A few weeks ago, Susan Reinhardt and I discussed “Getting and Making Real Commitments.” In the podcast, she discussed the concepts of Reliable Promising or Conversation for Action. Reliable Promises is a concept used in Lean Construction, and it is defined as a method to create ownership and responsibility and holding people accountable.
“Promises are the strands that weave together coordinated activity in organizations.” *
When you think about it, trusting the commitments made by those you depend on to execute strategy is fundamental to ALL organizations. For the podcast discussion with Susan, I wanted to focus on specific conversations and what makes them different than a typical staff meeting or cross-functional meeting.
The discussion was fascinating, and we covered many topics, including a sort of fun yet informative conversation on Weasel Words (you definitely should listen to this!), but ultimately we ran out of time.
As a follow-up, I invited Susan to write a blog for me, and she graciously agreed. You can find the blog post below.
Project Management: How Reliable Promising Drives Success
by: Susan Reinhardt
In the building industry, the ability to manage projects is one of the most important skills we require, whether you are an architect, construction superintendent, or owner’s representative. Naturally, there is a lot of focus on how to harness the skills of many different specialists (usually from different companies, not just different silos in the same firm), to advance towards a single goal.
The number of disciplines involved is substantial, and relationships complicated. An architect will rely on perhaps 10 or so consulting engineers, while the average construction site may have 50 different subcontractors, all with their own vendors and suppliers.
Even our owners are not simply “owners.” Owners contain many different departments and specialties themselves, with different user groups and community stakeholders vying for influence and a larger part of the budget. On one project, literally thousands of people coalesce to create our built environment, then disperse.
While traditionally one of the most adversarial – and, according to some statistics, least productive – of industries, Lean management methods are beginning to make inroads in the building sector.
We have adapted Lean (and in recent years, Agile) methods to our own purposes, and while we have not traditionally been inclined to involve ourselves in, or take direction from, other industries, we have a lot of unique experience to offer project managers elsewhere. Many people spend a lot of time at work on project-based efforts important to the company bottom line, yet it is very common for project management to simply be assigned to capable engineers or others in various technical roles while providing very little training in the subject.
Like a carpenter suddenly told “You are managing the crew now, go frame the house,” individuals may not have a decent framework for marshalling the efforts of a group of specialists towards the right goal. Worse, project management standards that currently exist tend to reinforce a top-down, command-and-control system that puts too much emphasis on leadership and shortchanges the perspectives of diverse team members.
After joining Women in Lean, I enjoyed learning more about Lean methods in manufacturing, healthcare, government, and elsewhere. We share many of the same problems any collection of individuals has working together, and cross-pollination can only help us all. I am continuously surprised that the basic Lean methods so common to the construction industry are unknown elsewhere.
The foundation of Lean in the building industry is the Last Planner System,® developed by productivity experts Glenn Ballard and Greg Howell after they tired of making spot improvements to individual trades only to find that the overall project schedule was unaffected. The System relies on “Last Planners” – generally trade foremen who are the last people responsible for assigning labor and materials – to collaborate with each other to create their own sequence of work.
Designers use the system to align all designers and engineers around the sharing of information required to synchronize their efforts. Last Planner asks project teams to focus on five linked conversations, from Master Planning at the highest level through Daily tasks and Learning for continuous improvement.
Nothing Gets Done in any Human Endeavor Except through Conversation
Respect for People is at the heart of making the Last Planner System work. When we make a request of or an offer to another person, we are not just exchanging information but creating the possibility of a new world that didn’t exist before we spoke. Holding the right conversations is key to collaborating with others, to aligning ourselves around a common purpose, and to working together to get things done.
At the Master Planning level, we want to make sure we have the “Why” of the project firmly in mind by truly understanding what stakeholders need. We also want to make sure we understand what milestones the team has to meet to ensure that the project finishes on schedule. In Phase Planning, we look at the next milestone and gather our Last Planners together to hold another conversation.
What does this milestone mean? What must happen before we have reached that milestone? What can happen afterwards? How do we work together to reach that milestone, and what do we need from others to do our work? Can we break the work up into small batches (our version of single piece flow) so that we can turn over a unit of work that allows others to start theirs?
With a phase plan in hand, we turn to a weekly coordination meeting for the other three levels. With make-ready planning, we look 3-6 weeks into the future and ask: “If you had to start that task tomorrow, what would stop you?” If information, materials, equipment, approvals, or people are missing, that is a constraint. We negotiate with others to remove that constraint, tracking these promises on a constraint log.
The goal is to ensure when that task is placed on a weekly work plan, nothing is keeping us from doing the work. We then coordinate a weekly work plan, referencing the phase plan’s next week of work, and make detailed promises to others working on the same undertaking or in the same location. Every day, we huddle around the weekly work plan for 5-15 minutes to track each promised task and ask:
- What did we do yesterday?
- What do we plan to do today?
- Are there any last-minute constraints in our way?
- And if we could not perform a task as planned, why not?
These variances are collected so the team can determine the root cause of plan failures and remove them. Daily huddles often eliminate the need for emails that go astray or are misunderstood, and allow face-to-face communication. As we reach over 80% of promises carried out as planned, the project moves faster, budgets are met, and overtime ceases.
But how do we hold these Conversations for Action? What is a Reliable Promise?
Workflow Loop for Reliable Commitments
We generally recognize three types of conversations within teams:
- Conversations for Relationship
- Conversations for Possibility
- Conversations for Action
We will look here at Conversations for Action, central to project management.
Suffice it to say, if you aren’t getting anywhere with a Conversation for Action, you should retreat to discussing possibilities. Has your team really considered all the alternatives for solving a problem?
If a Conversation for Possibility is leading nowhere, retreat to Conversations for Relationship – how you work together, what you want to accomplish, and the mood of the team must be understood and distrust repaired before you are ready to take action.
The Loop usually begins with a request, though it can begin with an offer. The Customer is anyone making a request, and the subject could be as simple as “Please get me a cup of coffee,” or “Please tell me how deep the steel structure is,” or even “Build me a 100-bed hospital tower.” The performer commits by promising to fulfill the need, executes the work, and declares completion. The customer declares satisfaction, closing the loop. But it is not so simple. Rather, consider each step in the loop:
1) A request. The customer must prepare to make that request. “I would like a cup of coffee, almond mocha, from Starbucks, not the convention hotel, just before the noon break. And I would like you to pay for it, because I bought you a drink last night.” How many of us have had clients make a request when they are not sure what they want?
2) The performer and customer negotiate Conditions of Satisfaction. What exactly is being requested?
The performer should consider:
- Do I have the time?
- Do I know how much effort is involved?
- Do I have the material, equipment, resources or knowledge to do the work, or can I acquire them?
- When is it due?
Conditions of Satisfaction are not just what the customer asks for, but what they negotiate together. Have you ever asked a subordinate to do something, and they run off to do it and you wonder, Do they really understand what I was asking? Or have you walked away with a request only to stop and think, I wonder if they wanted sales figures broken down by product line or geography? What are they using the report for? Never ask yes or no questions, or you get a kneejerk answer – negotiate!
3) After performing the work, present to the customer and declare completion.
4) The customer must assure the performer that what is presented is indeed satisfactory. This is not always so simple. On one job site, suppliers delivered a Baker Coupling, used to connect large underground pipes on an infrastructure project.
Because they didn’t have the equipment to unwrap and rewrap the coupling to protect it, they signed for the item and put it aside. Six months later, when installation was nigh, they unwrapped the coupling and realized it was not built to specifications. And it would take six months to receive a new one, sparking much consternation and a big change of plans.
Some regard the Last Planner System® as a series of spreadsheets to fill out. Just create a milestone plan, a Gantt Chart for the phase plan, and spreadsheets for the six-week Look Ahead Plan and Weekly Work Plan. But these spreadsheets are merely artifacts of the conversations team members hold.
Absent real Conversations for Action and Reliable Commitments to other team members, these spreadsheets don’t mean much. In reality, every task noted in a phase plan is a promise. When creating a phase plan, tasks are written on sticky notes with a task duration noted in days and a request, commonly called a trigger, for the last thing they must see from the upstream trade or discipline before performing that task.
Requests to remove constraints are recorded and promises are made to remove them according to the workflow loop as well. The next time you are in a project meeting, observe how many discussions are held with no requests, offers, or commitments ever made. How many times have you thought you had a commitment, when in fact you had none?
For any project requiring the work of multiple disciplines, consider how the Last Planner System® and Reliable Commitments might work for you!
Click the image below to listen to the original podcast!
Susan Pratt Reinhardt began her career as an architect in 1991 designing schools in Switzerland. She excels at managing complex projects with multiple stakeholders and has acted as project manager for public projects ranging from a $1.5M mountain library to $30M recreation centers to a $4B university in Saudi Arabia.
Susan quickly developed a reputation for rescuing failing projects and bringing order out of chaos. She has coached facility owners, designers, and contractors on Lean methods for building projects up to $1B, including Tool Install Design in a new semiconductor fabrication plant, pharmaceutical facilities, large historical renovation projects, educational facilities, government office buildings, infrastructure projects, healthcare, and more.
Successfully managing project teams is crucial in construction, and Susan is excited to share tips with project managers in other industries who must align and facilitate the work of multiple team members across multiple functional disciplines.