by Tom Richert with Joanna McGuffey

“Courage is the main quality of leadership.” – Walt Disney

This past year LeanProject has been providing people with an experience designed to help them enhance their capability to be present and engage others toward enthusiastic commitment for professional growth and team achievement. The program integrates the latest understanding of exceptional team cultures with the qualities we have observed present in sustained lean transformations beginning with Toyota.

Three observations inform the need for courageous leadership in team-focused work.

  • The need for people on teams to have meaningful personal connections with each other.
  • The need for people on teams to be aligned with a purpose that is personally meaningful.
  • The need for courage to contribute wherever possible and ask for help whenever needed.

Putting these observations to work is the key to cultivating a team culture of shared responsibility that produces exceptional performance along with the time and financial savings lean practices promise.

Meaningful Personal Connections

Work is too often designed to be transactional, as if people perform best responding to inputs in the way a computer application works. The myth in this approach is that work can be designed so that all parties understand an established set of responsibilities from which there is no need to deviate. In this view the work environment is stable and functions ideally like a well-honed machine.

The real-world experience is that it is impossible to plan for all the contingent events that can occur during work. Unforeseen obstacles and opportunities present themselves in unique ways and the people impacted by these events need to co-invent how they respond. Shared co-invention, when managed within trusted relationships, produces innovations small and large with the potential to create value throughout the project or organization.

Trusted relationships are necessary, and rest on a foundation of care. It is easier for me to address the concerns of my friend Sally as opposed to that lead electrician on the wiring crew, what’s-her-name. Friends take care of each other, especially when events go awry, and it is necessary to rally to the support of one or more people on the team. Without trust, energy is expended on identifying blame. Trusting teams understand what Ivan Shatov meant went he exclaimed, “we are all to blame” near the end of Dostoevsky’s Demons. Friends share blame and success equally.

A Project Manager’s Workload Concerns

The core team leading the Cleveland Clinic Lakewood Family Health Center project completed in 2018 invested time in understanding how they could create a learning culture across the entire project. As part of that exploration they openly explored and discussed their core identities, taking time to learn about the opportunities and concerns they shared. This work has practical implications. In this case, the core team learned that John, their project manager, was burdened with a heavy workload supporting the project yet concerned with voicing this burden to others. A better understanding of each other provoked a team commitment to sharing the work of the core team in a more equal manner.

One of five precepts that inform the identity of the Toyota Motor Company is to “always strive to build a homelike atmosphere at work that is warm and friendly.” Home is where we ideally have our most personal relationships. Home is a safe space where one feels welcome. A place where you know there will always be room for you to share the meal experience with those around the table. The precepts were written in 1935 and reflect the philosophy of Sakichi Toyoda. It was within an environment that promoted personal relationships that the Toyota Production System (TPS), the primary source of lean practices, was able to take hold and flourish. A less personal, and more transactional approach to relationships at work would have killed TPS before it could really begin.

Aligning with Purpose

People seek to make an impact on parts of the world they find important. This often includes family, social networks, and faith communities. Ideally this also includes the impact they make through work, given the time invested. They naturally seek to make their impact in a manner that respects the time and money required and wastes neither. A statement of purpose in each important area of their life helps keep them focused on the work necessary to accomplish their vision.

Development of and intentionally checking into a meaningful statement of purpose is vital to all projects and organizations. Work teams, groups of ideally six to fifteen people in our experience, that work together regularly need to develop their own specific statement of purpose. While it can work to adopt the overall purpose of the project or organization, usually teams are able to develop an aligned purpose that has more meaning for the individuals on the team and reflects their specific responsibility to the larger enterprise.

Posting a statement of purpose on a wall is not enough. Posting on the wall is fine, as is including a review at the beginning of every meeting, including in a daily three-sentence journal, and including in an email signature. Always be checking, “is the work I am doing now aligned with our purpose?”

Connecting to Purpose

The people building the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Center, opened in 2017, understood the value of creating an emotional connection to purpose. The entrance to the site included a bulletin board on which the people building the project were invited to post notes and photos of family members and friends touched by cancer. This simple act made the project more real to the people responsible for its construction. While that project had a life-saving mission, other purposes are equally effective at motivating high engagement. All building projects contribute to the fabric of a community, socially and economically.

The first of the Toyoda precepts, originally translated as “always be faithful to your duties, thereby contribution to the country and to the overall good,” is a statement of purpose. The purpose of Toyota, and later TPS, was to elevate the people of a nation, and arguably those agrarian people oppressed by the Shogun Empire for centuries. Building and selling automobiles for customers was a means toward realizing that purpose. Managers going to the factory floor to see the work, waste reduction, and process improvement are simply a means to a meaningful purpose, and not the purpose of TPS at Toyota.

The Need for Courage

The work the past few decades on psychological safety and the need to be vulnerable by people including Amy Edmondson, Patrick Lencioni, and Brené Brown highlights the value of being courageous in the workplace, along with the rarity. A laborer fearful of calling attention to a broken pipe can lead to hours of unnecessary troubleshooting when a leak is detected. A nurse fearful of speaking up to a doctor can lead to a patient’s death. Fear keeps people from doing what they know is in the best interest of all.

People in charge of organizations are often among those people afraid to speak out about what they don’t know and cannot do. There is a mistaken leadership ideal that believes leaders are forceful, all-knowing, and able to solve any problem, simple or complex. Admittance to a lack of knowledge can be viewed as a sign of weakness. This perspective informs an image of many leaders that is harmful to trust and communication. It is an image rooted in fear.

Courage is for most unfamiliar territory. Fear-driven compliance drilled into us since childhood. Pass the exam or you will fail the course. Obtain this SAT score or you will fail to get into college. Steal clothing from a store and you will go to jail. While the consequences of these statements are true, the basis in fear strips away our natural courage. Courage feeds a joy of learning regardless of the results of a single exam. Courage provides an awareness that we can obtain the clothing and goods we need without hurting others. People in teams need to help each other regain the courage life well-intentionally robbed from us.

Courage to Work in a New Way

An example of courage at work was displayed on a dormitory project for St. Michael’s College in Vermont completed in 2016. Jim, the superintendent for the construction manager, was skeptical regarding the value of lean practices. Many superintendents in Jim’s position retreat from the lean implementation, preferring to rely on their familiar and in their view safe command-and-control management approach. Jim had the courage to put lean practices to work on a project with an aggressive schedule and material supply challenges. His courage gave trade foremen the confidence to fully support lean practices, achieving extremely high levels of reliability throughout the project.

The early years of Toyota are hardly heroic in terms of accomplishment, or even production efficiency and lack of waste. Yet there was the courage by people in the company to persevere despite discouragement and setbacks. When the company was founded in 1935 it was thought that by the Japanese government that no Japanese company could compete against General Motors and Ford. The challenges were technical, economic and social. The initial courageous spirit of the company found a home in Taiichi Ohno, who understood deeply the need for managers to quickly admit when they were wrong, and for all people working in the factory to take responsible for improving production.

A Recent Courageous Leadership Experience

Building a Shared Core Identity

We recently had privilege of providing the Courageous Leadership Experience to teams designing and planning the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Hospital Expansion Project. The complex project requires the coordinated work of several dozen people from organizations that include the hospital, the architectural design firm, the construction management firm, several consulting engineering firms, several trade contracting companies, and other consultants and suppliers. For purposes of advancing the project these people work in small mission focused teams of six to fifteen people, with many people serving on more than one team.

Shared Purpose and Core Identity

One of the teams we worked with included most of the functional team leaders and a couple members of the project’s core team. The functional teams are responsible for designing the project using a Target Value Delivery process, and the leaders of these team responsible for coordinating communication, requests and commitments between teams. Together they are responsible for designing the project so that it provides the optimal spaces and capabilities for the client’s budget.

As the functional team leaders worked through their purpose statement a shared passion for this project surfaced. It is easy to intellectually understand that a project is important. It is a far more impactful feeling emotionally connecting to a project using words you played a part in developing. That is one of the primary objectives of the Courageous Leadership Experience. The other objective is to provide a forum for people to design their shared core identity as a team.

While it is up to the functional team leads to carry the energy of their work forward into the daily work of the project, the clarity on what they want to accomplish together and why provides a foundation for success, in their relationships as well as meeting the project objectives and realizing their shared purpose.

Putting Courageous Leadership to Work

The Courageous Leadership Experience takes people through four basic steps you are invited to take on your own.

  • Open conversations about the need to cultivate courage in leadership, beginning with yourself and the people with whom you regularly work. What is leadership to your team, and how can you share it so that everyone’s strengths come into play? What is courage to your team, and how do you cultivate it among yourselves and with other teams?
  • Understand yourself and the other people on your team. We each have authentic selves capable of contributing to others in a significant way. Often, we mask that core identity pretending to be someone we cannot, whether a compliant project engineer or all-knowing boss. Reflect on how you show up to others when you are your best. As a team share those reflections with each other. Doing so starts to cultivate team cohesion through personal relationships that serve as a foundation for mutual care and trust.
  • If it does not already exist, identify an inspiring purpose for the overall project or organization. Ask all teams supporting the enterprise to achieve clarity on their shared purpose. Expect that they will need have a long and serious discussion to develop an initial draft statement of purpose. Request that they keep that statement of purpose visible and top-of-mind daily.
  • Request that each team create a shared core identity that includes some aspect of the individual core identity of each member of the team and aligned with the team’s statement of purpose. Through discussion and negotiation this shared core identity should be developed into a story that informs how each member supports the team.

The need for all people to share leadership in a courageous manner is real for meaningful work, and an essential part of every ongoing lean transformation. Focusing on the three preceding steps, not just once but consistently throughout the life of the project or organization, will result in more meaningful and joyful work while producing exceptional performance and results.

Comments from Recent Courageous Leadership Participants

“The Courageous Leadership Workshop revealed the importance of vulnerability in leadership, an understanding of my own core identifiers and how they can be paired with others to strengthen the team. After participating in the exercises to create our teams’ shared purpose, I left the workshop with a renewed energy and focus to bring the project to the finish line – together.”

Jessica Radecki, AIA, EDAC, LEED AP, Healthcare Director, NBBJ 

“For someone that was reluctant to attend, I was pleasantly surprised with the workshop. One of the first things I heard Joanna say was that got my attention was that Pride is Fear. The Root of Pride is Fear. I never noticed the connection before she made that statement. I was fearful of participating in the activities for the fear of what others would think. But once we started to open up and working with the Lego activities and letting my guard down to be open and honest was pretty powerful. Here’s what I found most valuable.

  • The root of Pride is Fear so be open to the workshop and the experience.
  • Powerful team play.
  • Core Identifier, I was able to look into what I can bring to the team.
  • What is the Why. I learned to now ask this question more.
  • Learned to make commitments to the team and to hold to those commitments.

Thanks again for a fantastic workshop look forward to utilizing the tools that we have learned from this time.”

Bob McGinnis, Preconstruction Director (Mechanical), Skanska USA Building Inc.

“The Courageous Leadership workshop helped motivate us as a team to create a spirit of continuous improvement. It helped me understand the role when I am at my best as a leader and team member.”

Ed Thompson, Lean Construction Manager, Cherry City Electric

“As a Job Superintendent utilizing Lean Tools, the workshop helped show how I am able to go from Drill Sergeant to Coach. The Courageous Leadership approach is much more collaborative and makes everyone on the project part of the solutions every day.”

Jim Aarhus , Superintendent , Skanska USA Building Inc.