Project Planning Software – Gantt Charts versus Kanban

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When I started out in project management one of my first roles was to produce project plans on behalf of the team. I was the one in the team who liked playing around with software packages so I didn’t mind. Besides, as I had never worked with project planning software before I was more than happy spending time figuring out how to use it.

This was back in 1989 and at that time we were using a product called SuperProject.  It had both a novice and an expert mode, allowing you to use the basic features only if you were new to the product. It was also in the days before Microsoft’s Windows had become the standard PC operating system, so the interface was very basic. SuperProject was a good product for its time, but there were lots of other tools out there.

In those days one of the biggest differentiators was between those people who preferred “Activity on Arrow” diagrams and those who preferred Precedence Networking, or “Activity on Node”. Neither was better than the other, it was more a matter of presentation. At the time this was a bit like Mods versus Rockers, Classic Rock versus New Wave, or Traditional versus Modern Jazz.  You were either one or the other.

Within a next couple of years I’d moved on, both in terms of product and experience.  By then I was producing plans for larger projects and had moved onto other project planning tools.  By then we were using Artemis, at that time one of the industry leaders.   However the debate between diagramming styles was all but won.  The modernists had won and Precedence Networking was it for the next 20 years.

The market has changed in many ways since I started out. Two decades ago not everyone had their own project planning software tool because the cost of software licences was pretty high; only project managers got their own. The very idea that project managers wouldn’t have hands-on access to their own plans seems silly now.  Whether you have project planning software loaded on your machine by default, use open source software, or else use software as a service there is a wealth of software available to anyone who wants to use it.

The market is changing again. There are several key drivers for this latest change, including:

  • the move towards software as a service, rather than individual licensing, which provides flexibility and optimises costs
  • the need for simultaneous access by any member of the team no matter where they work
  • integration with document management and configuration management tools
  • integration with online collaboration / meeting software
  • integration with email, chat and social media tools
  • the growing use of Scrum in which there is no formal “Project Manager” role, no single person responsible for project planning.

While many of these features are supported by the current leading project planning software tools there is now a trend away from tools which feature Gantt charts towards a Kanban, or visual planning approach.

Projects come in all shapes and sizes, so it should not be a surprise that software to support project management should come in different shapes, sizes and presentation style too.  Kanban tools have emerged from the growth in use of Lean and Six-Sigma.  Some of the claimed benefits for Kanban, namely ease of use, multi-access and visual, aren’t really exclusive to that method, however the “just-in-time”, visual style of planning does have its advantages because:

  • it puts planning tools directly in the hands of those who will do the work
  • it is particularly good for smaller projects, projects which are process-based or repetitive, and projects which do not have significant interdependencies on other projects or on outside resources
  • it adapts very well to the collaborative, or outsourced model, where several people need to be kept informed of progress across the organisation or across organisations.

The market for Kanban based project planning software is heating up, with several products now becoming front runners.  These include Greenhopper, Jira, Kanbanize, Kanbantool and Trello.  The question for you is: should you follow that trend?  There are three reasons why you should think very carefully before making a move away from using more traditional planning tools which produce Gantt charts if you run a significant number of projects in your organisation.

The first reason is scenario planning, forecasting and the ability to analyse trends

The real power of project planning software comes from its modelling ability.  It is a power that for the past 20 years has been under-exploited.  All too often planning software has been used as a kind of drawing tool, used to create pretty pictures, rather than a platform for planning and analysis.  The resulting plans have then not been kept up to date.  It is no wonder that where there is a failing project, there is almost always an out of date plan.  Three key features of traditional tools which have for too long gone unused are:

  1. “What-if” scenario planning, to determine whether the project is achievable
  2. Baselining, to compare original plans with actual results
  3. Earned Value, to determine whether the project is likely to deliver on time and budget or not.

These are standard features for most traditional planning tools; we still need them.

The second reason is dependency management

Your projects are now more likely to be delivered in partnership with third parties than ever before.  These third parties may be different teams, different departments or different organisations.  As a result your project is more likely now to need good dependency management than ever before.  Yet our basic needs, from a project perspective, for the management of dependencies have hardly changed since I was a kid.  They are simply:

  1. the need to understand whom you are dependent on, for what and by when
  2. to understand whether that dependency is likely to be satisfied on time
  3. To understand what the impact is if there is a slippage in the delivery of a dependency, both on you and on those who are dependent on you.

This is a specialised version of what-if scenario planning, but one which you have to master, especially if there is a commercial or contractual impact.  Few projects use software to manage dependencies.  This is likely to get worse with a move to Kanban, not better.

The third reason is the ability to plan and manage resources

Resource planning and management is the number one problem for many organisations.  This stems from having too many projects on the go, with people committed to multiple initiatives and no real hope of actually working on all of them.  The resulting delays cause by resource bottlenecks can be better managed only when you are able to see all the resource demands across your entire resource pool.  Part of the solution is for organisations to be more aggressive in chopping out projects that are not viable, but the other part is in better resource management.  Traditional tools which feature resource management across portfolios is the answer, not visual tools.

Why you need project software training, not new tools

The one thing that underpins good use of project management software is training, yet it is not unusual for someone to be given access to some software but no training to go along with it.  As the use of Agile methods grows in the IT community the role of the project management specialist is going to decline and with it we will see a reduction in the number of people who have more advanced planning skills. People are even less likely to receive training in project management software if it’s seen as something that a team of people can do by updating a wall chart or an online Kanban tool, but there’s a world of difference between a group of people independently updating a centralised tool and a specialist independently interpreting the results, assessing whether the project is on track and directing actions based on the results.

So if you’re thinking about swapping from using a planning tool that uses Gantt charts towards a Kanban-based project planning tool, think again.  You may be surprised at what you’re already missing.

“Project Management Software: Gantt Charts versus Kanban” © 2014 Bryan Barrow