The world is rife with maxims that remind us to never to break our commitments: “Be a man of your word,” “Your word is your bond,” “Under-promise and over-deliver.” But while this might be good advice when dealing with your spouse (or the IRS), it’s a bad idea when it comes to your business. Broken promises provide powerful opportunities to identify and eliminate problems that keep your business from improving and growing.
Lean thinkers like those at Toyota are famous for saying, “No problem is a problem.” What they mean is that no matter how smooth the operation seems, there are always problems. From this perspective, breaking a promise to deliver by a certain date isn’t a sign of moral turpitude. Rather, it’s akin to the canary in the coal mine: an indicator that there’s something wrong with a business process.
For example, when I worked at a large athletic footwear company, we always had difficulty getting samples to our sales reps on time. This issue persisted for years, because we were committed to keeping our promise of delivering samples by the target date. Keeping our promise to the reps made us creative with our workarounds: We’d hand-carry samples back from Asia in cheap nylon sacks like pack mules, we’d order 50 percent more pairs than we needed, or we’d give the factories false deadlines several weeks early. Of course, those workarounds cost us thousands of dollars of unnecessary expense and strained relationships with our factories. It wasn’t until we committed to facing the broken promise—no samples by the target date—that we finally addressed the real cause of the problem (guesstimated forecasts from internal staff combined with limited production capacity) and put appropriate countermeasures in place (rep-driven forecasts with a spread delivery window for certain items).
I recently visited a large construction company that tracks all its broken promises, identifies the reasons for the missed commitments, and puts them up on the wall for all to see. The goal of posting this information isn’t to blame and shame the staff or foster a gripe session about “those jerks in the ____ department.” It’s to identify common issues and engage the whole team in productive problem solving so that they don’t recur. As part of the weekly project meeting, the project teams discuss their root cause analyses and recommend solutions.
When you don't view broken promises as a learning opportunity, it can lead to sweeping problems under the rug or compensating for them by making superhuman efforts to get the job done anyway. This is actually a disservice to the company. It robs the organization of the opportunity to identify and fix those problems. In fact, I’ll go even further and state that spot bonuses, or performance evaluations that praise people for working nights and weekends (“Sarah worked like a horse, clocking 100-hour weeks, to make sure that Project Graham Cracker launched on time.”) actually hurt the company in the long run. Verbal or monetary rewards like this can foster a culture in which workarounds and firefighting substitute for problem solving.
A former business partner of mine used to say that if you keep pulling rabbits out of a hat at work, pretty soon the company would expect you to come to the office in a top hat and cape. He meant, of course, that the company would begin to rely upon personal heroics to get the job done, rather than investing the time and effort to fix the systems that caused the problems in the first place. And that’s where the power of the broken promise resides. Long-term, it eliminates the need to pull rabbits out of a hat by forcing everyone to confront the ugly truth of the system.
So try breaking a promise and letting someone down. See what you learn.
Here’s what you can do to exploit broken promises:
- Deliver an explicit message from the top (CEO, President, Founder) that missed commitments are an important learning opportunity, not a sign of failure. Also explain that workarounds (including working significantly longer hours) may sometimes be necessary, but they’re a last resort.
- Establish a tracking system for missed deadlines—a simple spreadsheet is fine. Define a few categories (fewer than 10 is ideal) that identify the most likely reasons for the problem.
- Group the missed commitments by reason code. Display prominently.
- Include root cause problem solving for the most common reasons as part of weekly standard work.
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