We will start this story about Merlin Project with a confession. Here at Architosh, we have been using a Kanban board—a staple of “agile development” methodology in the software world—for our publishing workflow. In fact, we’ve been doing it for over a year and we will never go back.
As a practicing architect as well, however, I couldn’t help but think “could an agile project management tool like the Kanban board also work for a typical architectural firm?”
I think the answer is a very likely yes.
Merlin Project and the Kanban Board
Merlin Project is software from Germany that Architosh last wrote about nearly ten years ago. They got in touch with us this week to tell us about how far Merlin has evolved and how powerful it is. But just as importantly, they wanted us to know that Merlin Project is being used by big-name architecture firms in Germany and beyond. After a quick catch-up on what Merlin Project version 5 is about, I can understand why.
Merlin Project is built specifically for macOS so AEC pros not on the Mac would need to buy one to use it. Developed by the folks at ProjectWizards GmbH, Merlin Project is a leading project management software sold to over 100,000 customers in 130 countries. As mentioned earlier, it is popular with AEC firm professionals as it has sophisticated Gantt chart capabilities with milestones and dependencies and groups. And for construction professionals, there are scheduling and cost planning tools.
Merlin Project also enables a traditional schedule view that is entirely about viewing dependencies—a way to view a project from a different perspective. (see here). And there is a Mind Map tool for users who prefer an unstructured view for planning out projects alone or with collaborators and then Merlin Project will transfer entries automatically into the project Work Breakdown.
The big news in the latest release is the new Kanban board. In an “agile” model versus a “traditional” project management model, the Kanban board gathers up “to-dos” for the entire process into “cards” in a far left column called Backlog. The Kanban way is you move these cards, one by one, to the next column to the right as your project progresses, each column a different stage of completion in the overall process. Ultimately, each card over a time period reaches the far right Completed column.
There is no need to stop viewing the project and its progress with a traditional Gantt chart. An organization or user can utilize the Kanban board and at any time view the Gantt chart to see it update automatically as “cards” are moved across columns. A detailed explanation about the Kanban board features is found here.
The folks at ProjectWizards have created a specific page to discuss how AEC professionals are using Merlin Project in their day-to day-operations of building design and construction. To learn more about Merlin Project go here.
Architosh Analysis and Commentary
The Kanban system was developed by Toyota just after World War II. Toyota noticed something about Japanese grocery stores at that time, about how they always had just the right amount of inventory and product on the shelves. This inspired Toyota to develop an operational management system that would optimize vehicle production. Folks on the assembly lines would always have the exact right amount of parts and tools for their specific tasks, and management had far better control and a view of what was going on because of the invented Kanban system. For those who want to learn more, this Wiki article is a great place to start.
So why should architects or construction professionals care about Kanban boards?
Here’s why the C-pros in AEC should care. Kanban is one method to achieve JIT (just in time). Construction schedules are compromised when building supplies or sub-contractors don’t arrive on the project site when originally projected. This impacts “critical path” or processes with dependencies, all trackable in classic Gantt chart-based tools like Merlin Project. What Kanban boards provide is a way to view project steps in a manner where you establish an upper limit to “work in process” for team members. When teams or individuals have too many tasks directly in front of them, they can spin out on confusion about what tasks to do next or get overwhelmed. Kanban keeps folks calm by allowing them to concentrate on the “card” (task) directly in their sight as the next step for them to do.
For management in AEC firms, the big lesson is for senior managers to not approach lower staff with too many task assignments. This “piling up” approach is directly equivalent to the original problem Toyota faced on the assembly lines—a build-up of excess inventory or parts at any point in production. Toyota knew that when excess items were waiting at supply points in the production line, efficiency dropped. Therefore, the Kanban system structured its columnar approach to have a maximum number of items in any one column on the Kanban board. The results of this efficiency model speak for themselves in terms of Toyota’s rise post World World II.