Poetry and Project Management

July 30, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin

H. Glenn Ballard is the co-founder of the Lean Construction Institute.

Of all the concepts associated with Aristotle, construction is likely not high on the list (if it makes the list at all). But for H. Glenn Ballard, PhD (SF68), the connection is not only rational, but highly useful.

“It goes all the way back to Aristotle’s rhetoric: the way of dealing with matters particular and probable as opposed to necessary and universal,” says Ballard.

The Aristotelian consideration of form vs. matter is at the heart of what Ballard does as the co-founder and research director of the Lean Construction Institute. Though not the creator of the Lean model, Ballard is credited with revolutionizing the world of capital construction and project management through his study and application of Lean theory. His contributions to the field have earned him international recognition, professorships at top universities like U.C. Berkeley and Stanford, and most recently the 2018 Award of Merit from the St. John’s College Alumni Association.

For those unfamiliar, Ballard explains Lean Construction as “a way of managing a construction project that’s derived from what Toyota developed by designing and manufacturing automobiles. It’s built around the fundamental relationship between customer and supplier and provides the customer exactly what they need with increasingly less waste.”

The method, he says, supports sustainability threefold through economic, social, and environmental means. And though it was designed to support automobile manufacturing, it’s applicable to virtually every project in the world.

Despite his passion for the model, Ballard did not set out to become an expert in construction philosophy.

“I liked working with my hands and working outside. I liked the challenge of making things that you could see,” he says. “Unfortunately or fortunately, I was only able to do that for five years before I was promoted into management positions.”

“I think some people when they’re 5 years old know what they want to be when they grow up, a fireman or whatever,” he continues. “I think of my career more as a careen. I’ve been luckily bouncing off of things and into things, and St. John’s was one of those lucky bounces.”

Though SJC was not what inspired him to pick up a job in construction one summer, Ballard credits the college with his “ability to learn,” adding that his education made him “better able and better equipped to take on new problems and new challenges and to make sense of them.”

As an established expert in construction and engineering, he took the Johnnie model into the classroom, favoring the Socratic method of teaching through questioning for 21 years. And though he is no longer a professor at U.C. Berkeley—having had a mother in class and her daughter decades later led him to believe he’d been there long enough—he remains a full-time employee as the leader of the Project Production Systems Lab.

There, Aristotle remains top of mind.

“It’s been inspiring [to study] the science of production,” says Ballard. “His [Aristotle’s] exemplar for that science is poetry—that’s what Poetics is about. It’s a little bit of a stretch to think about poetry and producing refineries in the same breath, but that’s what I’m thinking.”

Ballard will be honored for his 2018 Award of Merit at the Alumni Association Awards Banquet, held during the annual Homecoming celebration.