Caution—Don't Try This At Home
In my experience, mistakes can be our greatest teachers under two conditions. We must take the time to understand both why they happened, and how to change our behavior to prevent repeating them. I’d like to share a personal example of how I broke one of two truths about performance improvement and soured a good system by using poor leadership practices. In other words—how I ruined an at-home Kanban system despite my best intentions.
For the uninitiated, Kanban is a visual workflow management tool with origins in lean manufacturing. Kanban is a Japanese word that translates to signboard or billboard. At its core, a Kanban board has three columns—To Dos, Work in Progress, and Work Done. Work tasks are represented on sticky notes that flow from left to right across the board. When used appropriately, Kanban can help organizations bolster communication, maximize efficiency, and ultimately improve results. Following its success in manufacturing, the tool has since been adapted for use in software development and work settings across industries.
I was introduced to Kanban in a previous workplace and experienced its benefits within our team. I quickly became curious to discover if I could reap similar benefits by applying the system at home. I cleared space on the wall of a spare bedroom, outlined the three columns, and onboarded my partner (now wife) to the process. We stood back and exchanged satisfied smiles as we admired our own personal Kanban board to prioritize and manage home projects.
Things worked well at first. The system brought more visibility to our work, which made it easier to identify stuck points and possible solutions. As expected, our communication around routine tasks and larger projects increased.
More communication, however, doesn’t always mean better. We eventually noticed our daily interactions around housework started to change. Productive discussions gave way to frequent requests for status updates. We each felt guilty when we hadn’t gotten enough done, and subtly pressured each other into doing more. We nagged each other. We became fixated on how fairly the tasks were distributed and started to add sticky notes for more trivial tasks (a way to validate our productivity). When tasks were completed, we didn’t celebrate or provide any positive consequences to each other. The focus always returned to what we missed, rather than what we accomplished. The increased visibility of our workload on the board became a daily reminder of our incomplete tasks.
After a while, the presence of the board created an inescapable anxiety in our home. We eventually abandoned the approach and ripped down the board. We felt full relief only after moving to a different home.
An understanding of behavioral science helps clarify why our collaborative approach failed. Our interactions around the tool were fraught with negative reinforcement (R-)—we were getting things done to escape from the mounting stress and avoid criticism from each other. Behavioral science tells us that this approach to management produces procrastination, stress, and just enough performance to get by. Just as I made this mistake at home, leaders can find themselves stuck in this trap at work. In the absence of planned R+, R- often fills the gap.
The path to escaping or avoiding the R- trap involves systematically shifting toward a positive reinforcement (R+) management strategy. Leading with R+ offers a more proactive and effective approach that keeps folks engaged and maintains (or improves) relationships. This means planning for and building in the R+ needed to drive behavior. Examples include expressing peer approval, recognizing desired behavior and results, and celebrating a job well done. Becoming more skilled in the tactical application of R+ will make improvement attempts more likely to succeed across the board, whether in the workplace or at home.