By Mark Rounds, VP of Corporate Development
After 20 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
Another commonality of these two theories is they are not easy and they are not popular. These methods of leadership are not for the faint of heart. As Deming stated in his Point #2, 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.