Life as a construction estimator involves a lot of ebb and flow. Building estimates, doing quantity take offs (QTO’s) and tabulating results can range from steady progress, to boring slogs through minutia. Sharply contrasted are bid days which can move at a fevered pace studded with snap decisions that will make or break all the work that’s gone before.
There’s a hidden nuance to this pattern; boredom is its own kind of stress. Tedious or repetitive measurements are prone to error because it’s difficult to recognize subtle differences when everything looks the same. Conscientious estimators know that boredom can lead to mistakes. It can be very frustrating because checking for mistakes often means going through the same boring material. Each review loses its potency until you’re so familiar with the material that you’ve lost perspective.
Even estimators who aren’t worried about making mistakes can find boredom stressful. Tedious and repetitive tasks are the “grunt work” of estimating. In firms with a dedicated estimating department, the hierarchy often dictates who does what. Since General Contractors (GCs) employ fewer estimators than Project Managers, Project Engineers, and Superintendents, the estimator advancement potential at any given firm is typically tied to vacancies or company growth. This can lead to situations where seniority is a greater factor in advancement than skill, ability, or performance. For the perpetual “junior” or “assistant” estimator, this can mean years of doing the grunt work without much opportunity to advance your skills. Human Resource professionals refer to this condition as “underutilization” and it’s been shown to harm morale, and reduce productivity.
Stress is often discussed in exclusively negative terms which can serve to conceal the real picture of what’s going on. For example, bid day can be described as a hectic experience with plenty of hazards to negotiate. Bid day might also be described as the culmination of weeks of labor where all the parts come together according to plan, ending in a well-deserved victory. Lots of folks are so used to thinking of estimating as a brief process in a larger chain of events that it becomes reasonable or them to think that generating a price is like turning a crank. Smooth and uneventful bidding reinforces this perception while concealing the work it took to get there.
Being part of a well-organized and highly motivated team of professionals can be exhilarating. Spending the day in constant motion makes it seem like time is flying past. However it’s often difficult to “let go” of everything in your free time. As an estimator I’ve lost more sleep thinking about mundane jobs than I’d like to admit.
Smoothing the peaks and filling the valleys
From an outsiders perspective, it might be difficult to see what estimators are getting so worked-up over. To most folks, estimating is a combination of ringing up a total like a cashier, and running an audit of the plans. The reality is that estimating is about controlling risk. There are many forms of risk to contend with, but uncertainty is the one that attracts the most estimator attention. QTO’s go a long way towards becoming certain of what’s required. The natural extension of this thinking is that greater detail leads to higher certainty. The problem is that time is always limited, and there are risks beyond what’s depicted in the drawings that must be accounted for. Minutia nourishes limited perspectives while starving big-picture thinking. Estimators need to understand the driving forces of a project in meaningful and actionable terms. GC estimators should build their estimates to furnish pertinent information for comparing and scoping subcontractor bids. For example, it’s not as important to know component level pricing (screws, nails, etc) as it is to know assembly level (meeting room carpet, air handling unit, etc.) pricing.
There’s a balancing point to be struck on relative detail. You’ll always feel better with a bit more information, but you can achieve a lot with a bit more time early on. When it comes to the really tedious QTO stuff, it’s worth taking the time to consider how useful that information will be. It damages a lot of ego’s to point out that perfect QTO’s of low-value and high tedium items have little bearing on successful bidding. Time sunk into tedious tasks early in the bid cycle robs you of time to develop strategies, answer questions, and direct resources to make the entire estimate successful.
Rather than strictly recording quantities for later comparison, your time might go towards communicating intentions which leaves less potential for discrepancy on bid day. Estimators looking to control risk should remember that losing the job through misplaced priorities is a very real possibility. Perfect spreadsheets are little consolation for lost opportunities.
Some routine tasks lend themselves to interruption or working in stages, like QTO’s for example. There are some tasks that must be completed entirely or you’ll lose time constantly attending to remaining items that won’t wait. The Invitation to bid (ITB) is a simple document that conveys the who, what, when, where, and why of the project to the invited subcontractors. Incomplete ITB’s are distressingly common, especially among GC’s who are using a bid-letting software/service. Documents that generate more questions than answers ensure that the estimator will be constantly interrupted by bidders looking for necessary information. Creating an ITB that gives bidders everything they need will take longer to assemble, but it leaves much less for follow-up. Being able to move on from a routine task not only reduces your stress, it’s a vital stage of a successful bid.
It bears mentioning that time spent on bidder convenience is often an investment in reliable turnout. One obvious and constantly overlooked element is the how the Construction Documents (CDs) are configured. It’s a waste of a subs time to download an enormous drawing file just to access a single page. The old argument that giving subs the entire set guarantees they’ll catch the buried architectural note, is hollow because it’s the GC estimators job to find all the “gotcha” nonsense, and communicate it to the subs. Label the individual sheets with accurate and understandable terms. Whenever possible, group the sheets by discipline (Civil, Structural, Architectural, Interior Design, Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, etc.) to speed bidders to the files they actually need. Be advised that delegating this task to the office receptionist, or summer intern is a risky move because they rarely understand the pivotal importance of naming things properly.
Office designers are finally addressing interns in the workplace
Estimators should develop the habit of organizing their work to maximize expediency, reliability, and professionalism because it’s very likely they’ll need answers in a hurry.
While we’re on the topic of file storage, it’s a good practice to maintain saved copies on more than one machine. For example if the company server goes down, you might need to progress on your standalone computer. Having older iterations on file allows you to “fall back” if your most current version gets corrupted. Plus, it can be handy to have time stamped “save points” to plot your progress through your work afterwards. Don’t forget to maintain this practice on bid-day. It might save your bid should the “war room” computer falter at a vital moment.
Perspective on pressure
About the only thing worse than a tedious takeoff, is knowing that you’re running out of time to get it done. Procrastination and poor planning leads to a lot of unnecessary overtime. We hear about how working well under pressure is a vital quality in an estimator, but there’s little curiosity about the source of the pressure. Estimators need to get their heads up and pay attention to the scope of their own operation. How long does it really take you to get the QTO done for this or that? Working backwards from the deadline, how does the sum of your estimated durations line up with reality?
Fighting the clock
It’s ironic that stressed-out estimators are often unwilling to apply their craft to their own schedule. Create a schedule, then track your time against it so you’ll see when and where you’ll need corrections. Every successive schedule will become more and more accurate. Identify where most of your time is spent, and take stock of what that means. If you’re constantly answering bidder questions, you might consider publishing a bid-directive that proactively answers group questions.
If you’re mired in QTO, it might be time to look into better software, hardware, training, or templates. Looking back at your performance, you should see an increase in QTO speed without any loss in accuracy. If you’re not improving with experience, you’ll almost certainly stagnate or stress out. It’s not discussed much, but lots of GC’s do painstaking estimates on things like paint, but square foot cost items like Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) simply because they don’t know enough about those trades. The MEP trades are among the most expensive subs on a typical project. These estimators would be better served by square foot costing the paint, and spending the time learning what drives MEP pricing.
If you’re constantly transmitting RFI’s, Addenda, and bid-directives for quick-hitter bids, you might find relief in a higher level of client. Insincere, underfunded, and unprofessional clients rarely attract top-level design teams. It’s a LOT more work to bid an incomplete design for an underfunded client and you’ll have little to nothing to show for it. Marketing folks are loath to admit that low barrier to entry clients are the most likely to waste an estimators time. Tire-kickers aren’t clients, pretending otherwise is busy work theater and you’ll be the star of the show! Conceptual pricing techniques shouldn’t drift into design-build territory.
Bob’s not sure why he never wins, but he’s having fun and that’s the important part.
There’s a lot of fast ways to render a courtesy bid without wasting your companies (or your subs) resources. Good record keeping builds a vital reference resource for these tasks.
Redundant department of redundancy
Some GCs strongly believe that good sub turnout on bid day is directly tied to “working the phones”. Nagging subcontractors to bid is an incredible time-sink that’s based on a fundamentally flawed perspective of how bidder relationships should work. Estimators often call a project an “opportunity” because a competitive bid offers professionals a chance to win a contract by doing their best as part of a team. If the GC or the project lack sufficient luster to attract market leading subcontractor attention, it’s spectacularly unlikely that any amount of nagging will change that. Building “pull” with subcontractors is a function of establishing a valued relationship with the market. Winning bids obviously gets the market’s attention, but so too, does transparency, honesty, and leadership. There’s a lot a GC estimator can do to bid an “ugly” project successfully. Nagging is never the answer. Voluntary, accurate, and timely bid results are the single most effective means for building pull in your market.
Some GC’s respond to lost bids by increasing the volume of bidding in the hopes that volume will lead to victories. Grinding out bids as quickly as possible means that there’s never time for strategy, skill, or teamwork. There’s never a shortage of low-end clients looking for quick-hitter bids. Sadly, the majority will be fruitless because insincere clients and urgent bid requests are constant companions.
If you’re tracking your estimates, you’ll be able to assess projects in terms of how successful you expect to be. Lots of companies think they’re excellent at everything, but the reality is that most companies are only market leaders in specific areas. Estimators should keep in mind that the project management side of their firm may adore a client or design team that’s generated profitable change orders. Being profitable on the basis of what might happen is better known as gambling. Estimators should be looking for work that will be profitable at the bid amount. GC estimators should learn to look at their market potential in terms of their subcontractor base. If the GC can’t attract market leading subs for the work in question, they’re going to lose to a contractor who can. Picking work that aligns with your best subs abilities is critical to success. Most GC’s see this entirely backwards. They pick projects that look profitable, easy, or fun to manage. If they chose work that aligned with their market leading subs, there would be less difficulty, and more profitability, regardless of how fun, pretty, or prestigious the project appears to be.
Blind faith in the process
Estimators need to maintain a sense of purpose. You’re there to profitably win work by controlling risk. While we spend a lot of our time building estimates, it’s vitally important to maintain perspective on the market, competitors, and clients. There’s entirely too much blind faith placed on QTO’s, spreadsheets, and bureaucracy. Estimators need to see what’s really going on and they need to respond accordingly. Contracts are awarded to the best market value, if you don’t know what that is, you’ll struggle to profitably compete.
Perspective is an investment
The key to building a meaningful perspective is to faithfully record what’s happened on past bids. Bid results are often treated as a vestigial appendage of the estimators craft. “Yeah, yeah, we lost but we’ll do better next time…” neatly sums up the attitudes of many estimators. The bid cost real time and real money to produce. It’s truly remarkable how little effort goes into defining how a job was lost, compared to the work put into bidding. With a more accurate picture of what happened on a loss, the next bids benefit from refined judgment. REALLY simple things like getting a winning competitors sub on your bid list can make all the difference. There’s an interesting element to post-bid investigations that’s constantly overlooked. You get more information from your allies, when you share more information with your allies. Once an estimator has lost their bid, they’ve got plenty of useful information to exchange that can materially change their position on the next bid.
Earlier I brought up career stagnation in estimating and it’s here that I hope to offer some help to the folks trapped on the lower rungs. Most GC’s aren’t particularly scientific about tracking their bids, their subs, or their markets. By and large, they trade on their established contacts in their market which brings them varying degrees of success according to luck, market conditions, and subcontractor quality. If you’re doing the grunt work without seeing much opportunity for advancement, I encourage you to build your own tracking systems to help define for yourself what is and isn’t working. Be advised that your daily tasks are higher priorities to your superiors so it may be necessary to invest your personal time.
Be cautious about relying on small data sets, or those with wide-ranging values that will skew results. In time you’ll develop perspective on your clients, your market, and your subs. If you decide to offer suggestions on how things might change, you’ll have facts and figures to lend credence to your perspective. Advancement is never guaranteed, but you’re wiser for the effort and you’ll learn what to look for wherever you go. It’s worth pointing out that we’ve all learned from those who went before us. Do your part to improve our craft by sharing what you’ve learned. I’ve found that a policy of forthright honesty has been a profound and enduring advantage against my competitors.
Policy driven pinch points
The bid-day blitz can be a terrifically stressful experience for a GC estimator. Bids come rushing in at the last moment and everything must be done at high speed if you’re to make the deadline. Last minute sub proposals aren’t happening by accident. It’s a calculated effort to limit or obstruct bid-shopping by starving the estimators of time to act. Getting right to the root of the problem, last-minute bids are a sign that the market views corruption as a serious threat. The lack of trust may be anywhere in the supply chain. Corruption thrives in secrecy and wherever it’s possible to curtail competition.
Accountable transparency is the only effective way to counter corruption. It’s predictably unpopular because it requires a strong moral compulsion to act when it won’t help you directly or immediately. Lots of people opt to remain silent which prevents the honest majority from working together.
Estimators need to understand that they can’t win work alone. Company policies that work against transparency, accountability, profitability, and good judgment should be questioned and if necessary, changed. Estimators need to be able to show the market that they are ethical professionals if they’re to be market leaders. It’s worth saying that accountability means facing repercussions for mistakes. Estimators should take heart in knowing that while accountable transparency will reveal their honest mistakes, it won’t conceal their honest intentions.
To recap, much of an estimators daily stress comes from incomplete tasks, dysfunctional relationships, and misplaced priorities. With greater perspective, we can find avenues to re-direct our energies towards successful outcomes. Boredom is an insidious source of stress with roots in minutia. We must make the connection between utility and effort before we commit our valuable resources to proving things we already know. Growing our base of knowledge and sharpening our decision-making skills should be constant pursuits. Finally, we should all do our part to improve our craft by acting ethically, sharing what we’ve learned, and facilitating advancement in our ranks.
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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved