Mark Rounds - 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

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

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

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

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