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The purpose of this series of blog posts is to provide a framework and tools that you can use to dramatically improve your performance as a leader. No matter where you are, from construction crew or design/engineering team member, foreman or project manager to corporate executive, the project management and operations changes happening through lean, and design-build best practices require us to rethink leadership.


This second blog post in the series will introduce you to several new mental models (Conceptual Tools) that you can use to explain to others the need for a new leadership toolbox. These leadership framework tools will also help you assess how your current ways of thinking about leadership compare with a proposed paradigm shift. Collaboration among diverse project participants needs collaborative leadership if we are to have high-performance teams.

High-Performance Teams Need High-performance Leadership

If you were leading a Formula One pit crew, what characteristics would that crew need to epitomize a high-performance team? If you had one team member who was good at tire changes and one who was good at adding fuel, would those individual skills be enough to keep you in the race? Would you contract with each crew member separately based on their reputation and hope that they showed up on race day able to perform at a world-class level?

If you were leading a construction maintenance turn-around team about to perform a high-pressure maintenance shutdown in a processing plant, the skills of each worker would be important, but would their individual skills be enough to complete the maintenance and get the production system running again in record time? We have mission-critical challenges like these in every project, all the time. Hiring and directing skilled trades, no matter how good they are, does not guarantee high-performance teamwork or success, even though trade expertise is still essential.

I have recently been commenting on a Lean Construction Blog discussion about “Respect for People”. RFP is the core of LCI’s “6 Tenets of Lean” - right in the center. Many commentators argue that without respect for people, lean will fail. I argue that respect is a feeling, an attitude, that must be demonstrated through skillful action. There are two essential fields of knowledge not taught in engineering or trade schools, or found in the PMBOK project management manual. The two fields we must master to become high-performance leaders are 1) Technical process knowledge and skills, and 2) Collaborative process (social) knowledge and skills.

The “Socio-Technical Work Design” approach suggests that every work system has two major subsystems: Social and Technical. A great project plan and system in a horrible culture yields poor performance. Similarly, well-intended leadership who don’t understand the basics of operations system design, no matter how much they “respect” people, put project participants in a situation where they cannot perform better than the limitations of the system in which they work. If we force people to work in wasteful, unsafe, and unproductive environments, how is that being respectful? I suggest that you read “Built to Fail”, by Todd Zabelle.

On the Technical side, LCI has at least 50 distinct tools and techniques that can be learned and mastered. You will understand and implement those tools better the more you understand operations science. “Real” lean construction is based on the study of project-based production systems - work that requires unique adaptation of operations science to AEC project circumstances. You must “gear up” your technical understanding of project production systems or you will not know whether your continuous improvement efforts are taking you in the right direction. If you don’t know what a great system looks like and how to measure it, how can you lead people there?

However, operations science is not the focus of this series. How to develop high-performance teams and lead a sophisticated production system based on operations science is our focus here.

On the Social side, there are at least another fifty-plus distinct best practices that must also be mastered. As with lean, they require that we change gears - adding some higher gears to whatever gears we are currently using. And, as with lean, high-performance leadership skills are not taught in engineering, business, trade, or other schools, but they exist. LCI founders Ballard and Howell were heavily trained in facilitation and collaborative leadership and applied collaboration tools to the development of LCI.

The mental “gear shift” we must make is a paradigm shift from leadership as direction and control, to leadership that engages, facilitates, and develops effective collaboration. Here is a simple model (a conceptual tool) that illustrates why additional skills are needed:

In your first job, what percent of your time was spent in “doing”, and what was spent in “planning to do”? Most of us start our work lives getting paid for just doing – we act as directed. With experience, we begin to predict and plan. When employers promote someone from the front line to a supervisor or foreman position, the proven ability to do the job to be supervised is considered first. They assume planning will be OK because the new supervisor has demonstrated skill and has experienced how others have planned work for them. Actual planning as a skill set is rarely taught. We assume it is just learned by doing. That’s the first problem. We have been taught that the key to promotion is to be the one who is good at doing.

If we are successful and get more promotions, we inevitably achieve a position in which we must lead others whose jobs and trades are not in our area of expertise. Suddenly, a whole new skill set is required: planning how to get others to plan. We must orchestrate a planning process, not simply do all the planning. If we continue to make all the decisions, our weak areas will become obvious, and our team will not develop their own planning and decision-making skills. Our team will be “low performance”!

A new position where your old practices no longer suffice can be terrifying. The dreaded “Peter Principle”, the idea that people get promoted to the level of their incompetence, might have caught us! How do we admit, even to ourselves, that we no longer know what to do to succeed? Most middle and senior managers fall back on what they have done in the past and micro-manage. Planning to plan requires a new set of skills, a new way of thinking about leadership.

Below is a simple, two-column table. You many never have thought of this format as a facilitative leadership tool, but your familiarity with simple formats that help frame conversations and capture data can be used in many ways to engage participants and generate input. You might use this format to ask, “what’s working/what’s not?” “What should we do more/less of?” etc. In this example, we are framing the columns to compare “current state, enhanced state”.

The paradigm shift looks like this:

The “Command and Control” behaviors on the left dominate construction and continue to have their place, but they are no longer sufficient to engage others in operations effectiveness. We need to be clear about how these two sides differ and how to use them both. For example, as you advance, your “span of control” (the number of people who report to you) can continue to expand far beyond your “span of support” (the number of people you can personally mentor to become their personal and professional best). Those we support must also support others – so we must learn to model the skills we want them to use to engage and develop others.

During the industrial revolution, it was erroneously thought that the simpler and more repetitive we made production tasks, the easier the work would be, and the happier and more productive workers would be. They wouldn’t even have to think about it. But workers hated being treated as if they are just a pair of hands without a brain, and even sabotaged the production line out of boredom.

The evolution of Socio-Tech Work Design defined a set of conditions that made a job, any job, worth doing well. Among the most important conditions were:

  • The opportunity to exercise meaningful discretion in our work (and lives)
  • The opportunity to make a meaningful contribution
  • The opportunity to give and get recognition and respect for our work and ideas
  • The prospect of a meaningful future

W. Edwards Deming and Russell Ackoff, two of my favorite thinkers on management, both said, “The only legitimate task of management (i.e., leadership) is to help people succeed!” Most people want to help themselves and each other succeed through meaningful engagement. High-performance leadership enables meaningful, productive engagement.

For better or worse, the place where engagement happens, where people collaborate or don’t, is also the place where your personal leadership skills are on constant display, and with no escape: in meetings. Most leaders, sadly, are bad at planning, leading or facilitating meetings.

In Blog Post #3, we will expose the root cause of bad meetings and dive into the facilitative meeting leadership skills you need to become a high-performance leader.

Prepare some space in your leadership toolbox for some new skills.

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Victor R. Ortiz is an organization development professional with over 35 years of professional consulting experience. Vic has worked with LCI co-founders Ballard and Howell since 1985 and he co-facilitated many of the early development meetings of LCI. Vic currently works as an independent Lean/IPD Coach.