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Servant Leadership and Lean Construction

Servant Leadership and Lean Construction

After twenty years of work in construction operations, I was in a quandary: how do I get more joy out of my work? I had an excellent reputation as a project manager. My projects were on time, of the highest quality, and with exceptional customer satisfaction. I also spent time educating and improving the staff I worked with. Still, the construction process was wearing me out. I struggled as a person of faith to bring my beliefs into my work. It seemed the workplace was a life of cutthroat business, and my home life was one of faith and belief in others.

Then I encountered Robert Greenleaf and his movement of servant leadership. I read his essays: The Servant as Leader and The Institution as Servant. These documents started to change my thinking of how to lead my construction projects. I had been measuring success by my accomplishments, and as a result, I struggled to be fulfilled. After studying Greenleaf, I realized that true success of a servant leader is measured in the growth and success of the people being led. The focus is fully on others, not the leader or the project. Many people believe that servant leadership is a “soft approach” but they would be mistaken. It takes a high degree of courage and humility to serve those around you.

Shortly after I began my servant leader journey, I was introduced to lean construction. My first impression of lean was a productivity tool that can improve the process of delivering a quality project. Lean construction focuses on scheduling and installation, to minimize interruptions, and to improve the speed of construction. Using pull schedules and last planner schedules in both preconstruction and installation improved the construction process. My perception of lean was similar to that of most people: lean is a practical approach to improving productivity and processes.

However, as I studied more about the history and application of lean principles, I discovered that lean is more than process improvement. W. Edwards Deming, the father of lean, published his 14 Points and his Diseases over 35 years ago. As I studied these, I realized that true lean is a leadership philosophy, for both individuals and corporations. The Points and Diseases give guidance for how leaders should utilize the workers for continued improvement of the organization and provide increased customer satisfaction.

While traveling on these two paths simultaneously, I would attend seminars for both servant leadership and lean. When I listened to servant leaders, from firms such as Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, The Container Store, and Kwik Trip, I was inspired by the success of leading as a servant. I also heard undertones of lean processes that contributed to their successful operations. When I listened to lean company representatives, from firms such as FastCap, Ahrens, Harley-Davidson, and Modine, I was inspired by the increased operational improvement of the companies. I also heard tidbits of servant leadership techniques being used to help support the lean process improvement.

I had always thought of these two journeys as divergent. My recent epiphany is that servant leadership and lean are synergistic! There are many aspects of the synergy, and the three I think are the most prevalent are

  1. Respect for the Workers
  2. Seeking the Optimal State
  3. Long-Term Focus

Respect for the Workers

Many models of management in use are based on top-down theory, where the supervisor is in charge and the worker is responsible for meeting the company objectives. This model has been and continues to be successful for businesses. But how successful is it for the workers? When I started working in the “real world” the mantra for the worker was Johnny Paycheck’s Take This Job and Shove It. Work was work and it was a means to afford what you truly enjoyed doing in life. Rarely, did anyone honestly love his or her job. Unfortunately, too many worker-company relationships are the same today as they were back then.

Greenleaf’s primary tenant of Servant Leadership requires the leader to meet the priorities of the worker. The barometer is does the worker grow as a person? Deming brought this to light by implying the organizational chart should be turned upside down. It is the leader’s role to support the worker. The company must create an environment where workers can do their best work and managers help them to do it. Greenleaf and Deming note the role of the leader and manager is to help the worker achieve his or her best.

Deming noted that failures are the result of the process and not the people. When a problem happens, we should be seeking a process solution, and not blaming the worker. Too often, we fail to explore the exact problem and take the easy solution of blaming the behavior of the worker. Blaming behavior does not make the worker’s environment safe. The organization should seek a safe workplace, both physically and mentally, where the worker is free to express his or her concerns, which is Deming’s point number 8 Drive out Fear. Likewise, Greenleaf urges leaders to make the worker feel safe, so that they can perform at their highest potential.

So how do we make the environment safe? Both Deming and Greenleaf note it starts with listening. This requires a firm belief that the worker is part of the team and not just a means for accomplishing an outcome. People have a desire to understand. By showing respect and listening to others, the leader gains the trust of the workers. Leaders and managers must be excellent communicators, and this involves being good listeners. I like to say it is listening with HEART: Hearing, Empathizing, Asking, Respect, & Trust. The best way to receive respect and

trust is for one to give respect and trust to others. A servant always accepts and empathizes, and never rejects. This goes for ideas as well as feelings.

It is the organization’s responsibility, starting with the leaders, to create a work environment that allows the worker to grow professionally and personally. This is people building. Too many organizations look at the workers as assets. This is wrong. Assets are something a company owns. People are the most significant resource a company has. Without people, you have nothing. At Vogel Bros. People are the Key to our Success. That means everyone, both internal and external to our company. Without people, we have no clients, no partners, and no workers. Both lean organizations and servant led organizations understand this concept and put people first.

Seeking the Optimal State

The optimal state begins by bringing meaning to one’s work. It is the leader’s responsibility to provide an atmosphere of purpose to the work of the employees. Greenleaf emphasizes awareness as the method to reach the unattainable. Leaders engage with employees in the here-and-now to seek solutions together, and not simply giving them direction. Deming emphasizes this in his Point #7 Institute Leadership of People, where leaders help the workers do a better job. The Deming cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act is the process of continuous improvement. Teaching this to each worker and enabling them to experiment with improvements allows a firm to have true process improvement. Allowing the workers to enhance their environment is the heart of reaching the optimal state.

Understanding why is important for intrinsic motivation. Simon Sinek poses “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. Leaders inspire action from the employees when the worker understands why they are performing their work. Do the workers show up every day just to draw a paycheck? If so, how well do you think they will perform? However, what if the worker showed up every day understanding how his or her efforts make the world a better place. Would the worker be motivated? Certainly! Making work meaningful inspires employees to attain the unattainable – the optimal state. It starts with an understanding of why the work is being performed, and continues by Improving Every Process (Deming’s Point #5). Deming directs leaders to Break Down Barriers (Point #9) and allow people to work together to improve the company. Greenleaf echoes this sentiment by emphasizing that continuous improvement requires the involvement of the workers through people building, not people using.

Greenleaf states “Faith is the choice of the nobler hypothesis”. It takes strong faith by the leader to allow the employees to be fully engaged in the process. Many firms prefer to control the workers through policies and procedures. There is a place for policy; but to have the freedom to optimize, employees need guiding principles. Principles allow the employee to use their creative ideas to enhance their environment to reach the goal of the optimal state.

Long-Term Focus

A long-term plan provides security to the workers. Workers who are not concerned about the company’s solvency and their employment status can concentrate their energies on their work. Employees will give more to the company if they know the company has their back. On the other hand, gossip of company layoffs causes stress and leads to reduced productivity. Greenleaf notes that leaders must care for the institution, which includes caring for all the people the institution employs. The caring must be genuine for it to count. The organization should be built on respect and teamwork. Deming emphasizes this in his Point #9 to Break Down the Barriers between departments and staff to operate with shared values, free from conflict that detracts energy from the company.

To achieve sustainability, the organization must concentrate on real problem solving, and not on countermeasures towards results. Greenleaf notes that leaders must concentrate on today with solutions that will prevent crisis reactions in the future. The organization must deliberatively seek high levels of quality and prevent waste. This includes all the work performed by the organization, both in the field (or on the shop floor) and in the office. Allowing workers to make decisions based on guiding principles, instead of restricting corporate policies, leads to improvement.

The long-term view may disappoint stockholders who are looking for quick gains and high dividends. However, leaders who resist Short-Termism (Deming’s Disease #2) and emphasize service towards the worker and the customer, find sustainable growth from employee engagement and customer commitment. Leaders need a consistency of purpose to maintain the discipline to commit to employees and customers ahead of stockholders. Caring for the institution will lead to making the company great.


The synergies between Lean and Servant Leadership are many. Neither of these leadership styles is easy. These methods of leadership are not for the faint of heart. As Deming stated in his Point #2 The New Philosophy, leaders need to have a radical rethink of their values and beliefs in order to understand the underlying principles; and this is more radical than you can imagine. Lean takes a commitment to continuous improvement that empowers the employee to remove wasteful systems that do not benefit the customer. Servant Leadership is a commitment to serving the employee and bringing out his or her best. Employees treat the customer in the same manner they are treated by the company. Servant-led lean organizations understand this axiom and use the teachings of Greenleaf and Deming to achieve long-term success.

Connect with the author, Mark Rounds, at [email protected].

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