Interview with Jim Benson

In our recent conversation with creator of Personal Kanban Jim Benson, we delved deeper into his inspiration behind Personal Kanban. We then discussed through challenges for a team to reach its potential, and how to have highly motivated, empowered, and higher performing team members.

It was an enriching experience to converse Jim. Let’s read;

Q1. Why Personal Kanban? Briefly share your inspiration behind the same.

Jim: Now over a decade ago, we had a small software development shop that was doing some large-scale work. We were creating enterprise scale software with a team of 10.  While we were doing well in quality and customer satisfaction, we kept “misplacing” work. We’d start things, get interrupted, and then forget to finish the tasks.

In our StandUp Meetings, we usually asked “What are you working on?” One day we asked a different question, “What do you have that is unfinished?”  The answer surprised us. Everyone had many unfinished tasks.

So we started looking for a way to know not only what was on people’s “To-Do” list, but also what tasks did they have that they were waiting for others, that were on hold, postponed, or simply abandoned.

We tried mind maps, this strange circle diagram, lists, until finally developing Personal Kanban.  

Q2. What are the challenges for a team to reach its maximum potential?

Jim: Ohh, so many…

Overload: Most teams don’t know their capacity and therefore don’t know how to avoid being overloaded. Between the desires of business, the needs of the customer, and our own enthusiasm, we quickly become overloaded.

Agency: Many teams are discouraged from changing their processes, their culture, or the work that they are doing — even when they know very well that such changes will result in a better product and a happier team.

Silos: Teams find themselves structurally or functionally removed from the rest of the business.  For example, they might be in the Software Development group and never work with people in Customer Support.  This means that we cut teams with one type of business intelligence of from other teams. The moment we cut teams off from understanding the whole business, they will make uninformed decisions.

Big Projects: We usually make projects as large as our enthusiasm, or maybe our egos.  Projects that are large have large problems. Problems scale. When we are a team working on a huge project, we spend most of our time managing the relationships between stakeholders, logistics, and interactions of the components of the product, and not the on building a quality product.  

Unfortunately, I could easily list 25 major challenges of teams.  We have built a world in which most of our costs are rework, meetings, and self-manufactured confusion.

Q3. How to increase chances of having highly motivated, empowered and higher performing team members?

Jim: This is a much more pleasant question.

Constancy of Purpose: Does everyone know what they are doing, who they are doing it for, what their personal role is, and what needs to be done? If people know these things they know how to help make the work and the product better. If they do not know these things, they wait for someone to tell them what to do.

Agency: Once someone knows what they can do, they need to be allowed to do it. Solve problems, improve the product, make changes, engage in improvement… be a professional. People come to work to be a professional, they are usually treated like “workers”. People are motivated, strangely enough, by being allowed to be motivated.

Situational Awareness: Do people know what is going on in their team, their company, and sometimes even at the market?  If not, they will be reluctant to act. We need to know what is going on in order to have context for our work. When we understand what is happening around us, we make better decisions and can act with confidence.

Q4. What defines an Improvement?

Jim: What I like to ask teams is “What upsets you?”  

As professionals, when we go looking for an improvement, we will try to be very analytical and look for something of very deep business value to improve. We focus on the emotions. As a professional, things that get in the way of us doing our best job upset us. We get sad or angry or frustrated. Yet often, those aren’t the things that people try to improve first.

So, in my mind, the best improvements are ones that remove frustrations from the daily lives of professionals trying to create value.

Q5. What are the situations when Personal Kanban works the best?

Jim: Any situation where work is hidden or workflows are complex. This extends from us as individuals having too much work to do (we hide work from ourselves) to large endeavors with many steps and many tasks in flight.  

When we see our work, we understand our options, can better select the right thing at the right time, understand what it is that we are completing, can share that information with others visually, track our actions in real-time (so we don’t forget things), and see what we’ve completed.

When we limit our work-in-progress, we see our capacity, don’t overload ourselves or our teams, focus better, and promote quality completion.  

Q6. Share your idea of managing the change.

Jim: Managing change is like managing a river.

You can try to build a dam, the dam will eventually break. You can try to channel it, a flood will redirect the river. You can try to swim it’s rapids and will eventually drown.

Or you can let the river be a river. You can fish in it. You can swim in it. You can admire its beauty. You can understand that you don’t control it.

Change is the only constant. Things change. So, rather than manage change, we should embrace change as a collaborative force in completion of our work.

This is another reason to use a Personal Kanban. Seeing work as it flows along the path we assume it should, shows us where it does not. It shows where and when things change and why. It allows us to incorporate changes in the market, in corporate structure, in team dynamics elegantly.  

I see “managing change” as a path of the misled. Incorporating change, that I can get excited about.

Q7. What is one thing you want to change in how Personal Kanban gets implemented these days?

Jim: In the last 10 years of watching the global usage of Personal Kanban, we have seen it used:

  • by mothers with children working together to manage their disabilities,
  • By Fortune 10 companies to deal with an immediate near-death crisis,
  • By hospitals to understand who they are helping every days,
  • By therapists to help kids with ADHD or Autism focus and achieve their potential,
  • By construction firms to build skyscrapers,
  • By software development teams to build the digital infrastructure of the modern world,
  • By families to plan both chores and quality family time,
  • By amusement parks to plan actions during times of high volume,
  • And the list goes on.

Simply said, I’m humbled and moved by how this simple tool has touched and improved so many lives and I would not change a thing.

Q8. Please share your mantra of success for a world of uncertainties and advancements.

Jim: Well, you certainly saved the easy question for last. I could write a book on this one…

But, a mantra.

Everyone wants better.


Jim Benson is the creator of Personal Kanban, a public speaker, consultant and an author. He is an expert in effectiveness for individuals, teams or organizations. Jim has worked with Fortune 10 companies, major world governments, and the most dynamic startups. He is a frequent speaker at global conferences, and enjoys helping people and teams work out sticky problems. He has authored books like ‘Personal Kanban : Mapping Work | Navigating Life‘, ‘Why limit WIP?‘, ‘Why plans fail‘, etc.


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