PROMISES COLUMN: Make Good on Your Promises

Jim BensonDesignPatterns, Primers7 Comments


When we get overloaded, it is very easy to promise people work and then under-deliver. Promises are tricky, they bring with them social costs as well as costs for time and effort.

When I promise something to you personally, I am putting myself on the line. I am telling you, “because you are important to me, I will do this thing.”  If I don’t deliver, it is telling you, “I guess you really weren’t that important to me.”

That was never my intent, but we all know when we’ve been waiting on someone and they don’t deliver, we lose a little faith in them. Worse yet, if it’s early in the relationship we identify them as a “non-deliverer.”

Mea Culpa: I, personally, end up overloaded or in danger of being overloaded frequently. Many people place demands or expectations on me and I need to meet them. In many cases, I was making perfectly rational decisions to delay some work and do other work. While that was rational on my end, it was likely infuriating for others.

Therefore, I started explicitly tracking promises to other people. This immediately had to impacts on me.

1. My short term backlog and WIP shot through the roof. Seeing the promises explicitly laid out was stressful and illuminating.

2. I stopped promising so much.

3. I began to seriously consider each promise as I made it.

  • Was the promise necessary?

  • Could the goals of the promise be served with a less costly promise?

  • Could the goals of the promise be served with more collaboration?

  • Were there options to meeting the goals of the promise?

What I learned was that we tend to rashly promise the first idea that comes into our heads. We’re having a conversation. Something sounds like a good idea, like it’s needed, and like I could provide it. So … I promise it.

That promise becomes a tacit social contract … I’ve promised something. You are counting on it, I need to deliver it. So, basically, I just contracted to do work for you without giving it very much thought.

That’s a recipe for disappointment.

So manage your promises by seeing them. A lot of obligations in the PROMISES column mean a lot of work that is very difficult to re-prioritize. That means you have work in your queue that won’t respond well to change. If you have an emergency arise, those promises don’t go away.

This is the third post in the Personal Kanban Tips series. You can read the second post – DONE COLUMN: Daily / Weekly Review here.

Jim BensonPROMISES COLUMN: Make Good on Your Promises

7 Comments on “PROMISES COLUMN: Make Good on Your Promises”

  1. Dave

    Curious as to the distinction your making for a promise. I get the premise of your thinking, but at an agency such as our almost everything is a promise because we need to hit explicit dates for our deliverables.

  2. Robb Gorringe


    I think this is why your expertise in kanban methodology serves as such a valuable resource to us all. Demands are placed upon us daily— be it emails, projects, phone calls, or simply a date with our spouse. But without a kanban, a person would attempt to manage these commitments in their brain, get frazzled, and let a lot of people down in the process, (we’ve all been there).

    Your article is encouraging though, because we shouldn’t be so quick to just ‘automatically’ put other people’s tasks in our WIP lane. Or else… we’re the ones that are going to get ‘whipped’ in the end.


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  4. Jim Benson

    Thank you Rob.

    Yes, new requests by others frequently become hidden WIP. They come in, look like they’re only going to take a few minutes, and we just do them. Often with a smile. But we stop smiling at the end of the day when we look and we’ve only moved 2 of our tickets.

    Understanding interruptions is a great way to use a New Stuff column.

  5. Ingvald Skaug

    i have had good experience thinking of promised work as a separate class of service, or a particular property of some work items.

    with physical notes i have f.ex torn small pieces of a red or pink post-it and marked the promised work items with them, instead of having a separate card type or a separate column for promises.

    with leankit, i’ve often used a clock symbol for a class of service with SLAs we might break if we’re too slow responding or doing the work. (since service level agreements are promises of sorts…)

  6. Jim Benson


    I like it.

    Any way of noting that there are people on the other side of those stickies.

    The SLAs are interesting as well.

    Now we just need to see if those promises are overloading our production. Are the promises (unplanned work) killing our ability to execute on our plans?

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