Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt, featuring energy-performance, healthy, high-tech, adaptive living on sustainability's near-future horizon line. Credit: David England Photography.
Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt, featuring energy-performance, healthy, high-tech, adaptive living on sustainability's near-future horizon line. Credit: David England Photography.

One of the many gifts of working with the KB Home team on the recently completely Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt in Los Angeles was an opportunity to witness, up-close and in real time, a classic case example of a culture of innovation.

Now, I know, I’m using fuzzy, mumbo-jumbo, consultant-speak terms here that many builders and organizations may hear all the time, but ones that may mean less and less in the real world of cutting costs and trying to widen margins.

Here’s what it means though, and why it’s critically important now—for exactly those reasons (cutting cost and growing profit).

First let’s consider briefly the term, “a culture of innovation,” and how it may apply in our sticks-and-bricks and jobs sites world of home building.

Here in a Harvard Business Review post, Red Hat president and ceo Jim Whitehurst attests to the essence of a firm’s culture, which is action, not just words. He says:

“For me, an organizational culture is defined by how people inside the organization interact with each other. Culture is learned behavior — it’s not a by-product of operations. It’s not an overlay. We create our organizational culture by the actions we take; not the other way around.”

Importantly, Whitehurst, notes, it’s how an organization’s leaders “model” the behavior they want associates to emulate that makes all the difference in developing an organizational culture. And, fact is, an organizational culture of innovation in home building can really only come of “breaking rules” and being willing to risk failing.

Now, how does that apply to KB Home and our Greenbuild ProjeKt?

First of all, as KB Home Southern California regional president Steve Ruffner noted on the kickoff night at Greenbuild last week, “corporate doesn’t normally build houses.”

1,295 visitors toured the Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt, learning here about "cartridge" and component construction techniques for a moveable wall for an adaptive floor plan. Credit: David England Photography
1,295 visitors toured the Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt, learning here about "cartridge" and component construction techniques for a moveable wall for an adaptive floor plan. Credit: David England Photography

The KB Home ProjeKt stood as a real-life, real-world living color, physical model example of KB’s commitment to leadership in innovation and sustainability among home builders. What visitors to the ProjeKt got to experience is a slightly fast-forwarded production model contemporary home that demonstrates the capacity of a home to produce as much or more energy than it consumes, a home that shows how and where health—in Cradle to Cradle furnishings and indoor air controls and building materials and natural lighting, and oxygen-producing edible plants—resides at the “frontiers” of sustainability; and a home that stretches some of today’s bounds in how technology will play a role in our homes’ conscious interaction with our lives.

That’s what visitors to the Greenbuild ProjeKt saw.

What they didn’t get to see—which is what we as partners got to experience—is that, in order to develop, design, and produce this fast-forward vision of a home of the future, KB Home had to be a company willing to say, “maybe we will get it right; maybe we won’t.”

That singular willingness to risk failure was a strategic line in the sand set from the very top of KB Home—from its ceo Jeff Mezger, who’s goals were to show his organization’s leadership and to “build, measure, and learn” what his national team needs to know to continue being a successful, sustainably profitable home building company.

Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt tour visitors learn about increasing R-values by deploying DuPont's Tyvek® building wrap in concert with VIP Insulation (vacuum insulated panel) from Owns Corning®. Credit: David England Photography
Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt tour visitors learn about increasing R-values by deploying DuPont's Tyvek® building wrap in concert with VIP Insulation (vacuum insulated panel) from Owns Corning®. Credit: David England Photography

Not seen by visitors to the installation was how partners in the project-- Whirlpool, Carrier, Owens Corning, Kohler, Sherwin Williams, SunPower, Savant, architectural firm KTGY, Virginia Tech, SoCal Gas, LP, DuPont, and a range of additional partners—each sought to “break rules,” part with a comfort zone, open up their development processes to one another, and be willing to get it wrong in order to get it right. Collaboration, then, was a goal, but it too meant action, not just words. What we got to witness, not visible even in the "peeled wall" that exposed key elements of how DuPont and Owens Corning might work together with builders to improve the durability and R value performance of part of the building envelope, was companies teaming up as partners to ensure that the home buyer would get the best possible outcome for the most value.

Dan Bridleman, senior VP for strategic sourcing and technology at KB Home said it on our kick-off night Oct. 5, at Greenbuild in Los Angeles.

Dan Bridleman, senior vp, strategic sourcing/technology at KB Home, discusses Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt as an innovation learning investment.
Dan Bridleman, senior vp, strategic sourcing/technology at KB Home, discusses Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt as an innovation learning investment.

“I never said, as we were getting into this project with Hanley Wood, that we were necessarily going set our vision of the future and get it exactly right. We know, and our ceo reminds of this all the time, that we have to be willing to take risks, to have bold ideas that can fail, miss the mark. That’s the way we work as a company. We do these things because it’s part of the culture here. Could we take a pass and continue to succeed as a home builder without this kind of venture, where we begin an investment whose end we’re not really sure of til we get there? Sure. But, then we wouldn’t be KB Home. A leadership position is who we are.”

A classic example of Jim Whitehurst’s description of an innovative culture.

“The point is that building an innovative culture starts by looking at how you behave as a leader toward those trying to innovate. The same is true about any kind of culture: It all begins with the behavior of your leaders. To say that another way, if you are interested in changing the culture of your organization, your first step should be to look in the mirror and make sure you are setting the kind of behavioral example you want everyone else to follow.”