Part of our coaching with project teams, organizations and individual leaders is teaching the practice of making and receiving reliable commitments. This single concept underlies most successful Last Planner® System Implementations, IPD projects, and organizational transformations. Without reliable commitments, these efforts often struggle and fade over time. When just one individual learns to make (and get) reliable commitments, it can quickly transform the performance of an entire team. Let me explain.

Start by recognizing that we get things done in teams through conversations.  I need something from you, so I make a request. “Can you answer that RFI?” In turn, you make a commitment: “Sure.” Now, there are a few things missing from this simple example that explain why, in most organizations, the work does not get done as expected.

First, we are missing the Conditions of Satisfaction that clearly define my request and your commitment. When do I need the answer? Which RFI are we talking about? What information do I need as part of your answer?

Second, there was no real negotiation, which means it’s unlikely that you understood my request clearly before committing. “Is that the RFI about the 3rd floor plumbing? Do you just need a fixture selection, or does it involve redesign of the entire riser system? Will it need involvement from the structural engineer?” Only through this negotiation can we come to terms on what is needed and what level of effort will be required.

Finally, this new common understanding of the situation allows you to make a reliable commitment to deliver the right RFI answer at the right time. “I will provide the answer to RFI 171, including a new riser layout, one week from Friday.”

This conversation, along with the additional steps of execution and assurance are shown in the conversation loop diagram borrowed from the work of Fernando Flores. Learning to use this loop to identify breakdowns in the process is the first step in learning to make and get reliable commitments. We often think that when things don’t happen as planned, the fault lies in the execution – the architect can’t prioritize their RFIs, the window supplier couldn’t fabricate quickly enough, the concrete crew didn’t follow the right pour sequence. In reality, we find that the breakdown often happens before execution, in the request, negotiation and commitment phase of the loop.

To understand the prevalence of non-commitment-based transactions on project teams, try this exercise. In your next project meeting, keep a tally of how often you hear clear commitments vs. fuzzy, non-committal language about specific issues. “I hope to…, It should be…, I plan to…, I don’t see a problem with …,” are all phrases we hear often in project settings. When you hear this language, it’s almost certain that no commitment is being made. It’s also almost certain that the person needing something and the person providing it are not on the same page, and the work will not get done as needed.

In contrast, you will rarely hear, “Yes, I will deliver that item on this date.” It’s just not how most project teams communicate. When we track commitment-based vs. fuzzy language exchanges on new projects, the balance is about 20:1 in favor of fuzzy language.

Shifting toward commitment-based teamwork can begin with a shift in one person. Next time you find yourself giving (or accepting) fuzzy commitments, just ask a few more questions. Confirm the Conditions of Satisfaction for both parties, and clarify the request. From there, make sure the provider is making a clear commitment that’s understood by both parties. The conversation takes only a couple minutes, and it will avoid hours of frustration, rework, and mis-coordination down the road. The practice is contagious, and it could begin to shift the way the entire project team communicates and gets things done together.

For more insight into improving team performance through a new paradigm of project leadership and management, check out the book, Better Building: Lean Practices for the Project-Drive Organization.