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Promising Makes an Amazing Difference

The Construction sector is playing a lead role in a $10 trillion race to renew the world’s infrastructure. Time is tight and the stakes could not be higher. Climate change, population growth, water crises, pandemics, and mass extinctions are creating new demands for greater productivity, lower carbon intensity and more responsiveness from our infrastructures, worldwide.

This article is the first of three where I will examine Lean Construction – in particular, one of its fundamental building blocks: making promises.

Hal Macomber, one of the founders of the Lean Construction movement, proposed that we rethink construction projects as networks of promises. Why? Hal argued that promises improve the predictability of flow. His proposal was accepted and today managing through personal promises is a cornerstone of Lean Construction.

I have two simple goals for this article: as you read the article that you get a powerful insight into how promises can help you master Lean Construction techniques, and you are enticed to start learning how to improve promises on your projects.

Why is it so difficult to get reliable Promises?

Promises bring greater certainty to the future than traditional project management. In my own work, I see that making promises creates common purpose and trust across teams. But most people are initially uncomfortable making promises and are inclined to go along with the flow to get along with their colleagues. I frequently see that promises are pushed and pulled in different directions by developers, designers, constructors, communities, regulators, and investors. It’s difficult to make and continue to hold a promise in the face of these stresses. The extended timescales of large projects make promising more precarious: the promises you make seem all too easily undermined by unforeseen events and stretched to breaking point by contingencies no person could anticipate.

To sidestep making promises in the face of these stresses, savvy construction managers reach for the traditional management tools of organizational hierarchies, project charters, incentive systems, process design and PMOs. But the more experienced know that projects still stall and opportunities to innovate are still missed. Their intuition tells them a project is not a bundle of tasks on a project plan or lines on an organisation chart.

As Hal Macomber pointed out, 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, opportunity costs, unresponsiveness to contingencies, bored or disengaged employees, and so on - lie in broken or badly made promises. Project leaders can deliver amazing work if they practice what we call ‘promise-based management’ and learn to cultivate in their teams a strong sense of ownership and integrity for the promises made.

Promising Is Uncomfortable – Why Put Yourself Through That?

It’s clear to me that most of us make promises in our personal lives. I think we take these promises so much for granted that we don’t ask ourselves “what is a promise?”. For us a promise is a personal commitment binding together two people in pursuit of a shared goal. When you make a promise, you are committing to satisfy the concerns of another person by an agreed time.

While most of us make promises in our personal lives, its clear also that we rarely, if ever, make promises in our work lives. Why is this? We believe making promises at work is uncomfortable because we know that the promise word, when accepted by somebody who trusts our word places us under an obligation. And for most people this obligation has a moral force we know puts our reputation on the line if we let the person down.

Put simply you will feel bad if you let down a person who is relying on your promise. Why put yourself through that? Why make promises or try and get others to make promises to you? Experienced managers know that when they get a promise they trust, the person will go the extra mile for them; that the person will be innovative getting around constraints and that the person will come back quickly for help when they are failing.

What Makes a Great Promise (and What Looks Like a Promise but Isn’t)?

Let’s end by looking at what we think you should look for in a promise to reassure yourself that it will be a good – even a great - promise. Later, I point out some things that look like promises but in my experience are not.

In our work we’ve seen that reliably promises have five shared characteristics, as follows:

Public: People strive to make good on promises they’ve announced publicly and then report on publicly.

Active: Promises drift and disappear when managers hurl requests at colleagues who passively catch them and add them to their existing pile of tasks. Skilled promise makers actively negotiate to unearth conflicting assumptions and misunderstandings.

Voluntary: People most easily take ownership and personal responsibility when they make promises willingly, versus under duress. When ‘no’ is not an option, ‘yes’ means little.

Explicit: Explicitness is crucial especially when working with different teams with different backgrounds. From the start, work out the network of commitments and their conditions of satisfaction (COS) along with the key conversations needed to catch breakdowns and rebuild trust.

On my projects, I often come across elements and behaviours that are close to making promises, but still don’t cut it.

  • Good Intentions: Promises are not just intentions. Intentions are essential but they indicate effort rather than a commitment to outcomes. “I’m going to do my best to deliver you XYZ.” They lack the clear, personal commitment to deliver an outcome.
  • Projections & Targets: Likewise, promises are also not simply targets, predictions, or even management by objectives. Like intentions, they lack the commitment to create a future that satisfies the concerns of the person you’re make the promise to.
  • Coerced: Promises require good faith negotiation that reaches a mutual agreement. Clearly even mild or unintended coercion fails this test. In our experience, when setting up a promise conversation, complaints, and bad moods are reliable indicators that there is no promise.
  • Contracts: Contracts record promises but are not promises in themselves. In my experience, the legalistic focus on the content of the promise removes the opportunity to create the relationships necessary for a true promise to be made and dilutes the sense of obligation to fulfil the promises.
Some Homework - If You Found This Interesting

If my article triggered for you some curiosity about the promise network around you, then this short exercise will give you some insights into the state of that network.

  1. Make a list of the top ten promises made to you as a project leader.
  2. For each promise, ask yourself, are these true promises where the promisor voluntarily puts their personal integrity at stake or only intentions, targets, objectives, threats, or contracts.
  3. Colour code each promise as follows:
    • ‘Green’ where you are confident you have a promise that you entirely trust;
    • ‘Blue’ where you have a promise that has some unresolved issues, but you trust the team will resolve the issues in time.
    • ‘Amber’ where you don’t have a promise but believe you’ve time to get one;
    • ‘Red’ where you don’t have a promise, and don’t believe you’ll get one in time.
  4. This simple exercise will highlight for you the missing conversations you need to have.

In my next blog, we will show you how to get good promises from your team and how to promise brilliantly. In my third blog I'll look at how to repair broken promises.

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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.