The Life-Changing Magic of Managing Queues

I'm finally reading "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" by Marie Kondo, and I'm struck by how many ideas from lean development, agile, and queueing theory are in there.

The book has enough great tactics and tips to justify reading the whole thing, but the core strategy ("The KonMarie Method") is simple:

  1. Take out the stuff you own, category by category (clothes, books, knickknacks, cooking stuff, etc). Put it in one central place.
  2. Pick each thing up, decide whether it sparks joy in your life. If not, get rid of it.
  3. For the small number of things left, give each a fixed place in the house it returns to.

A key principle of product development flow is that queues of work, if unmanaged, grow to infinity. In other words, if you don't slow down and limit the flow of incoming items somehow, you'll drown in your backlog.

Kondo's "Joy Test" sets a high, but not prescriptive, bar for what stuff you should keep and what you should throw out. Applied to your current and future stuff, it simultaneously cuts down the things you own by a huge amount, and also stems the tide of new things coming in.

Good Agile backlog management is similar. Agile doesn't prescribe what value a particular story or task needs to provide: it might be revenue, customer satisfaction, system stability, performance, or even just a hand-wavey marketing win. What matters is that before they accept it as something on their to-do list, the team agrees that it has clear value.

Kondo also requires that you physically handle each item as you decide whether it sparks joy. While I'm not sure I agree with the woo-woo rationale behind this in the book, I do think touching each item forces mindfulness, and fights the habit to batch-categorize a bunch of items just to make the process easier. In the same way, Agile backlog management is supposed to be done story by story, with the team digging into one specific unit of work at a time, thinking about what "done" would look like for just that story. Many agile coaches actually encourage using physical index cards rather than a tool like Rally or JIRA, because tactile interaction is better for focus and being present than dragging cards around in a browser.

The other big parallel between Agile and KonMarie is making things visible. A key tenet of Agile is that when in-progress work lies hidden, out of sight of the product owner and the team, it tends to fester and grow. Untracked, randomizing work saps team productivity; small items 100 places down the backlog take up space and attention but will likely never get done.

The first way KonMarie promotes visibility is to take every single item from a given category and put them in a single place. If you're working on clothing, all your clothing goes on the floor, no matter where it was stored previously. Otherwise, you're only focusing on the local problem of "too many t-shirts in this dresser drawer," rather than the global problem of "which things for the top of my body do I want to keep in my life?"

In addition, Kondo says every item you own needs a designated place in your home where it returns when you're done with it. This forces you to actually understand the space available to you, rather than play a game of musical chairs where you always have a few items in use, with others taking their place on the shelf or table in the meantime.

Everything having a specific place in the home also leverages another Agile strength: the power of habit. By taking repeated tasks and making them mindless and automatic— bag goes here, keys go here, wallet goes there— we fight decision fatigue and let ourselves focus brainpower on more challenging, novel problems. In scrum, we plan daily standups, planning meetings, and reviews/retrospectives on regular cadences with common formats, so that reflection and improvement becomes habitual and easy.

If you go through the KonMarie method thoroughly, Kondo says, it's a one-time affair— once you've experienced an ordered home, you'll never again let it fall into clutter. That matches my experience so far, with the caveat that when you're considering bringing a new item into your life, to be successful you need to apply the same test of whether that thing will bring you joy, and where specifically in your life it belongs.

I've found the same thing happens with a good agile backlog: once you've learned to throw out ten-page specs and say "no" to worthless work going into your backlog, once you have a team that works together to solve a smaller number of concrete stories really well rather than just close tickets, it's a transformational experience and there's no going back.