To operate in the information society, it is necessary to understand those milestones that have redefined traditional methods and that have been overcome by the problems posed in new areas of knowledge. Without a doubt, this has made us look at things from new perspectives, turning everything upside down, from philosophy to the very way of conceiving the world and its processes.
This dynamic is reflected, above all, in the modes of production, which in the last 100 years have gone from mass production to tailor-made production, within the framework of an agile and comprehensive process. This does not mean that today it is not massively produced, only that it is done differently, prioritizing other aspects such as quality, time, or cost; in other words, it is produced with a comprehensive vision. However, we must add the growing need for complex products of an intangible nature to this equation, which jeopardizes the predominant linear production standards as they require different methods.
To illustrate this better, the production of a tangible good such as a car can be contrasted with that of an intangible good such as software; each implies different production methods. For example, the first requires a linear process that involves the exhaustive and sequential preconception of the whole and its parts. For a software, there is no such thing. It is a product that is evolving. It can even reach the user as a finished product and return to review after an interaction with it, something impossible for a car, whose very concept of finished is different for both.
At this point, the production method becomes important because while for a car the process is sequential and irreversible, for a software, a marketing campaign, or the correction of a book the process is flexible and variable; in other words, it must be more agile. The reflection on this type of dynamic was what led to the proclamation of the Agile Manifesto at the beginning of the new millennium, whose premises put the individual before the processes, the operation before the documentation, the collaboration with the client over the contractual negotiation, and above all, to the response to change over adherence to a plan.
Nevertheless, as the manifesto expresses, it is not about underestimating the value of formal processes and those who use them, it is about recognizing that we are facing a new society, whose mode of production was expanded towards products of an intangible nature, made to measure, which must be adaptable and which must also be created in record time. All these conditions undoubtedly determine a new way of conceiving the modes of production at the world level and, consequently, a new way of managing them.
The lean concept in the framework of project management: the Kanban and Scrum models
In human events, nothing is produced by spontaneous generation. All changes are the product of a need, generally of an economic nature. This led to the creation of the "Toyota manufacturing system" in Japan in the early 1980s, a method that has influenced manufacturing techniques worldwide and is aimed at reducing waste to its minimum expression because to this new philosophy, the profit depends on the reduction of the production cost. In this way, attention is focused on the suppression of all those processes that do not add value to the process; and on the contrary, add additional costs. Under this foundation, the Lean concept was born.
To accomplish this goal, Toyota focused on modifying its manufacturing technique, making it have a regular flow of work, effectively using its machinery, personnel, and materials. This modification even brought a new conception of the term work, which “is applied only when a certain action in any necessary hypothesis carries out a process or increases the added value”. In the same way, the concept of efficiency was redefined as the production of what is strictly necessary as excessive production is fictitious efficiency since, in reality, it carries additional costs that translate into a waste of materials, time, and personnel. Consequently, we have a production scheme that focuses on:
- The suppression of circumstantial processes
- What work really implies
- Production without excess
- The supply of materials on time
- Flawless production
To carry out these goals, Toyota assumed a flexible production plan to adjust production to market fluctuations, having as a philosophy that "plans are made to be modified." But to do this, it was required to transmit the information with precision in minutes to the production chain, for which a production control method was created based on a card that indicated the specific amount of elements according to the instructions of the production system. In Japanese, this card is called Kanban.
Toyota Kanban system
The Kanban card is a visual control tool that acts as an automatic means of instruction to indicate what to produce, when to produce it, in what quantity, by what means and how to transport it. The system has three essential objectives:
- Using standard operations at all times.
- Delivering context-based guidelines.
- Avoiding doing any unnecessary work.
In other companies, this entire process is summarized into memos or operation manuals that do not have the immediacy of the Kanban system; therefore, the information does not arrive on time or simply does not arrive producing errors and defects in the production line. Hence, this system is advantageous since it minimizes errors by constantly transmitting clear and synthesized information in a visual way, which is verified by a worker, who, if they observe a defective product, must prevent it from going to the next process, and correct the error so as not to repeat it.
Once the Kanban has been collated, if everything is in order, the following process extracts materials from the previous one at the right time and in the necessary quantity to also produce the same quantity as the previous one. In this way, no process has to worry about the information concerning the next process. Besides, if a defect is filtered due to a lack of skill in the previous process, the next one can detect it. This whole process must be kept in balance adhering to the Kanban, but if for some reason an excess production occurs in any of the processes, it must be leveled to correct it, of course, never requiring the preceding process to increase its production.
As can be seen, Kanban is a subtle adjustment method that focuses on managing waste in all its aspects to produce materials as economically as possible. Nevertheless, to be really effective, this method must extend beyond the material elements and must be applied to the work itself, internalizing in the staff that defective work produces waste; in other words, it is necessary to generate the rationalization of this system and turn it into a philosophy.
In conclusion, it can be inferred that the Kanban system is more than a board that indicates the task that is being carried out, if it is in progress or if it is finished, nothing further than that. It is a way of efficiently managing the production process based on certain fundamental principles that, if not taken into account, would be impossible for the system to function efficiently.
The Scrum framework
The new concept of work is one of the contributions of the Kanban system to project management as well as its maxim of "plans are made to be modified." These propositions are associated with two aspects of the Agile Manifesto: “collaboration with the client” and “response to change” since what the client seeks is to add value to their product; a fact that in many cases implies sudden changes that require agility. Therefore, the Kanban system fits within the Lean concept.
Now, the Kanban system has proven to be very efficient in the elaboration of manufactured products, whose process is highly predictive. A car, for example, when it starts on the assembly line, we can see what it is, and we can predict that it will not be something different as all its variables are foreseen. However, developing complex products is somewhat different and requires a different management. This is where Scrum comes in, which is not a production technique, but a working structure to develop complex products, whose nature can be intangible and highly unpredictable; for example, a software, which may start with certain planned functions, but in the end may have other different ones that were not foreseen. For this reason, unlike Kanban, Scrum is based on an empirical vision, that is, on the experience of the senses supporting decisions on what they show us and not on exhaustive planning. This allows it to face unpredictable events, making decisions in real time and generating responses as quickly as the situation requires it.
Scrum responds to the uncertain environment through an iterative and incremental process, meaning, through successive cycles, in which a functional part of the deliverable is generated, to which improvements will be added during each iteration. Being a process that must deal with uncertainty, it requires a lot of commitment, courage, focus, openness, and respect from the whole team. The success of the method depends on "coexistence with these five values", which in turn are the foundation of the three pillars on which the entire methodology rests. These pillars are:
Elements of the Scrum framework
As can be seen, the fact that Scrum works around uncertainty does not imply that its method is uncertain. On the contrary, its control system allows it to face the deviations produced by that uncertainty. Scrum is managed through a well-organized structure that consists of certain hierarchical elements, among which we can mention the Team and the Sprint, which are the axis of the Scrum methodology. In very general terms, this structure can be listed as follows:
1. The Scrum Team, whose hierarchical organization is made up of the Product Owner, who is responsible for managing the task list (Product Backlog); the Scrum Master, who is a facilitator in charge of the team understanding and applying the methodology, and the Development Team, which is the group of professionals that executes the tasks. Among the characteristics of this team, we can find autonomy and multifunctionality since it has all the necessary skills to carry out the work without depending on people outside the team.
2. Scrum events, which are blocks of time with a certain duration that depends on the type of event. Each event can be described as follows:
- The Sprint Planning: it is an eight-hour meeting for a one-month Sprint. Here, we discuss the deliverable and how its Increase in value will be made throughout the Sprint.
- The Sprint itself: this event has a period of one month or less in which the product increment will be created. Within it, the rest of the events take place, that is why it is considered the heart of Scrum. Once it starts, a daily meeting of 15 minutes is required for the team to draw up a plan for the next 24 hours based on the progress and difficulties of the previous day. This event is called Daily Scrum.At the end of the Sprint, another informal meeting is held with a duration of four hours. The goal of this meeting is to inspect the increase in the product and, based on it, modify the list of tasks if necessary. This event is called Sprint review. Once the modifications foreseen during the review stage have been made, the team must meet again for three hours to make a comprehensive assessment, both of the team members and their relationships, as well as of the processes and tools used during the last Sprint. The objective of this event is to identify and order what went well to create an applicable improvement plan in the next Sprint. This event is called a Sprint Retrospective.
Scrum was born as a method to approach software development projects, in fact, two of its creators, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, were part of the Agile Software Manifesto. However, due to its ability to respond to uncertainty, this work methodology has proven to be very effective in diverse areas that face this same type of context.\
Having said that and up to this point, we have been able to outline these two models: Kanban and Scrum, which have become milestones in the new way of managing projects. Although different, both have meant an agile way of managing projects, even those with a high degree of uncertainty, focusing on adding value and not quantity, taking as a maxim that "plans can be modified". These scopes may seem few; even so, their impact on project management has been of capital importance as they have allowed printing speed without adding costs, eliminating the elements that do not add value, which undoubtedly makes the different processes more efficient.
Project Management Web Apps and their role in agile management
Agile methodologies are the basis of a variety of software that help to manage uncertainty in business, productive, educational, communication, or service projects. These are basic areas that group other more specialized ones such as creative tools, development, office applications, and task management. This great diversity of disciplines poses a great challenge simply because this type of apps must cover the needs of this wide spectrum, which they have achieved through adaptation. It is not unusual, then, that some come to specialize in specific areas, such as communication, emulating the functions of social networks. Others come to specialize in areas as particular as software development, for which Scrum and Kanban methodologies are essential.
Due to the fact they have emerged within the framework of agile methodologies, the function of these apps is focused on the development of principles such as transparency, immediacy, and communication. Transparency, for instance, is achieved by boards that, in the style of a Kanban card, graphically represent the organization of a project. In some cases, the Kanban board is usually complemented with a Gantt chart to also visualize the time dimension of all events.
Immediacy, on the other hand, is achieved by instantly recording each change of the board and notifying it through messages in real time. Likewise, communication takes place through chat systems, emails or comments, which maintains the flow of communication, even allowing the exchange of files of different kinds.
Additionally, this type of software serves as a source of consultation that allows immediate graphical access to specific data that provides a better interpretation of the process, thus allowing graphically identifying problems more efficiently.
Formal research criteria
In the PM market, there is a wide variety of competing apps. If we look, for example, at the G2 ranking, we will find the main project management apps. However, this classification is relative. If a user requires fluency in communication and the main apps do not have at least one chat, they will be useless. On the other hand, if it is required to manage accounting and direct communication with the client and the most highly rated apps do not allow it, they will be of little help. Consequently, the best score is not necessarily the most essential, but congruence with the user's needs; therefore, the design of a PM must meet this condition.
This fact allows us to understand that it is inappropriate to define PM as a whole because although their objective is project management and they are based on agile methodologies, the type of activity that requires them determines their design. In this sense, it would be more appropriate to speak of apps with specific functions aimed at managing projects of:
- Documentation of tasks
- Risk management
- Budget allocation and cost control
- Communication between the members of a project
- Quality control
- Assembling a project
- Human resources organization
- Information management
Some MPs try to cover this wide range, but achieving such a degree of flexibility is extremely difficult, which leaves them as an alternative to specialize in certain functions, a fact that generates a classification, but which is still imprecise, so it is necessary to specify it in function of a clearer and more efficient design process.
Indeed, a referential count can tell us a lot, but letting the PM UI do the talking is better. To this end, we developed a case study in which a sample of the 18 PMs with the best G2 scores were selected to analyze their interface and thus establish a more precise classification based on the functions that each one prioritizes. This has not only allowed us to determine the distinctive features that generally characterize the different PMs, but also to determine the different variants, through the specific functions that characterize them.
It is also important to note that the corpus of this study was based on the free version of each of the different PMs, which prevented us from accessing all the functions of the different apps. Still, the functions available in this modality allowed us to reach a conclusion.
The PM Web App and its distinctive features
In general, a PM is a tool that allows, firstly, creating projects and secondly, assigning tasks to those projects. Certainly, its objective is not only to automate work processes to make them more agile but also to make the project stages and the timeline in which it is framed graphically visible, moving as far as possible from abstraction. Therefore, according to the data, we can say that all PM is characterized by five essential aspects:
1. The Create Project function: this function is the most basic since through it, the main file is opened and it is here where the user will structure her project through the different tasks that she adds. This file must be identified with a name or a particular code. Each project involves a new file that opens with all its particular content.
2. The Create Task function: through this function a file is generated in which the task is identified with a name, it is specified to whom it is assigned, the start and end date, the name of the project to which it is assigned, the priority and a brief description of it. In some cases you can also detail subtasks and record comments related to the assignment, as well as adding collaborators and the ability to attach documents and hyperlinks related to the task.
Each of these tabs is located in the file corresponding to the project to which they were assigned and are ordered according to the workflow established for the project (either Scrum or Kanban).
3. The Boards function: in all cases, the way to view projects and each of the tasks is done through this function, which has four styles: the List format, the Kanban Board, the Spreadsheet, and the Gantt Chart.
However, the most frequent are the List format and the Kanban Board as some applications can do without the Spreadsheet and Gantt Chart formats, but never the list format and the Kanban Board.
4. The Calendar function: the objective of this function is to graphically detail tasks on a calendar sheet day by day and, in some cases, even by hours. It is a more detailed way of visualizing time, even more so than the Gantt chart. It is also used for scheduling events, such as Scrum events, and is usually linked to the function that we will describe below:
5. The Notifications or Inbox function: it has the objective of alerting any event, modification or message that is generated within a project. It is usually programmable and adjustable to various devices.
PM Web Apps and their optional features
Up to this point, we have presented five PM functions that we could consider as their distinctive features since they are recurrent in all the cases in our study. However, there are other optional features that give certain apps certain functions that are not shared by all, thus turning them into variants with particular functionalities. The functions we refer to are the following:
1. The Chat function: although it is true that most apps offer the possibility of making comments on tasks, of all the cases observed, only a few offered the possibility of direct and immediate communication through a chat and even videoconferencing. In fact, some of these apps make chat the function that characterizes their proposal, which places them almost exclusively in the area of communication.
2. The Report or Analytical function: it is a compendium of data of all the variables involved in the production processes, whose analysis allows to identify any anomaly or bottleneck, specifying aspects as detailed as the day, the hour, members of the team involved, stage of the project , etc. This function is specific to a certain group of apps oriented above all to the corporate or business area, in which up-to-date and immediate information on all aspects of a project is very important.
3. The Customer function: this is also a function of those apps oriented to the business area. It provides a record of clients and their projects, detailing aspects related to their status, time invested and personnel involved, as well as billing. This information is also shared with clients, who can have access to information regarding billing and status reports for their projects.
4. The Accounting function: as the previous two, it is related to the business area. It allows you to create invoices and estimates, manage expenses, track the status of invoices, and even accept payments online.
5. The Dashboard function: it is a tool that manages the information on the Key Performance Indicators (KPI) in real time to display it through graphs, which allows monitoring the status of a specific process. In the marketing area, this tool has special relevance, since it allows determining the metrics that affect a certain Marketing strategy, which is why it is a characteristic feature of those apps specialized in this area.
PMs and their variants
The functions that we have just listed are optional, that is, they can be assumed for very specific purposes. Thus, for example, those apps for which real-time communication is a value, functions such as Chat and videoconferencing exploit. Such is the case of applications as Podio and Basecamp, for which the communicative interaction between the members of a project is part of the management strategy.
On the contrary, other apps such as Paymo and Liquidplanner reduce communication to brief notes or emails and exploit other functions such as Analytics or Accounting since their niche is the business and business area, which requires meticulous allocation of budgets and costs control. But there are those that exploit the Panel function, such as Scoro, making them a useful tool in the area of digital marketing.
Saving said that, it is also common for some apps to move away from these functions and focus on exploiting only basic functions such as Projects, Tasks, Calendar, Boards, or Notifications. Such is the case with applications as Trello, Meitertask, Basecamp, and even Asana, whose strength is focused on task management.
In this way, what we affirm in previous lines becomes evident: not all PMs are used for everything. They certainly have the flexibility that having a common DNA gives them, so to speak; still, each one is framed, more or less measured, within areas such as:
- The communication
- Digital marketing
- Task management
In this way, we can classify these tools as project management applications specialized in communication, business, digital marketing, and task management. Indeed, some of them can be hybridized, allowing them to penetrate the space of others, thus expanding this classification, so it must be assumed as something relative and strictly referential.
Agile methodologies are a response to the challenges posed by the incorporation of complex products into the productive dynamics. These methodologies born within areas as specific as the automotive industry and software development have been expanding into areas as diverse as business, production, education, communication. Besides, a dynamic of remote work that requires powerful communication systems and tools that allow the integration of remote work in real time is added.
The need to satisfy these demands gave rise to a variety of software with specific functions that seek to facilitate work in these types of environments, but the expansion of the application areas now poses the challenge of covering such a vast spectrum. In response to this, these applications have become specialized in specific areas, complicating the design work as the current classifications of them lack the specificity that the design and development process requires. In this sense, this study has set out to analyze the interface of these applications to establish a more precise classification based on the functions that each one prioritizes. This has allowed us to determine five traits that generally characterize any PM, which we list as follows:
- The Project function
- The Tasks function
- The Dashboards feature
- The Calendar Function
- The Notifications feature
Similarly, it was also possible to determine the different variants by means of five optional traits expressed in the following functions:
- The Chat function
- The Reports function
- The Customer role
- The Accounting function
- The Panel function
Finally, based on these optional functions, it was possible to identify four variants that fall within the areas of:
- The communication
- Digital marketing
- Task management
We can classify these tools as project management applications specialized in communication, business, digital marketing, and task management, although their hybridization is possible, which would allow them to penetrate the space of others, expanding this classification. As can be seen in the following table, according to their function, we can classify some of the apps registered in it.
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