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The Big Dig — Truth and reconciliation | Jack Lemley

Quality absent on every level

By Jack Lemley
October 3, 2010

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IN REVIEWING the issues that created the most costly public works project in US history, it does little good to blame individuals, design flaws, substandard materials, or other isolated components of the Big Dig for the cost overruns, delays, shoddy construction, and ultimately, the death of a motorist. The single overarching factor lacking in this project that could have prevented these problems is a culture of quality.

I have been involved in the management and executive oversight of global engineering construction, including as the chief executive officer of TransManche Link, the consortium that built the Chunnel beneath the English Channel. My involvement in the Big Dig started in 1994 when the state of Massachusetts asked my consulting firm to conduct a management audit to determine the effectiveness of the State Oversight Organization and the program manager overseeing the project. Subsequently, Judge Edward Ginsberg asked us to return in 2004 as part of a cost recovery team to conduct a quality audit after leaks flooded the Central Artery/Tunnel.

In construction, quality means getting the job done on time and within budget while ensuring that the basic characteristics of the final project fall within required specifications. The Big Dig failed in all these goals. Construction costs exceeded the original estimate by $11.8 billion; the project took 10 years longer than anticipated; and important specifications were not met.

A quality culture in a construction venture encompasses all the organization’s methods, beliefs, norms, values, and premises governing the behavior of every person involved, from the front-line laborer to top management. Among required elements of this culture, the most critical is top management. Top executives must convey the philosophy that quality will receive a higher priority over cost or schedule and that consistent and superior quality will lead to improvement in cost and delivery performance.

While quality control did exist on the Big Dig — some aspects of the project, such as the Ted Williams immersed tube tunnel and the Zakim Bridge appear to be well built — a prevailing culture of quality was lacking.

In every project, the owner — in this case the state — must have serious, informed, competent representatives looking out for its interests on an ongoing basis. We did not see this in the Big Dig.

The state’s team lacked the engineering and construction experience and know-how to lead a project of this magnitude, much less know how to spot potential problems and influence parameters affecting quality. Meanwhile, the program management team of Bechtel/Parsons Brinkerhoff had more expertise than the owner’s representatives, but with such woefully inadequate owner representation, it could run things as it saw fit.

To a substantial extent, the Bechtel group overwhelmed the Turnpike Authority team. In 1994, we advised the state to take advantage of the expertise of the program management team but to not let it overwhelm them. Unfortunately, what we feared came true, as the client team eventually was co-opted by the program management group and independent oversight was effectively lost.

Jack Lemley is president and CEO of Lemley International, based in Boise, Idaho.

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