My interest in corporate cultures began with a productivity research project that brought to light the impact of the attitude of workers putting in the footings for a new project.  We were trying to determine if the workers’ understanding of what they were trying to accomplish influence their motivation and productivity? One of the questions was: Did the worker know what kind of edifice they were building and its purpose?  The answers to that particular question surprised me and caused us to explore the issue further.

The question put to the workers putting in the footings for a school building project was: What are you building? 

  • The answers ranged from “footings”…to…”don’t know”…to…”don’t care”.  
  • When asked, “When do you think you will know?” the typical response was, “I guess when the project sign goes up.”
  • The project continued, and productivity was measured carefully by the yards of concrete poured and footings installed in a given time period.

The answer to this one question caused us to change the process on a second similar project.

  • Workers putting in the footings on a second project were asked the same questions and offered similar answers. 
  • Then the entire crew of workers were brought into a team-building exercise in which they learned that the building was going to be a school where neighborhood children would start and continue their education. 
  • Again, the project continued, and productivity was measured carefully. 


  • The productivity of the two projects was compared. 
  • The productivity on the school building where the workers knew what they were building and its purpose was found to be almost a third more productive than the first building where the workers neither knew nor seemed to care what they were building.
  • This was one of my first insights into “corporate culture” and its impact on productivity and profitability. 

I discovered, and later verified, that involving the workforce in what they were trying to accomplish, dramatically increased their interest, motivation, and productivity. (This corresponds with industrial productivity research conducted by others more than fifty years earlier, that was eventually described as the “Hawthorn Effect”.)  


What worker’s “feelings” and interests are in the project they are building has an impact on the quality and quantity of their work. There is apparently a big difference in a worker’s mind between building a school where children will learn and simply pouring a footing. In other words, it’s hard to take pride in your work if you don’t know what you’re building or why. Involving workers in the “purpose” of their work gives “meaning” to their efforts and stimulates both quality and productivity. The product they were producing wasn’t “footings”; they were building an “educational facility”. It made a difference to them. 

What’s Your Business?

Many construction professionals don’t seem to understand the importance of “culture” in our industry. We are not selling products. We are providing a service. In a service industry, success is the ability and willingness of the employees to provide the service, which is their corporate culture.  

For many years after this initial research into corporate culture, I would ask attendees in my seminars what business they were in. Typically, they would answer, “We build roads”…or…”We build commercial buildings”...or…”We specialize in school buildings”…or…”Single family homes”…or…”Apartment buildings”. It was the rare construction professional who said, “I provide construction services to our customers”. 

Contractors are in the business of providing “construction services”.  We are in a service industry. Our product is our employee’s work. How our employees feel about their work is one of our important success elements. In other words, in construction our corporate culture is, in effect, our product.

Care and Feeding

I fully believe that the primary management function of the best-in-class construction firm is the care and feeding of their employees. Imagine a laborer wearing a company logo shirt, is invited into the jobsite office trailer and told how critical his or her ability to deliver materials to the face of the work on time is to the success of the project. Our field forces would benefit from hearing, “Without you, we’d be dead,” at least once a week. Their productivity would soar. Imagine what that kind of “care and feeding” of the workforce would do to the excellence of the entire organization.

In Search of Excellence (Tom Peters, 1982)

“Every excellent company we studied is clear on what it stands for and takes the process of value shaping seriously. In fact, we wonder whether it is possible to be an excellent company without clarity on values and without having the right sorts of values.”

“Without exception, the dominance and coherence of culture proved to be an essential quality of the excellent companies.”

“Transforming leadership is leadership that builds on man’s need for meaning, leadership that creates institutional purpose…he is the value-shaper, the exemplar, the maker of meanings…he is the true artist, the true pathfinder.”

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