A Network of Commitments is Not Enough

What is the difference between a promise and a commitment? According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of a promise is a declaration or assurance that one will, or not, make a particular thing happen. In the domain of Language Action, a promise is one of the speech acts.

A commitment is being dedicated to a cause – such as fulfilling a promise. As one of the commissive speech acts as defined by JL Austin and John Searle, a promise leads to someone making a commitment toward action or bringing forth some new possibility.

Promises become fulfilled because of the action of a commitment.

One of the foundations of Lean in construction is the theory that projects are based on a network of commitments. Unfortunately, by only focusing, measuring and documenting commitments we miss the larger, highly complex, conversations in the background. In order to have a more complete picture of the complexity of the project environment, and the critical coordination elements that are missing, we should view projects as a network of conversations.

When we think of projects as a network of commitments, we are committing to only pay attention to the commitments that have been made. Indeed, the whole Last Planner System is built around securing, documenting and measuring the commitments that have been made. From the sticky notes in pull sessions to the measuring of PPC and variances in the daily huddle, the focus is on the commitments. In contrast, when we see a project as a series of conversations, we begin to observe the missing requests, declarations, and promises that are not leading to a commitment to bring about some future action. In order to attune ourselves to these conversations, we need to become different listeners not listening for information but rather what are the concerns in the background of conversations that are not leading to explicit commitments to take action. If we are observers of these missing coordination elements, we also then need to develop the capability to intervene in the conversations that are not producing action when needed.

The focus on only commitments may also be hiding a series of incomplete or missing conversations in the background of the project. In the Last Planner System, we measure our reliability in delivering on our promises but how are we measuring the quality of the conversations – missing promises, misunderstood requests, missing conditions of satisfaction? How do we build the capability to see what commitments are not being made as a result of missing conversations?

We will explore further in future posts.


In the 1980’s I was exposed to the theory and practice of “Socio-Technical Work Design”. Simply put, “Socio-Tech (for short) identifies that every work/production system contains both Social and Technical sub-systems which need to work in alignment if the whole system is to perform optimally. LCI and many practitioners of Lean Construction focused on the Social side – relationships, conversations, contracts, and organization/partnering, etc. All this has been needed as the Social sub-systems in the AEC sector have been sorely lacking. But seeing a project as “a network of promises” is only one small aspect. In our industry, every project requires the creation of a unique Production System – actually a collection of many Production – Subsystems. If the production system is badly designed you can have all the conversations and fulfilled commitments you like, and the best you can deliver is the reliable implementation of a bad system. That is not our goal. Lean Construction must also embrace Operations Science and a wave of emerging technologies in order to realize the proper and evolving mix of both the social and technical aspects of revolutionizing our industry! Most of us think all that is needed is “Project Management” and know nothing about Production Management – we don’t even know how to describe projects as production systems, or the attributes of effective project-based production systems. But if we are to be successful, Operations Science and production system design have got to get at least equal weight in our progress.

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