the process-oriented stuff flowing through your practice more smoothly so that you can spend more time delivering valuable experiences like these.

8and you intend to do so before you start working on other items in your “To Do” column.

9If you still don’t believe me, try this exercise. Your job is to accomplish three tasks: writing 1 to 10 in Arabic numerals, writing 1 to 10 in Roman numerals, and writing the first 10 letters of the alphabet. Grab a piece of paper and divide it into three columns, one for each task. You also need a timer (your smartphone probably has one). You’re going to do this at least twice. In round one, you must complete all the “ones” before you move on to the “twos.” So your sequence will go “1,” “I,” “A;” “2,” “II,” “B,” and so on. Start the timer when you’re ready and go to it. When you’re done, note your time and flip the paper over to make three columns again. Now repeat the exercise, but this time you must finish one column before you move on to the next, so you’ll write 1-10 in Arabic numbers, then in Roman, then in letters. Compare your times and call me a liar if you weren’t faster the second time (you can tweet it to me at @jegrant3). And if you think your speed on round 2 is because you got better at Roman numerals, go back and do round one again to double check.

10This is not necessarily an indictment of hourly billing. While many people criticize hourly billing as it is currently practiced in service industries, I believe that Kanban and other Agile project management methods can support a relationship where hourly billing is defensible and even preferable to provider and client alike. That said, hourly billing as practiced by lawyers with inefficient and opaque processes is rightfully suspect.

11One advantage that service providers (like lawyers) have is that we don’t need to wait until everything is done to start delivering incremental value to our customers. We can deliver knowledge and insight and outputs (letters, filings, etc) that will help the client advance her understanding of status on a particular matter, and we can and should expect the client to compensate us for that incremental value. But that still doesn’t mean that our costs for delivering the value (our time) is the best proxy for that value in our customer’s eyes. The customer’s perception of value will naturally flow from her understanding of the benefits of the work, not her lawyer’s calculation of its costs.