The cost to quality fallacy

The other day I was reading a forum on estimating where the majority of the posts repeated some fundamentally flawed concepts.  The most common are variations of “Low price means bad quality”.  This concept gets applied to everything from material substitutions to subcontractor selection because everyone’s worried about the risk of making the wrong choice.

Photo by Geir Tonnessen

Photo by Geir Tonnessen

A lot of time is spent on minor differences that obscure bigger problems

When all choices are based on risk-aversion, there’s little reason to believe the outcomes will deliver quality, value, strategy or ingenuity.  I think this concept leads to a mindset that perceives any low bid as a veritable trap to the unwary.   If unchecked, the role of an estimator can devolve into little more than subcontractor selection.  On the surface, it may seem like the General Contractor (GC) does little more than hire subcontractors (subs) to actually perform the work.  If this were actually the case, clients would simply hire subs directly and dispense with the cost of hiring a GC altogether.

The GC’s role is to be responsible for the entire project which constitutes a great deal of risk.  GC’s mitigate some of the risk by dividing the project scope among subcontractors.  The remainder of the risk is mitigated by expert leadership, communication, negotiation, scheduling, accounting, and management which all fall under the heading of “Construction Management”.  All of which is to say that successful Construction Management is a whole lot more than just picking the right subs.

The fixation on avoiding low-priced work for fear it’s a trap is deeply ingrained in many construction professionals.   We often hear stories about how a sub bid low to secure the job, then pursued exorbitant change orders to restore their profitability.  The implication is that a sub was able to not only bluff their way into a contract award, but they were able to get paid change order rates for work that should have been in their original bid.

When we ask how it’s possible that a GC would write a subcontract that didn’t include the necessary scope of work for that sub, it becomes obvious that the GC relies on their bidders to define the project scope for them.  Put simply, if the GC isn’t actually estimating the project, they’re not able to tell whether the subs proposals include all that they should.

One obvious sign that this is happening is when a GC estimator demands breakout prices of their bidders so they might “prove” whether the sub knows what they’re doing.  These demands are like asking the sub to furnish the ammunition so their own proposal can be shot down.

Lets imagine we were in a restaurant looking over the menu.  If an item seems under priced, we wouldn’t demand a cost breakdown for all the ingredients of the dish because we have no idea what those breakdowns should be.

Photo by Moyan Brenn

Photo by Moyan Brenn

Demanding breakouts to save money, is like collecting watches to save time.

What we do know is what we’re hoping to get.  That’s why asking about the portion sizes, or the freshness of the ingredients will go much further towards making an informed decision.

GC estimator’s should know the project scope they’re seeking to subcontract before the bid.  Moreover, GC estimator’s should know the going rate for the work they’re intending to subcontract so they have a frame of reference to compare the bids against.  There’s no guarantee that they will receive enough bids to draw statistical certainty of anything on bid day.  Bluffing and bullying are poor substitutes for estimating fundamentals.

The importance of context

Bid day can be very stressful, with little time available to give full consideration to every proposal.  It naturally follows that the estimator must prioritize on those proposals which have the potential to reduce their risk, or increase their odds of winning the contract.

Most GC’s consider proposals from trusted subs to be reduced risk.  In some cases, the GC’s limit their bid lists to only trusted subs which naturally reduces competition.  These GC’s are trading their ability to win contracts, for reduced risk in hiring subs.

The most expensive, and least valuable work occurs wherever competition is discouraged or prevented.   GC estimator’s with bid lists that never change may go their entire career without ever seeing a market-leading subs proposal.  It’s therefore natural that those few who receive a market-leading sub proposal immediately say it’s scary low.

Is it them, or is it me?

Mistakes happen and it’s incumbent on the GC estimator to watch for signs that something’s amiss with a bid.  Once again, best practices in estimating are the ideal means to determine what you’re looking at.  GC estimators should build their estimates so that they can quickly output a checklist of inclusions, alternates, unit prices, etc. to send to a sub for scope review.  If everything checks out but the price is still worryingly low, the GC estimator can share their in-house pricing to see how their estimate compares to the bidder’s.  This alleviates any ethical issues pertaining to comparisons against their competition.  By volunteering the GC estimators understanding of the costs, the sub can show the GC where their estimate differed and why, without feeling as though they will be disqualified.  Presenting a  focus  on retaining a winning edge with a valued colleague is more likely to deliver good information.  .

But what about overpriced change orders?

There is hardly a more contentious issue in construction than the high price of change orders.  While there are a great many factors involved, the cost to quality fallacy plays a huge role in the animosity surrounding them.  Earlier I wrote that the most expensive and least valuable work occurs wherever competition is discouraged or prevented.  Obviously when applied to a project that’s under contract, there’s no competition to keep the price of additional work down.  We might take that to mean that the contractor is overcharging, and in some cases, they are.

We must consider the root of the additional work as well.  Changes to the project scope often come from the design team after the bid.  The terms of contract award are set out in the Request For Proposal (RFP) at the announcement of the bid.  The bidders are expected to include all scope defined in the Construction Documents (CD’s) at the time of the bid deadline.  Design teams can, and do, make significant changes to the CD’s via Addendum, RFI, or Bid directives before the deadline so those items will be competitively priced.  Anything that’s omitted in the design after the deadline, is a liability for the client.

In most cases anything that’s changed or added after the project has started must be accomplished in the remaining time of the original contract.  Changes that require completed work to be removed and replaced may result in a situation where production rates must be doubled, tripled, or quadrupled in order to maintain the completion schedule.  Materials and equipment may require expedited shipping to facilitate the changes within compressed schedules.

Experienced contractors know that pricing requests for change orders often lead to protracted delays while the Owner, Architect, and Contractor (OAC) discuss options, bicker over prices, etc.  I’ve encountered situations where 8 hours worth of change order work became 80+ hours of pricing exercises.  Meanwhile the window of opportunity to efficiently perform the change order work was closing fast.

Photo by simczuk

Photo by simczuk

Artistic rendering of a project with a change order dispute

When a contractor loses a bid, they’re free to pursue other opportunities with no further obligation to the client.  Change order price disputes can become a significant burden for contractors who are unable to efficiently proceed without a decision.

The fixation on the cost to quality fallacy leads many clients and design professionals to overlook the root causes of their situation.   Clients who commit to timely decision-making will reduce the contractors risk.  If the change order is too expensive, clients can request a Value Engineering (VE) solution that meets their budget for the necessary work.

Clients should expect timely and accurate estimates for changes from their owner’s rep to provide meaningful comparison to the contractors prices.  It’s not enough to merely complain about overpriced change orders.  Owner’s representatives should provide a means-tested estimate of the additional scope of work, in order to protect their clients interests.   Sharing this information with the contractors gives them a better understanding of the client’s position, and it provides the target price for change order approval.

The highest art in being the lowest bidder

While we’re on the topic of fallacies relating cost to value, it’s absolutely vital to get some clarity on our purpose as estimators.  Estimators exist to secure profitable work.  We achieve this aim by controlling risk in all its forms.  Pretending that absolutely every estimating risk is a function of forgetting to add something, or hiring the wrong sub is not only wrong, it’s antithetical to our profession.

There are dire consequences for any company that can’t land a contract for profitable work.  The purpose of estimating is not to obviate the need for construction management.  Again, if this were truly possible,  clients wouldn’t hire GC’s at all.

It’s therefore a delicate balancing-act to deliver a market-leading price for work the firm can profitably complete.  The necessary skills, knowledge, relationships, resources, and fortitude to be the lowest bidder can hardly be overstated.   As an industry, we need to move past this fallacy as it reflects poorly on all of us.  As estimators our entire profession exists to harness the competitive market to deliver quality construction projects.

The best deal

Often the best deal has an inverse relationship between cost and quality.  The best deal (for the buyer) is achieved wherever we can get the highest quality at the lowest price.  To the buyer, the value of the money spent, is less than the value of the quality achieved.  They are getting more  value for their money.

I’ve heard a lot of GC estimators making excuses for losing a bid.  One of the most common is to claim they are “best value” because they’re delivering a higher level of quality or performance than their competitors.

It’s entirely possible that one contractor may in fact deliver a more professional project because they  are operating at a higher level than another.  This is especially common in “cattle call” or “open” RFPs which accepts bids from any GC willing to submit a proposal on the job.

The extent to which this happens is directly proportional to how selective the individual GC’s are about the jobs they pursue.  A continuously successful business requires a balance where both sides are getting a good deal.

Contractors that are optimized to perform a specific type of work will find they are market leaders capable of offering higher quality, at higher profitability,  and lower prices than their less-optimal competition.  Aligning the company to the right opportunities is the most important part of winning profitable work.

The high price of a bad deal

Bottom of the market work is always plentiful.  Experienced estimators will see that underfunded clients and unprofessional design teams are constant companions.  Higher risk, lower profitability, and more competition all align to make these jobs a bad deal for the majority of contractors.

There are jobs that are a bad deal at virtually any price because the risks to the contractor are so severe.  Incomplete plans, indecisive clients, difficult phasing requirements,  site logistics, etc. can all hurt productivity.  In some extreme cases, the GC can be penalized for delays they had no way to work around.   When the project presents a bad deal, the cost isn’t driven by the required quality, it’s driven by the risk.

There are incompetent design teams with specifications explicitly written to defend against change orders from their shoddy plans.  These firms find regular employment with the clients most likely to demand a bad deal of their contractors.  The focus on blocking change orders becomes a higher priority  than accurately contracting the complete scope of work.  If greater effort was applied to the latter, the former wouldn’t be an issue.  Lax professional standards generate systemic risk and higher costs for everyone involved.

Attempting to gauge quality by its cost alone will do nothing to reveal the features that matter most.  The cost to quality fallacy has no place in the estimators playbook because it’s only useful for making excuses.

 

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved

 

 

About Anton Takken

I chose to focus on estimating for a few reasons. Chief among them was that it's a position that's hard to fill in most companies. Job security and advancement is easier as a result. Unique to this job is a higher vantage point over the company and its place in the market. Bids are generally over in a few weeks which keeps things from getting boring. The reasons few of my colleagues pursue estimating comes down to a few misconceptions. The first is that it's the builders version of accounting - perceived as a lonely and quiet life among the charts and plans. The second is that it's not engaged in the construction process. Lots of the appeal of the construction industry is the sense that individual effort brought a plan into reality. The teamwork and camaraderie present among tradesman seems conspicuously absent at the estimators desk. Finally, I think the last reason is that it's daunting to be responsible for setting the price of something that's never been done. The good news for folks in estimating is that it's much more social than advertised. An estimator's phone is constantly ringing. Taking the opportunity to build relationships with the bidders creates a positive atmosphere and encourages everyone to do their best. It can be too much of a good thing which is why it's common to arrive at their voicemail when you're calling with a question. A strong rapport with the bidders can be invaluable. Subcontractors have much more exposure to what's going on in the market and they're often eager to share their knowledge. Learning from these experts is a priceless opportunity that's often overlooked. More on this in a bit. I decided to start this blog because I noticed that estimating has applications in many arenas. Over the last few years I've helped estimate in fields ranging from software development to blacksmithing! The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's not about knowing what everything costs, it's about knowing how to figure that out. I believe the very first step to knowledge is to seek it, the second is to retain it, and the third is to pass it on. I hope to share some insights into how estimating is done and hopefully have some fun doing it. My experience is mostly commercial construction, but I'll try to make everything as generally applicable as I can. There are many aspects of business that all markets share yet it's remarkable that one of the most consistent is the failure to recognize that estimating is the very first step to a successful project. So if you're frustrated that work isn't profitable, or exasperated that there's never enough time to get the job done, this blog will be worth your time. Feel free to email me at: estimatorsplaybook@gmail.com View all posts by Anton Takken

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