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Remember when you had to make a promise to a customer? Was it hard to figure out when can you deliver on it? Was it hard to fulfil it as promised?

As a project manager and while coaching agile teams, I used a multitude of different tools to make this process reliable and easy. I used Gantt charts, backlogs, kanban boards, roadmaps. All of that with a varied level of success, until I arrived at the concept of heijunka which inspired me to organise work in a different way.
After slightly modifying a tool called “heijunka box”, a handy and easy to use tool was born: “Promise wall”. It helps to manage workload, to give promises and to deliver on them. It also can be used for strategic planning.

Promise wall

Promise wall/board is an information radiator, visualising current commitments and significant factors that can affect them on a timeline.
It looks like this:

Depending on the length of the time interval, it might show immediate information, tactical information or strategy. The ones I use the most are Weeks and Months, which gives a plan for one quarter (tactical) and a plan for one year (strategic).

Parts of the board

  • Columns: Represent a time interval. There are two special purpose columns: “Late on” for the promises that we are late on delivering and for which interval is no longer on the board, and “Later” for the promises that are further in the future than board allows to show.
  • Rows: Represent streams of delivery. Can be projects, products, customers, initiatives, etc. I recommend having a row for miscellaneous commitments that don’t fit into any of the above.
  • Current date indicator: the red mark above a column, showing the current period.
    It saves some effort on moving the board. I usually suggest to remove columns with past dates and set up new ones when 3 or 4 columns show the recent periods.
  • Stickies: (post-its). Each sticky represents a single promise/commitment or delivery. The level of commitments to display should be chosen depending on the scale of the board.

Examples of promises shown on a strategic board:

  • Product releases
  • Invoiceable deliveries/milestones
  • Contracts
  • Trade shows
  • Customer visits
  • Regulatory deadlines
  • Improvement initiatives

For a tactical (team) wall:

  • Product releases or “user stories”
  • Project deliverables
  • Travel arrangements
  • Vacations/days off
  • Customer visits
  • Improvements

For the promises, I use regular square stickies with separate colours for:

  • Regular promises
  • Travel arrangements (affects the availability of the team members)
  • Vacations (affects the availability of the team members)
  • Customer visits (might affect the availability and also disrupt regular work)
  • Problems/issues that block delivery on a promise (bright colour – attached on top of affected promise)
  • (Optional but useful) Promises with effect on cash flow. Can also be represented by a mark on a sticky.

You might opt for colour-coding separate projects, but since they are already divided into different rows, I would consider it unnecessary.

There are two kinds of promises that we can display:

  • “Intentions” – something we would like to do but aren’t sure whether we will do it or when will we do it. To show this, I put them sideways 🔷.
  • “Commitments” – the definite promises to be fulfilled by a specific date. These are horizontal.

Using the wall

To set up the wall, you’ll need a wall (well, duh) and a few sets of coloured stickies. Larger stickies to mark columns and rows and for a current date indicator, square stickies for promises/commitments.
Set up your columns and rows first, add a legend. After that invite all the members with relevant knowledge to list out all the promises and commitments, they are aware of.

When the wall is filled in, you are likely to notice one of the following patterns:

  1. You have many more promises than you can fulfil.
    It means that you would eventually fail to deliver on your promises and now you are aware of this. It would likely signal that you are overworking your team too.
  2. You have overlapping clusters of promises across multiple projects – many things to be delivered roughly at the same time to multiple customers.
    It usually predicts mayhem and overtimes when the designated moment will come. It would likely result in some mishaps, emergencies or even mixed up deliveries.
  3. The promises are of varied size – some of them are big, and some of them are small.
    This variation will make it harder to predict the likelihood of on-time delivery and team load. The bigger an item is – the more uncertainty it caries within.
  4. You have separate promises on multiple projects handled by the same team at the same time
    Unless you have a way for fast switchover (like SMED in production environments), this would mean that your team will be losing focus, losing time and effort on switching and multitasking. Just by reducing this, you can gain up to 20-30% increase to performance.
  5. If you have also marked the items that affect your cash flow, then you might be able to spot irregularities (jumps) in the cash flow.
    Although it might be okay for your industry, to me not having a stable and reliable inflow of money and waiting for lump sums to arrive later sounds risky. Payments might end up delayed for the reasons unrelated to you, and this might put you in a tight spot.
  6. You have ample time gaps between deliveries to different customers.
    Nobody likes to be ignored. Your customers are probably the same way. Regular deliveries of small amounts of value would contribute much more to their goodwill towards you than a single “Big Bang” delivery. The higher level of goodwill means that they are more likely to recommend you or pick you for repeat business.

You can observe some or even all of the patterns above in your current situation. Since these dangers are visible now, you can take measures to deal with them. The next question is “how”.

The target state

Before we move to “how”, I’d like to talk a bit about the target state we want to reach…
We want to give promises in a way that:

  • Provides continuous inflow of money
  • Delivers value to every customer on a regular short interval, satisfying their needs
  • Fits within the capacity of our team(s), while leaving space for improvement and innovation
  • Allows team(s) to be focused and productive
  • Has leeway to deal with delays and emergencies, should they arise

I understand that you might be sceptical whether this state is reachable at all, so I’d like to assure you that it is. Let’s look at what you can do.
One warning, though – expect a lot of (re)negotiation. 😉

How to get there

To get to the target state, we will need to address some problems related to our work with customers and internal processes. Let’s take them on step by step.

Know customer needs

To be able to adjust our schedule and plans we need to be intimately familiar with customer needs. Also, I don’t mean contractual agreements. What I mean that behind each promise, that customer has asked us to make, there is a reason. Maybe our customer made a commitment, and our delivery plays a vital role in them fulfilling it. Perhaps some of the internal workings of their organisations are in play. Maybe some personal reasons. To be able to re-negotiate our promises, their needs is what we must focus on.
The key here is that very often much smaller scope of delivery is necessary to satisfy their needs. Some parts of the delivery can be excluded; other can be supplied gradually. If you can prove that you care, many of the barriers will disappear.

To achieve that – talk to your customers. Discuss the promises you have already made to understand the needs behind. Care about them even if they feel like “not my business”.

One more note here. Don’t try to negotiate with “organisations” – they are often rigid and indifferent. Talk to individuals. If they feel you care about their needs, they are much more likely to care about your needs. So don’t be afraid to share your needs if customers are capable of helping you with satisfying them.

Split up large promises

When you are talking to a customer, one of the first things that you would want to discuss is large deliveries. Pareto tells us that “20% of effort produces 80% of results” – aim to find that 20% and deliver it as soon as possible. What you likely discover is that the other 80% are either mostly irrelevant or can be postponed. This will give you the necessary flexibility to rearrange promises.

Try to get promises to be relative of the same “size”. This will reduce variation and will help to increase the realisability of your deliveries.

Get your team on board

You will need to get support from the whole team for the changes you want to happen. If there are commitments/promises made by individual team members, they are likely to interfere with the level of collaboration you need to achieve. There are four ways around it: 1. Make these individual promises into team ones 2. Renegotiate these promises 3. Align these promises with the team ones (accommodate) 4. Move the individual out of your team.
A small note on the number 4, I had a case when moving such an individual out of the team resulted in doubling the team performance due to eliminating delays in the process.

Understand and reduce your cycle time

Cycle time is time between the moment work has started until it was finished. One of the ways to reduce it is to focus – eliminate waits/delays and multitasking. Incidentally, it is the smallest time interval you can use for planning.
Talk to your team and rearrange the promises and work that they are doing in a way that they would be able to focus on delivering promises one-by-one without overlapping. It might not be possible at the beginning, but as you go, it will become easier (until you hit the limits of your current work process).

Attend to all the customers

Re-arrange and re-negotiate your promises with all the customers, especially the ones you have not attended to for an extended period. Deliver something small of value to them earlier instead of waiting for a long time to deliver something big.

Balance work

Balance your commitments in a way that they can be fulfilled without overtime, overstress or other “over-“s. Make sure that your team(s) has enough time to be able to recover, and improve the way they work. It might make you go slower at the beginning but will steadily increase productivity and add reliability to your deliveries.

Reflect all of these changes on the wall.

Mark delivered promises – either by crossing them out (better for team morale) or by taking them off the board (better for visibility).
Add new promises as they are made or even considered – and only make them after you’ve looked at the wall.
Regularly review the board and resolve issues that you discovered.

Commit to improvement

Although this is not directly related to the “promise wall”, to make it work you will need to commit to improvement: of quality, of the ways you work, of your teamwork, of relationships with customers and suppliers, of relationships within your company and with other stakeholders.
This commitment should result in tangible actions that you take – don’t leave it as lip service. After all, this tool is just there to help you with creating such improvement.

I hope that you enjoyed reading this article. Now it is your turn – get some stickies, find a wall and visualise your promises…