As the former program manager of the Pentagon Renovation Program, I have often listened as people have related, eyes brimming, their vivid memories of September 11, 2001. The stories are always intense and emotional. As a result of those attacks, the Pentagon Renovation Program suddenly became widely known to many Americans. For me, however, the story began four years earlier, shortly before Thanksgiving of 1997.
I was summoned that day to meet Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. John Hamre. An imposing man, he had a large office on the outermost E Ring of the Pentagon. After 30 seconds of small talk, he got to the point. “Lee, I would like you to volunteer for a special project.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’d prefer that you volunteer first and that we then discuss the nature of the project,” he replied.
I soon learned I had volunteered to take over management of the ongoing, more than $4 billion Pentagon Renovation Program, the largest design and construction program of its type in U.S. history. The program had already been underway for 10 years, mostly involving planning and preparatory activities. When I assumed responsibility for the project, construction was underway, and the program was mired in controversy. The massive effort had already fallen far behind schedule and was experiencing significant cost overruns. Fundamental missteps would require the demolition and reconstruction of key areas. Change orders were proliferating, and thousands of requests for information (RFIs) languished unanswered. The threat of congressional cancellation loomed. Hamre’s tasking was succinct: “Fix it.”
The problems on the worksite weren’t the biggest difficulty. Most disheartening, the program’s employees seemed to lack the will to succeed. Unrecognized as the new program manager, I visited makeshift site offices where the government workforce resided. Instead of tackling problems, many of the workers were playing video games, tracking investments, kibitzing on the phone or even sleeping. I knew I faced an extraordinary challenge.
I felt particularly unqualified for the test. My background and training as an acquisition expert focused on negotiations, acquisition planning and contract formation, not program management. In addition, my educational background was in psychology and special education, skills far removed from those that seemed necessary: architecture, engineering and construction management. I tried to beg Hamre to let me off, but he would have none of it. For better or for worse, the program was mine.
On the day before Thanksgiving 1997, I entered Basement Segment One, the ongoing construction site located beneath the Pentagon. It was my introduction to the world of major design and construction.
It was the seventh circle of hell. I saw hundreds of sweating workers laboring deep beneath the building in a nether world cut off from light and air, toiling amidst thick, layered smoke intermittently lit by crackling, laser-like arcs bursting from welding machines. The scene was punctuated by sparking pyrotechnics flaring from grinders abrading steel. My ears were assaulted by shouts and the roar of construction machinery. The cacophony was overlain by a seemingly chaotic passage of hurrying workers carrying materials or tools of uncertain purpose.
Only moments before, I had been at ease in the familiar Pentagon above, surrounded by three-piece suits, starched collars and conversations spoken in measured tones. In contrast, this underground world was one of jarring noises, work-ravaged blue jeans and hard hats festooned with logos from construction projects at far away places. Their voices spoke a bizarre lexicon.
I returned to my office that afternoon, closed the door and sat at my desk with my head in my hands. What had I gotten myself into?
As I became increasingly familiar with the world of design and construction, I learned that the problems the Pentagon Renovation Program were experiencing were not unique. Discussions with other design and construction program managers from government agencies and private industry taught me that cost overruns, schedule delays, litigation and turmoil were distressingly common. Some organizations routinely penciled budgeting adjustments into their plans in order to accommodate, in advance, the seemingly inescapable expansion of program girth.
My design and construction education had begun and, as the pace of learning increased, I began to discern patterns within seeming chaos, which led to a series of revelations that would eventually help convert our program from a broken problem child into an organization that would experience extraordinary success. Despite the attacks of September 11, the Pentagon renovation would be completed 14 months ahead of schedule and $100 million under budget.
During the course of the project, I learned numerous lessons about the industry and what factors influence a successful construction process. First, I learned that the challenges faced by the design and construction industry were human in nature, not technical. The industry knew well how to design and construct and how to utilize new materials, processes and technologies. However, knowing how to accomplish something and being able to accomplish it are two different things. Too often, failure resulted—not from a lack of tools, capability or knowledge but from more fundamental challenges. The construction industry’s challenge was that, for far too long, it had been following ineffective business and organization models that constrained its workforce and managers, causing them to work inefficiently. I soon learned that my psychology and education background would not be a liability. It would be helpful.
Second, I learned that the design and construction industry had somehow failed to understand the fundamental mantra that every Sunday afternoon football fan can repeat from memory while asleep on the couch and still under the spell of a couple of six-packs: Top performance requires teamwork. In the same way that all members of a football team must work together to achieve a common goal, so too must all the members of a design and construction team. Architects and constructors, specialty contractors, schedulers, purchasing, quality control and the home office staff must all be thoroughly committed, mutually supportive and aligned toward the same goal. As an owner, I didn’t want to watch from the sidelines as companies with excellent employees and extraordinary capabilities managed to play a losing game by working for competing purposes.
Third, I learned that—contrary to popular opinion—most Americans are neither cynical nor unwilling to work hard to achieve success. People who decide to commit their careers to design and construction don’t do it because they want an easy job. Time after time, I’ve met young people (who we old guys like to complain about as being unmotivated) tell me that their dream is to have a job where they work hard, often late into the night, struggling with challenging construction problems and working as part of a team that believes in one another. We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves, and I realized that the dreams of the younger generation aren’t so different than the dreams of us geezers when we were their age.
Fourth, I learned that everyone wants his or her life to have meaning. People dream of being able to someday stand with their grandchildren by their side, point to a building or a bridge—something substantive and long-lasting—and say with pride, “I built that.” What people don’t want is to have their children pull at their shirttail and ask, “What did you do at work today?” and have to say, “I cheated the taxpayers out of their hard-earned money.” As an owner, I’ve had contractor employees tell me that their employers provided classes on how to find opportunities within specifications for future change orders and to effectively exploit those opportunities in order to increase profits. Employer behavior like that creates unmotivated employees, and unmotivated employees have a difficult time dropping those bad habits. Finally, I learned that owners must change their behavior first if they want their contractual partners to improve. The challenges facing the design and construction industry don’t reside only within the contractor’s organization. To improve the industry’s performance, everyone must pick up their game, and owners need to transform themselves as part of the process. The goal of an owner’s organization is not to grade the contractor’s paper; instead, it is to do everything possible to make the contractor successful. Owners’ organizations don’t build projects. Contractors build projects. When a contractor is successful, the owner is successful as well. Owners who are willing to tolerate lackadaisical performance within their own staff are hurting everyone’s performance. Owners owe their partners quick and efficient responses to equipment and material submittals and RFIs, a cooperative and helpful attitude, and timely approval and payment of invoices.
The problems outlined above and others would have to be solved by the Pentagon Renovation Program if we were to transform ourselves and become successful. But, simply being aware of problems isn’t the same as solving them. We had a great deal of learning to do to successfully come to grips with these challenges. One truth gave me hope: I was convinced that people strive and succeed not just for money and not just because a book of regulations tells them to. They strive when they believe in a cause and are led by people who share that belief and are willing to personally sacrifice to reach those common goals.
This article is the first of a four-part series in which Walker Lee Evey will share how he helped turn the Pentagon Renovation Program into one of the nation’s most successful design and construction projects.