Strengthening your weakest link

“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe” -Muhammed Ali

There are many aspects of estimating that lend themselves to a pattern, process, or routine.  The focus on consistency is largely driven by an assumption that diligent repetition will cause success.  In this context, it’s understandable that so many estimators seek to improve their process throughput.  This perspective may conceal opportunities to make small changes with large benefits.

Survival manuals recommend picking a point in the distance and walking towards it.  This is because minor differences in our bodies can result in one stride being longer than the other resulting in a tendency to walk in circles.  This is especially common in situations where featureless expanses must be traversed.  By focusing on a specific point, or feature, we can make minor corrections to arrive at our destination. 

Many estimators will reach this point thinking about process-oriented solutions like error checks, and scope reviews.

Pro tip: Redundancy will not provide safety in numbers

Consider walking through a featureless expanse, focusing on your selected destination.  There’s plenty of time to observe and think as you walk.  You notice your progress drifting to one side, and correct course.  Now you think about why you’re drifting.  Before long, you start experimenting with changes in posture, or compensating efforts to stop drifting.  This effort to equalize your stride will eventually reveal your weakest link.   Continued effort will strengthen your weakest link. 

It’s here that we can be surprised by how much harder it feels to strengthen the weakest link, than it felt to compensate for it.  It often requires a greater effort to correct a limp, than to continue limping. 

When time is of the essence and there’s much to be done, will you stop to fix your stride, or learn to limp faster?

A lot of smart people would say it depends on how much time you’ve got.   This overlooks a very, obvious possibility.

What if there’s a pebble in your shoe?

“This idea struck Steve speechless, Dave is trying play it cool, Sam isn’t sure what we’re talking about”

Obviously, you’d take a moment to remove the pebble so you could be on your way unimpeded.

Astute readers might be expecting me to provide a list of “pebbles”.  Unfortunately, that’s missing the larger point.

See once you find a “pebble”, you’ll know exactly what to do.  The bigger problem, the true weakest link, is investing too much into process-oriented corrections, rather than looking for simple reasons why we drift from where we want to be. 

This shift in perspective reveals a whole lot of “pebbles”.  Once they’re gone, all the compensatory hitches in your stride become obvious.  Every improvement you make reduces your work and increases your output.   

I hope this idea helps you to achieve your goals.

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© Anton Takken 2021 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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