Do Projects Have Horsemen?: Investigating the Warning Signs of Unreliable Commitments

James Folkestad1 & Gregory Howell2

1Associate Professor, Department of Construction Management, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80525, Phone +1 970/491-7823, FAX 970/491-2473, [email protected]
2Managing Director, Lean Construction Institute, 625 Main Street 1B, Louisville, CO 80027, Phone +1 970/408-1098, [email protected] (Also Partner, Lean Project Consulting).


Projects are temporary business organizations that accomplish work through a networkof- commitments, commitments that both develop and rely on the relationship of trust. Commitment and trust is built via conversations, conversations that connect distributed knowledge, establish understanding and demonstrate trustworthiness. Missing conversations can lead to dissatisfied customers, operational breakdowns and project failure. This paper describes an ongoing observational-research study that is coding active project language on several construction projects. The objective of this research is to explore the relationship between conversation and various project and operational breakdowns. The end goal of this research is to establish warning signs that would indicate the need and direction for constructing intervening conversations that would improve network reliability, trust and customer satisfaction. This research has been modelled based on observational research methods used by John Gottman to study marriage and relationships. Dr. Gottman realized that couples struggled to break marital problems because they were not aware of the language patterns that were destructive to their relationships. After many years of observation Gottman was able to code language used by couples identified what he called the “four horsemen” or “warning signs” for a troubled marriage. Trained at using these warning signs, Gottman can observe a couple for five minutes and predict with more than 90 percent accuracy which couples will remain married which will divorce. It is suggested that, similar to Dr. Gottman's findings, there are "horsemen" or negative interactions that serve as warning signs for customer dissatisfaction, operational failure, low levels of innovation, and lost opportunity. This investigation is collecting observational data in an effort to identify the "horsemen" of lean Construction. Armed with these warning signs (horsemen), a trained project stakeholder could design and deploy critical conversations and subsequently increase project value.


Network, commitments, linguistic action.



Folkestad, J. & Howell, G. 2007. Do Projects Have Horsemen?: Investigating the Warning Signs of Unreliable Commitments, 15th Annual Conference of the International Group for Lean Construction , 423-430.

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