Standing in a room full of attorneys waiting to confer with a mediator, construction litigator William Lichtig asked the question that set him on a course that landed him an induction into the National Academy of Construction in October.
Yet another massive construction project – this one at UC Berkeley – had ended with contractors, engineers and architects blaming one another for mistakes that had run up costs. All were trying to avoid blame and collect payments that had been withheld until mediation concluded. Lichtig posed what seemed like a rather elementary question to the room: “Why are we here?”
Their response, as he recalled it, was: “Well, we’re here for the third day of mediation, Will. Why are you here?”
So, Lichtig expanded upon his question: “I said, ‘I mean, Why are we here? What is broken about the design and construction industry, that we are all here arguing over these things? Nothing we are going to do is going to add space for chemistry labs or classrooms. It’s not going to add value. It’s not going to make the students’ lives any better, the professors’ lives any better, the researchers’ lives any better. Why is this industry so badly broken?’ ”
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That moment of clarity inspired a brief but spirited discussion with the clients, consultants and lawyers in a conference room, but more importantly, it was transformational for Lichtig. He wanted to find ways that his clients could avoid the legal messes he so often was called upon to solve.
After some research, Lichtig discovered the lean model of design and construction management. That process brings contractors, engineers and architects together into one team to help clients think through their building challenges, and before construction begins and estimates are provided, they make prototypes or do whatever else is needed to ensure they have the best solution.
In Lichtig’s experience, the magnitude of cost overruns and legal disagreements drop precipitously when lean design and construction principles are used. If the process is to work, he said, the client and each team member must be willing to share problems. If one team member isn’t willing to do that or is focused on exploiting the vulnerability of others, Lichtig said, they have to be removed from the process.
Lichtig, a Lotus resident, was so committed to helping facilitate the lean construction principles that he created a novel form of contract that allowed his client, Sutter Health, to fully implement lean construction principles. It became a model for the nation. This and other work explain why he was honored by the National Academy of Construction.
Now an executive with The Boldt Company, a general contractor, Lichtig recently answered questions about how to transform culture, why lean construction can dramatically improve performance and why he leaped from one industry to another.
Q. You had a long, successful career as an attorney with McDonough Holland & Allen. How did you end up in construction?
A. I was hired by Sutter Health to help them with their design and construction program. … They were launching a multibillion-dollar construction campaign that was going to last 10 years or so throughout Northern California, and they were looking to assure that they were able to deliver those projects in a way that they not only were successful but avoided the types of trauma that often result when you have a bad project.
Because of the magnitude of the program they had to build in order to seismically upgrade their hospitals to conform to the applicable law, they knew that given … that workload, if they had too many project problems or too many project cost overruns, it would not only threaten those projects but it could undermine the financial integrity of the company. So I worked with the leaders in the Sutter Health organization. We attended some (Lean Construction Institute) meetings, and Sutter leadership decided, “We’re going to use lean construction to deliver our program.” This was in about 2003, when we began that effort. …
I became really committed to the lean ideas. I continued to be a student of lean design and construction. I did a lot of self-education on just the idea of lean and how Toyota had developed the lean production methodologies. …
I focused (for several years) really on helping teams to develop the capability to deliver projects on a lean basis and to develop with them the process that would be required to actually take these ideas and put them into action, and so I had one of those moments where I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “Look, you could go back to your law office and you could spend time there, but will you really be able to do the things you want to do at this point? Do you really want to go back and do more of the legal work, or are you really more interested in helping teams put these ideas into operation?”
Q. What are ways that lean design and construction can improve projects?
A. At its core, all work is the making and keeping of promises. … We have to learn the five elements of a reliable promise and how to say, “No, I can’t do that.”
If you ask me if I can do something by Thursday, I need to run through a mental checklist before I say yes. …
We have to have clear conditions of satisfaction, so if you and I are going to talk about me doing something, I have to make sure I understand what you really want. We call that the conditions of satisfaction. What will make you satisfied as a customer?
I have to be competent. I have to assess whether I actually have the ability to do it or whether I have someone in my organization who can do it. I have to estimate and block the time.
I have to be sincere. When I say I can do something, am I having an unspoken conversation with myself where I’m saying, “I can’t really do this,” or “I’m not confident of this?” I have to really mean it when I look you in the eye and say, “I’ll have that for you by next Thursday,” that I’m not having any self-doubt at that moment.
The fifth is that I’m willing to take responsibility for any miss that I have in doing that. I’m willing to clean up any mess that may be created if my promise is not reliable. …
So, the Lean Construction Institute, the guys who founded it in the ’80s, went out and did a survey of projects, big and small, health care and industrial, and they found that across the board, when work planning occurred and foremen said that certain work would be done in a week, that roughly 54 percent of that work actually got done in the week it was committed.
Now that wasn’t because they weren’t earnest when they made the commitment, it was because all sorts of other problems cropped up that got in their way, but Glenn (Ballard) and Greg (Howell) began to develop … a way to improve commitment reliability, so to be able to move from 54 percent to 100 percent.
There’s a whole system they use in the design and construction industry to do that. It’s basically demonstrated that if you improve reliability, you will actually improve speed overall and you will actually lower costs overall. You’re not focused on speed or costs. You’re focused on reliability, but that will actually produce faster and less-expensive results.
Q. How influential was Sutter’s work in expanding the use of lean design and construction?
A. It was a huge accelerant to the national movement. It catalyzed a significant group of architects, engineers and constructors who began using the ideas here in California.
Q. What advice would you have for young people as they start their careers?
A. Intellectual curiosity is the key. I go back to thinking about when, for me, things began to shift in the way I saw myself in the world. It really had to do with flipping the switch in terms of intellectual curiosity. …
I always shy away from this idea of thought leader. I think it’s somebody who can make connections. I think a lot of innovation is not invention. It’s making connections where people otherwise would not see the connections. The only way to do that is to be exposed to many different ideas where you begin to see ways where ideas overlap or connect in ways that might be different.
Title: Executive vice president of project and business development for the Western and Southern division and for national health care
Employer: The Boldt Company
Education: Bachelor’s in anthropology from University of California, Santa Cruz; juris doctorate from UC Davis
Grew up in: West Los Angeles
Lives in: Lotus (in El Dorado County)
Books that influenced him: He has widely read books by Jeffrey Liker such as “The Toyota Way.” He also has studied “The High-Velocity Edge” by Steven Spear; “The Oz Principle” by Roger Connors, Tom Smith and Craig Hickman; “The Speed of Trust” by Stephen Covey; and “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci” by Michael Gelb.
Distinctions: Inducted in October into the National Academy of Construction, board member and former board chairman of the Lean Construction Institute