Kanban is a method in industry and software that uses cards or other signals to show when something is needed and what is needed. In industry, it refers to inventory and stock flow. So when you’re low on an item on the shelf, you check the warehouse, when you’re low in the warehouse, you post or send a kanban card ordering more production of the low-inventory item. It saves overstocking; it also helps prevent out-of-stock situations.

Associated kanban concepts are the use of visual cues and designating one specific and exclusive location for each type of item. For example, when a clerk sees an empty retail shelf, he pushes a button that lights up a blue light next to that item’s stack in the warehouse, which signals someone to restock the shelf. In the warehouse, you can stick blue tape on the floor under the stack of items in the warehouse, so that when the stock of items is low enough to expose the tape, it’s time to post a kanban card to signal the factory to produce and deliver more of the item. Visual cues and visual process prevent both under- and over-stocking.

In software, some people use a wall-sized board with kanban cards in the form of post-it notes, stuck into columns on the board. Sticking a new “card” to column one on the board signals a piece of code that is in line to be started next, or the next defect to be fixed, etc. Then the post-it note is moved to the next column to visually show that it is in progress. The post-it note moves to the right through the columns until it is finished, tested, deployed, etc.

A kanban dashboard might show a picture of all the kanban cards currently posted and not yet fulfilled. The big board with post-it notes in software kanban is a sort of dashboard.

Here’s how I use kanban at home. For high-priority items such as blueberry jam, there is one specific location in the refrigerator, and one location in the cabinet to keep a few extras it in stock. In that refrigerator location, there are two jars, 1. in-progress jar, 2. next-in-line jar.

In the cabinet location, there are two or three jars of blueberry jam in stock. When a jar is finished in the fridge, and the next-in-line jar becomes the in-progress jar, I pull another one from the cabinet stock, and put it in the fridge for the new next-in-line jar.

When I open the cabinet and see no blueberry jam in its designated stock location, the kanban is then posted (“blueberry jam” is written on the shopping list posted on the refrigerator door). If, on a Saturday morning, I open the fridge and see only one jar, and it’s already written on the shopping list, then the blue light goes on high alert, because that real-time visual cue tells me there is no next-in-line jar in the fridge, and none left in stock in the cabinet. I will initiate a “pull” order, that is, drive to the grocery store and restock. I do the same type of routine with other items; for example, Fritos with a next-in-line bag and an in-progress bag in the kitchen, and a stock of bags in the basement; and laundry detergent next-in-line and an in-progress by the wash machine, and a couple more in-stock in the basement.

You can use kanbanesque routines in other areas at home as well. Anything out of the ordinary that I need to take with me when I leave the house in the morning goes in one specific location that is physically in my way when I leave each day, for example, mail, documents, reminder note, empty vitamin bottle requiring restock (the bottle itself serves as the kanban “card”), etc.

Ordinary items that I carry (keys, glasses, wallet, etc.) are in an organizer that must be empty before I leave. When I see that it is empty, I have everything. Conversely, I don’t go to bed at night until every part of the organizer is full, verifying by visual cues that everything is where it belongs and ready for the next day.

Credit card receipts always and only go in my shirt pocket while I’m out and about (I don’t buy or wear shirts without a pocket). They don’t fall out of the pocket because my black leather pocket-protector—containing my glasses and two pens—holds the receipts in place. At night the pocket is checked and receipts placed in the designated card’s envelope, in order (for easier access when the monthly invoice arrives to be reconciled).

While these personal-life applications are drifting a bit from literal kanban, its concepts of visual cues, and specific, exclusive locations for types of items, can help your peace of mind and reduce wasted time and stress from forgetting things or scrambling around in the disarray of careless habits. You too can become a well-oiled machine of kanbanian organization and efficiency.

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