How to kick IT chaos in the face

I hate chaos.

I can function within it, but have found there’s usually no reason to. Most chaos is artificially created, the product of Bad Decisions, General Ignorance, and Unchained Whim. Even when chaos is real, it’s rarely a good idea to work inside it. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of chaos in most businesses and IT departments.

I’ve found that some people thrive in chaos. They create their own chaos just for fun or to set themselves up as the hero of the day. They will start a wildfire just so they can be seen putting it out later on. These people are called idiots.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a robot who needs everything to be a particular way or who has file folders and a planner full of notes. (No offense, robots.) I just think we all have better ways to spend our time than flailing around trying to put fires out.


Years ago, I worked at Gateway Computers (Cow boxes, ya’ll.) in one of their manufacturing facilities. Not long after I started, I came across a weird whiteboard out on the factory floor. It was covered in brightly colored index cards and seemed out of place among all the cardboard boxes and conveyors.

“What’s that?”

“It’s our kanban.”

“What’s a kanban?”

It was years before I figured out I could apply kanban to IT work, but when I did, it changed my world.

What’s kanban?

Kanban was born in Japan as a lean manufacturing concept. It’s a way to speed up production and limit the amount of inventory you store onsite. But kanban can be used for almost any type of work. I’ve used it successfully in IT, writing, and in managing personal to-dos. If you’re familiar with agile development, most of this should be recognizable to you.

The basic idea is that instead of just taking work as it’s shoved at you (chaos), you “pull” work from a backlog and you only work on a small number of things at once (your work-in-progress or WIP).

It’s critical to note here that this is not a first-in first-out system. You only pull items into your WIP that you can immediately work on. If you’re waiting on something or otherwise don’t have what you need, that work item needs to either stay in the backlog or get tossed to a holding pen until it’s ready to be pulled back into WIP.

I’ve alternated between software, mental, and physical kanban for several years, but the physical version is by far my favorite. Having something tangible represent the work you’ve accomplished in a week contributes greatly to mental health.

Personally, I use a five column setup (you really only need three columns, but I like having “today” and “holding pen” buckets) and limit myself to 3 WIP items. Your mileage may vary. I clear out my “Done” column at the start of every week. This is what a week of my kanban looks like:

And here’s a guide to get started:

Just by doing this, you’ve built in a system of priority. It also enables you to discover bottlenecks in your processes. Why is a new hire ticket coming to you first if you need five other people to do something before you can take action?

Fewer bottlenecks means work gets done faster. Focusing your work effort also means work gets done faster (and better).  And acknowledging that the context-switching inherent in “multitasking” is poisonous to efficiency will make you a force to be reckoned with.

Kanban is a simple, but powerful concept and it goes hand in hand with DevOps and continuous improvement. If you’re trying to make the transition from traditional Dev and Ops to DevOps, I’d actually recommend starting with kanban before you even look at the technical or process side of things.  It may be something that starts at an individual level and then scales out to the entire team.

It can be a valuable lens to view your work through and help focus on the areas of your work that need the most attention and effort. It is a chaos killer and a way to bring sanity to your world. Try it for a month and let me know how it works out.

Image credit: Vee