In the 36 years that Chuck Greco has worked for San Antonio-based Linbeck Group, he has held several positions, from field engineer to chairman. Under his leadership, Linbeck embraced lean construction practices and an innovative behavior-based safety program that has become an industry model. Greco is also the 2015 president of the Associated General Contractors of America. His AGC leadership tenure ends this week at the association’s national convention in San Antonio, where he talked with ENR editor Mark Shaw.

ENR How did Linbeck’s improved safety program come about and what has been the key to its success?

Greco We had a good safety record, but our metrics were not improving quickly enough, so we borrowed a practice from the petrochemical industry, which had already implemented employee-involved safety. In the system, craftsmen volunteer to become part of a safety steering committee, representing all craftsmen on the job. Even across trades. They are asked to observe the person next to them on the job, with those workers aware that they’re being closely observed. They just watch what they do for a short time and make safety suggestions when the need arises. It makes them an active participant in a culture of safety.

ENR What’s the management role in this plan?

Greco To do this, we hired a behavior-based consultant, told them what we wanted to achieve, and they said, ‘OK, but once this is underway, we don’t want to talk with you until it’s done.’ We were asked not to interfere with them during the process. Letting go of that much control was an uncomfortable moment for me, but I agreed, and six to eight months later, our foremen presented the new process to us. Most of these guys had never done presentations like that. Initially, I didn’t understand about the level of commitment they’d made to each other, their level of personal accountability, because they’d never been challenged with that before. It had become a grassroots effort to change behavior on the jobsite.

ENR And it worked?

Greco The changes in jobsite behavior came first, and then the data supported it later. Our metrics improved and, despite some initial pushback, we saw real personal accountability among the trades. It became a standard cross-disciplinary practice. But the key is that the craftsmen have to volunteer for it to work. No coercion from management.

ENR So it was the right thing to do?

Greco It was.

ENR Is this behavior-based process transferable? Could it work for other firms?

Greco Yes, but they’d have to be willing to let go. The leaders would have to let their grassroots people decide how it would work, and then take those principles and put them into a company-wide ethic. It’s been effective for us, but it might not work for every management style.

ENR You’re also a lean construction advocate, correct? Do you think that lean processes are effective in this ultra-busy, fast-track-schedule environment?

Greco Yes, I believe in lean. In construction, we must approach the problem of productivity differently than before [the recession]. It raises questions about the science of how you produce. Finding the right mix means you can do a project with fewer people.

ENR So what’s the key to that mix?

Greco Reliability. Lean makes you more reliable [as a builder]. Those lean tools create a high-performance team. That can happen accidentally, of course, but it doesn’t happen often enough. Construction is different than any other business. One hundred percent completion is all that matters. There’s no getting things partially done. Lean empowers people, helps managers see the obstacles on the job that the craftsmen see, and then eliminate those. We know how to remove obstacles if we know where they are.

ENR Why is lean more effective in doing that?

Greco Because it lets you see individual tasks and costs in terms of the whole project. The holistic costs. And that’s not necessarily intuitive at first.

ENR You’ve reached the top of AGC’s leadership ladder. After a year as president, do you have a better sense of how associations work from the members’ perspective? Are groups like AGC and big national conventions still relevant in this digital, social-media age when it’s much easier to get information out to large segments of the industry?

Greco Yes, they are still relevant. But we need to continually ask: what do people need out of an association? What drives relevance? Networking, education, advocacy, which is always number one. Education can be done through webinars, shorter conferences and workshops, but networking at a convention like this leaves people with a sense of pride in the industry. It makes them feel like they have a bigger part in it. In the end, we still need to interact as human beings, face to face, and that’s one of the reasons that conventions will remain relevant. It’s the human factor.