Surviving the Annual Tornado: A Family’s Adoption of Kanban to Bring Order to Chaos

For the past five years, my sister’s family has come to Florida in late March to spend some of their Spring Break with me and my husband, Bruce. Each year has been different, but the one constant has been the rush from the time they arrive until the time they depart. Bruce and I fondly say, ‘The tornado has arrived!’, and breathe a sigh of relief and exhaustion upon their departure.

Make no mistake – I adore my sister and her family, and there’s a part of me that can’t wait for the lovable chaos that tumbles through our front door each spring.

But last year was different. My sister, Rebecca, was exhausted. It had been a trying year for them after her husband, Brian, was almost killed in a bicycle accident. As she slogged through the front door, I could tell she was tired, frustrated, and burned out.

During our sister-to-sister greeting, she shared how last Spring Break with us she didn’t feel like she’d had a vacation, and she was afraid she’d leave this year feeling the same. I asked her why she felt that way. She said, “I want some down time, but Brian wants to cram all these things into the week. He feels he has to get every ounce out of life every single minute. Plus, we have to go to Sarasota to visit Uncle John and we may have to go to Fort Meyers to visit my in-laws. I’m exhausted. I want to just sit on the beach and watch a sunset!”

This was my baby sister asking for help without asking for help. I asked her a few questions, and then shared what a Kanban board is and how teams use it to plan, prioritize and watch their work flow (or not!) across the board. At the end of her rope, she exclaimed, “I’ll try anything!”

Out of this frustration and exhaustion, our family Kanban board was born.

The Sticky Note Showdown

We gathered the materials, corralled our husbands and her two kids, and began. The stickies and markers were already laid out on the dining room table. A large easel-size stickie note hung on the blue dining room wall. As I explained how we were going to spend the next 30 minutes, I drew out the classic three-column board: To Do, Doing, Done.

Then I posed the question: “How will you know you had a great vacation?” and invited them to spend a few minutes writing their answers on individual stickies.

And they began. This usually rowdy group of extroverts became quiet and focused. The markers flew as stickies were pulled and stamped on the table. Thoughtful consideration was underway, and at one point, I observed that my niece, Sarah, had inherited my penchant for sticking out her tongue when concentrating. Spencer, her older brother, played with his hat – taking it on and off as he thought through his ideas. Brian’s knee bobbed up and down – it seemed he couldn’t get the ideas out fast enough. Rebecca pursed her lips and tilted her head, thinking, ‘Do I really want to put this down?’ I could see her rejecting ideas before they made it to paper.

An interesting and good-natured quiet competition – who could create the most stickies – ensued. Slowly pens paused, and then stopped as heads peered up, eyes questioning, “What now?”

Spring Break Board 4I shared the next step…it’s time to come to the board.

Tentatively they stood, except for 12-year-old Sarah, who jumped up and put her stickies in the To Do column. Others followed and then without any prompting or saying a word, Sarah recognized similar themes, ideas and words, and began grouping them together.

When we were all satisfied with the grouping, the conversation turned to what was most important and why, and who whom. We dot voted on our favorite ideas, and even estimated which activity would be best to do on what day. In the end, we were able to agree to a relative priority and chose the first thing we wanted to do: Super Scoops Ice Cream!

Spring Break of Scrum  

Throughout the week, we all moved the stickies – many times racing to the board and then hip-checking each other out of the way to be the first to move a stickie to ‘Done’. Sarah spent the most time at the board. Her cry of, ‘Hey, we haven’t gone shopping yet, Aunt Christy!’, or ‘What time is the movie?’ would spark a brief ‘family standup’ to ensure we were on track or that our priority was still good for everyone.

Spring Break Super Scoops

Relax and Retro

The very last thing we did before they left that final day was a retrospective. It was simply a verbal check out – but I wanted to see how well they felt the vacation went – did we have a great vacation? In a word, YES! We connected, created great memories, had awesome conversations, and everyone got to do what they wanted – from skeet shooting and jet skiing, to shopping, Super Scoops (multiple times!), beach time and boat rides. The kids and husbands were all enthusiastic – we did it! They loved the sense of accomplishment, and seeing the stickies in the ‘Done’ column.

Spring Break Retro_1

What was usually a chaotic, Tazmanian devil-like whirlwind of a vacation was instead peaceful, fun and stress-free.

My greatest gift, though, was the look of peace and contentment on my sister’s face, and the knowledge that she’s looking forward to her next vacation, knowing she’ll get exactly what she wants in 2018 – relaxation and more beach time!