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According to Kotter (1995) change needs leadership: “Creating new demands leadership.”. These wise words have been my guideline for more than two decades since I read for the first time one of Kotter’s books about change management. These words and his ideas inspired me for my PhD. I wanted to know why nothing changes or changes are very slow even if we have a simple idea and process for it. Learning more and more about lean philosophy has made me even more curious about the topic and all issues related to it.

Even though we or at least I have known the importance of leadership in change for a long time, we in the construction sector have started to seriously think about the usefulness of Kotter’s words less than decade ago. Dropping new things in front of the people and telling them to use new tools or think differently, is not the way of getting the change to happen. It is not even respectful behavior towards others as one of the six principles of lean teaches us. Simply, respecting people means more leadership than management.

Leadership skills and leader’s qualities

We all have noticed: Managing things is different than leading people. Because of the difference, change from management to leadership means that leaders need to change or at least learn new ways to lead. It has been said for example that leaders need to become more listeners than tellers. Nowadays, they do not need to have all the answers or solutions and jelling times are over. Leading with fear is so last season. Leading with respect is here. Instead of I is finally We!

There can be a lot of different skills and qualities for a good leader in different studies. For example, according to my study (Latvala, 2019) an emphatic leader takes a lead and makes sure things get done but gives others room to talk and tell their opinion and share their ideas and solutions. Emphatic leader challenges, encourages, shares, and explains. In a balanced group, the leader becomes one member of the group, and the group becomes even more equal. The leader still has his/her work to do, but it is less noticeable.

Lean-leadership is about leading people

In Finland we do not have different words for the different types of management or leadership, but differences are still there. You can hear it from the way people talk and think nowadays. Lean has taught us that lean-leadership is more than anything about leading people with respect.

Figure 1: Traditional way of leading versus lean-leadership (LCI Finland, 2023, English version Latvala)

When the traditional leadership (left triangle) starts from the leader/top management, who tells and demands what middle managers and workers do, the lean-leadership (right triangle) starts from the workers (= value adders) and clients. Lean-leader sets targets, supports and makes decisions to help value adders to do they work proper way and add value for the client. There are open communication and feedback channels between leaders, middle managers, and value adders.

Go to Gemba

One of the lean-leadership tools which we have started to use more and more at the construction site is Gemba walk. ‘Go to Gemba’ means that leaders should leave the office or big room, go to the site, and see what is really happening and how work is done. It also means talking to the value adders and listening to their ideas, for example how to fix the work conditions. It is making sure value is added and waste is minimized without harming anyone or anything.

It is not easy to get Gemba walk done right. It is not hard to go for a walk on site and talk to the others but to talk about real things and really listen takes even courage. I have heard from my lean brothers and sisters who have gone to Gemba that it is not the easiest thing to make value adders understand that they have the solution, and they can make a difference when they have used to get orders and been in “managers are always right” -situation for a long time.

Anyhow, this is the place where change should start. Luckily, every emphatic leader has tools and I believe I have the courage to do it. They just need to believe in themselves, be brave and take the first step, with a colleague if needed. Simply, like Kotter (1995) said: “Creating new demands leadership”.


Kotter J. (1995). Leading change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail by J.P Kotter. Harvard Business Review, 73(2), 59-67.

Latvala M. (2019). Understanding the types of people and the effects of group composition in collective development workshops in real estate sector. Available at:

LCI Finland ry (2023). Lean-leadership manual (in Finnish):

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Marika is a Doctor of Science (Technology) working in the real estate and construction sector with interests in people behavior and well-being. She works as a development manager for Finnish Property Owners Rakli, which is an association in the real estate and construction sector in Finland. Her job is to develop processes and procedures for real estate owners and construction clients with a hint of humanity. One of the biggest topics in her work is lean and its principles.