In a lot of businesses, estimating is a bothersome hang-up standing between an opportunity and a contract. It can be painstaking and detailed work that has little resemblance to whatever the business actually does. Making a mistake in the bid can have devastating consequences so it’s a pretty big deal to get things right. The main problem is that there typically won’t be anything you can compare your bid against to spot if something went wrong. For little stuff, it’s pretty easy to “see” the whole picture as a list of stuff adding to the total.
When things get more complex, the estimate can be several pages of fine print.
The bigger an estimate is, the more opportunities there are to make a mistake. So how do we spot them? Well a whole lot of estimators would tell you to just go looking for them. That sounds good, but unless the mistake is fairly obvious, it won’t stand out as one entry in a list of hundreds (or thousands). So now you’re combing through the spreadsheet looking for small deviations. Maybe you’ll catch a few, maybe you’ll miss a few. This is where estimators will tell you to do another review, in hopes the second dragnet will catch whatever you overlooked. So, you start again with the fine-toothed comb, going over every entry.
By this point, you’ve probably seen everything in that estimate several times. Anything you really analyzed has become familiar to the point where you’re memorizing figures. When people play a matching game, things only “look right” when the relationship they remember stays the same. It’s happened to me, and I’ve basically gone “blind” to mistakes I was actually looking at.
Artistic rendering of an estimate under review.
If we checked in with estimators again, they’d probably tell you that they factor in a contingency to pay for mistakes they couldn’t find. How much? Well that really depends on how badly you intend to screw up doesn’t it? With all that said, it’s probably not too surprising that there’s a lot of turnover in the estimating profession.
However, all is not lost. For starters, I think it’s important to point out that wherever (mostly) normal people are working, emotions will factor into their behavior. On the surface, estimating seems to be a strictly facts and figures profession. People take the job and eventually the facts don’t meet the figures. Then the estimator succumbs to the stress and seeks alternate employment. That approach has some obvious problems. Instead, what if we emotionally connect with the risks and the rewards? See making a mistake is a risk, catching it is a reward. That emotional and mental balance promotes agility, creativity, and confidence.
So how does that apply to finding a screw-up on page 6?
Well for starters, you have to connect with all the little things you’ve caught along the way. Most of the time a little mistake gets swept aside as quickly as possible. Maybe it seemed embarrassing, or trifling. Take a second to consider what would have happened if you hadn’t caught it. Chances are good that some of them would have been pretty serious. The key here is to take this as a rallying point.
You just caught a costly mistake. Maybe it was a decimal point, or a typo, or some other subtle detail that would have had big consequences.
Now you’re connecting an emotional reward with spotting subtle details.
Enjoy the moment.
You’re also learning to spot patterns in your work. Consistently making a mistake you can correct is the long way around. There’s no point in “rough drafts” that include pointless errors, so you’ll stop making most of them. By being emotionally connected to your process, you’ll start looking where these errors are likely to hide.
Circling back to finding that mistake on page 6, we must understand that we’re not the sum of our mistakes. Going looking for every mistake you’ve ever caught is going to doom you by experience. I’ve been doing this for ten years. I’ve caught thousands of mistakes in my estimates. I once had a boss who wanted me to compose a binder listing every single mistake I’d ever found which was to be used as a “checklist” against all future work. If every job was consistent enough that an item specific checklist was worthwhile, there would be no “estimating” involved.
Instead, I go through the estimate and I allow myself to reminisce about the processes that put each figure on that spreadsheet. That keeps things familiar without mindlessly memorizing everything I see. If you’ve ever reminisced about an experience, you’ve doubtlessly recalled thoughts and emotions. Sometimes you’ll remember a thought, or a feeling that you hadn’t had in years. As often as not, you’ll remember something tangential to the topic, like the scent of your favorite food when you reminisce about your childhood home.
It works the same way in estimating. All those little successes in catching an error will suggest themselves as you’re reminiscing your way through today’s spreadsheet.
Bonus points if you look cool doing it!
Bystanders might see what I’ve done and attribute it to experience or painstaking diligence. I can tell you that I’ve worked with some seriously intense people who had more experience than I do. They work awfully hard to catch stuff that just pops out for me.
There are some downsides to my approach. Perhaps the worst of which is that my approach requires sincerity. You must genuinely feel a reward for finding a mistake. People in general, and your employer in specific may tend to focus on mistakes as the source of all problems. Tell your boss that you caught a huge mistake, and they’re likely to only hear that you’re a danger to the business. It’s difficult to keep your chin up in these situations so you often must keep your own council. That’s a whole lot harder than it sounds, especially when you’re working with/for insincere people.
Another downside is that it’s easy to get infatuated with your own inventions. If any part of your process is faulty, no amount of massaging will offset that fact. I’ve sunk lots of time into constructing elaborate error catching shortcuts that overlooked something critical. Sometimes these shortcuts would work, other times they wouldn’t. It was like an ambulance with a dodgy starter.
Every little thought that pops up as your reminiscing won’t be relevant. People are capable of spotting patterns that don’t really exist. Unless you’ve arrived at the cause of your mistake, you can’t celebrate catching it. Playing it fast and loose with what you actually know is guessing, which is worse than being wrong because it’s irresponsible. Again, everything here depends on sincerity.
It occurs to me that I know a lot of people I know might have read to this point and come up with an equivalency without realizing it. See it’s super-common for people to think in terms of the proverbial carrot and stick. Whatever incentive is proposed may be equally substituted with a sufficient punishment without affecting the desired outcome. This may explain why so many employers cling to the notion that all estimating mistakes are perfectly obvious oversights. To this way of thinking, an estimator should be motivated by fear of missing stuff. There’s a huge, gaping hole in this logic. They’re basing this assessment on omissions found in winning bids. It’s anywhere from possible to probable that the entire reason you won the job was because of an “omission”. Nobody (but the estimator) cares about the absolutely perfect estimate that lost the job. This point of view encourages big contingency funds (sandbagging) which won’t win work in a tight market.
Finally, my approach has a fatal flaw for anyone who started out in a boom. When it’s easy to win work, there’s less risk in being wrong so standards slip. Everyone has to start somewhere, so if you’re starting in a boom, seek out an estimator who was successful during a down market. If they’ll review your work, acknowledge each mistake as a discovery. Challenge yourself to find them on your own and give yourself credit for improving when you find them.
Hopefully this approach will be as helpful to you as it has been for me.
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