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Why are good promises important to Lean Construction

Hal Macomber, one of the pioneers of the Lean Construction movement, proposed that we rethink construction projects as networks of promises. Why? Hal argued that a project is more powerfully seen as a fluid and complex network of responsive promises between people who care. Seen from this perspective, it becomes clear that the root of the failures project leaders cope with every day – faulty work packages, schedule slippages, cost overruns, lost opportunity costs, unresponsiveness to contingencies, bored or disengaged employees, and so on - lie in broken or badly made promises.

This article is the second of three posts where I examine one of its fundamental building blocks: making promises. I have two simple goals for this article: as you read the article that you get a powerful insight into how good promises can be made, and you are enticed to start learning how to improve the promises you and your team make.

Good work relationships make great promises possible

My colleague – Charles Spinosa – says in his Harvard Business Review article that a great promise must be public, active, voluntary, explicit, and mission-based. In my last blog, I outlined his rationale. (You can read more about promises here in Charles’s HBR article Promise-based Management – The Essence of Execution.)

In my day-to-day work, I believe I have good social relationships with my colleagues, whether they work for me on my team, in VISION, or with suppliers I rely on to delivery our projects. But I realise now that what counts for a good social relationship is not always good enough to get the promises needed.

So, what is it about relationships that make a great promise possible? And, perhaps more importantly, what is it about promises that make great relationships possible?

It’s not about being nice, polite, interesting, charming, or even liking the person, though all of that is important. For me, what stands out in a good work relationship, is how well we can listen to each other, the trust we give each other, and how frankly we speak to each other.

Why is it so difficult to develop a good work relationship?

Developing a high-trust, frank relationship takes time and focused effort. But I don’t think that’s what makes the task difficult. In my experience, what’s difficult about building a good relationship – one where great promises emerge – is that standing against the unspoken resignation of your colleagues is stressful and brings an additional set of risks. For example, I regularly work with teams who are resigned to the fact that “nothing will change around here”. They speak politely to me, even enthusiastically, about the possibility of change while privately telling each other about the impossibility of the change. Often, they highlight to senior management the naivety of hanging the project timeline on the success of those changes.

Rather than face the stresses of calling out what their colleagues are really saying, they develop strategies that don’t require having to invest their time and resource developing a high-trust, frank relationship where a great promise can be made.

Why bother?

I’ve seen where colleagues with good relationships be inventive when problems hit. They trust their colleagues enough to say quickly “I’m in trouble” and care enough to find novel ways around the problems that inevitably arise. Putting that a different way, I believe that creating a community of colleagues who care enough about the goals of the project makes the work more meaningful to them. They then look after each well, step in fast to catch a dropped ball, and go the extra mile when it’s called for by the team.

What it takes to develop good relationships and make great promises

It’s probably clear by now, I focus my effort first and foremost on developing good work relationships in the teams I work with. With those relationships in place, my experience is that great promises will emerge when I start mobilising the Lean Construction and Commitment-based Management ™ practices that underpin the productivity improvements I go after.

In my experience, developing the kind of work relationship I talk about here is a skill that everybody can learn. We believe in VISION that developing good relationships in the team requires learning certain new skills and practicing those skills regularly, over a 12-week period in the new-style team meetings called for by Commitment-based Management ™ and Lean Construction.

I outline here the skills and practices I refer to.

New Skills:

Listening for Difference: As a manager, listen for what you did not expect to hear. Probe the difference you hear to understand the background concerns and ambitions of your customer - the person you are doing the work for. I find we focus too much on what we expect, and often miss the thing our customer really cares about. Similarly, as a manager – a customer to your own teammates – listen to them for what you did not expect to hear. Give yourself the time to layout your project goals in a way that entices them and takes care of their concerns and ambitions.

Pay Attention to Your Shifting Mood: As an experienced construction manager your history colours your feelings about what is possible in the future. But pay attention to, for example, when a teammate asks an insightful question or comes up with an interesting alternative approach, I find my mood about their promise shifts. Recognising their novel insight is valuable, I get more confident that I can rely on them delivering on time.

Conversely, when I find myself giving minute instructions because my teammate does not seem to get what I care about, I now notice that I’ve grown more anxious, and irritated with them. Learn to spot these shifts in mood. The negative shift in mood is an early indicator that you do not have a promise whose successful delivery you trust.

Examining Assessments of Trust: In VISION, we believe recovering at-risk promises, demands making assessments fast on where you trust and distrust the promise. In my next blog post I will examine building trust and recovering broken promises. Here I’ll introduce a distinction I find helps with making the assessment; is the person competent, sincere, and well engaged.

  • Competent: Does the person have the skill required to deliver their promise?
  • Sincere: Are they being truthful and frank about the situation?
  • Engaged: Do they care, in the same way I do, about the overall goals and outcome?

New Practices:

The skills I’m pointing to above are not skills to be acquired through reading and study. These are working-life skills acquired through regular practice with colleagues, along with support from a person with those skills who can coach you. I suggest you look to practice these skills in your regular Daily Huddles and Project Operations Review meetings.

Daily Huddle: Practice steering off your mood and the mood of the team to probe for unstated problems, and to offer help.

Operations Review meetings: Practice listening to those making promises and check in on their mood. Steer off their and your shifting mood about the promises to probe the assessments you hold on individuals’ competence, sincerity, and engagement.

Importantly: When team members appear to lose sight of or ambition for the overall project goals, take the time out to listen why that might be, and invest time enticing them back.

Some Homework - If You Found This Article Interesting

If my article triggered for you some curiosity about whether or not you have good promises, try out this short exercise.

  1. Make a list of the top 10 promises made to you.
  2. For each promise examine your mood about whether the promise will be delivered to your satisfaction. For example, are you resigned to getting the promise partially done; resigned to not being wow’ed by the work? Or you may hold some resentment about the promise, perhaps that you’ll be left having to fill in some missing pieces, or look after some ignored, important aspect of the work? Alternatively, you may be confident and perhaps looking forward to celebrating the promise’s completion? Whatever your mood is, record two or three words that capture it for you.
  3. Go back through each promise in your list of 10 and for each one answer the three questions on Trust, from above:
    • Does the person have the skill required to deliver their promise?
    • Are they being truthful and frank about the situation?
    • Do they care in the same way you do about the overall goals and outcome?

In my third and final blog I'll look at how to repair broken or at risk promises and damaged relationships. Then how to act to recover relationships and broken promises by focusing on shifting mood, sharing assessments (frank speaking), and relationship building by bringing attention to and caring for what really matters.

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Peter Luff is a Director at VISION Consulting and for the past 15 years has been leading large transformation programmes for FTSE100 companies using VISION's Commitment-based Management (CbM) approach. The programmes produce dramatic results because fundamentally this approach empowers people, reinvigorates them and connects them with their customers at a human level. Peter has spent the last 10 years developing the application of Lean Construction and Commitment-based management.