Category Archives: Uncategorized

Growing pains

Time is money, the customer is always right, estimates are free, every company wants and needs to grow.  These expressions are so familiar that they sound like universal truths. Life has a way of being more complicated than we’d like it to be.  I’ve definitely encountered rare situations where costly time was squandered, customers were wrong, and estimates cost a fortune.

Is growth always good?

To answer that question, I’ll ask another one.  What puts more companies out of business, losing too many bids, or winning too many?  This isn’t a trick question, and it doesn’t require any extensive market knowledge to answer.  Consider the following.  If a company doesn’t win any work, they’re not getting any income which means their overhead is consuming their capital until they’re insolvent.  The overhead and the existing capital are known entities to the firm.  This means that it’s possible to accurately define how long the company can remain in business without landing work.  More significantly, it defines how the company can fail without owing anyone.

If a company wins more work than it can complete, it’s in a very dangerous situation.  Contractually they’re obligated to complete the work and penalties for failure are severe. In real life, things don’t fail in a neat and orderly manner.  One bad job has a way of taxing resources on all the others, systemically spreading the failure to everything the firm touches.    A company that might ordinarily be able to weather one bad job is now facing the prospect of losses on all their projects at the same time.    Taking on that one additional job might well doom the entire operation.  The knock-on effects of this are severe.  Clients and subcontractors are often left in serious financial jeopardy.  It’s difficult to know the total downside risk, but it’s clearly much worse than having to close up shop for lack of work.

Risk versus reward

Businesses operate on risk versus reward relationships.  Growing a successful business is often assumed to be a low-risk, high-reward proposition.  After all, you’re just copying whatever worked to capture more of the market.

There are two assumptions underpinning this plan that have the potential to upend the whole risk to reward relationship.  I’ll pull them out here.

“…copy whatever worked…”

and

“…more of the market…”

 

Let’s start with copying “whatever worked”.  On the surface, it might seem like any entrepreneur or professional would have a solid handle on what they do, why it works, and how it can be copied.  In my experience, this sort of corporate self-awareness is extremely rare.   Quality control efforts tend to focus on detecting the signals and causes of failures.  People just aren’t that curious about their successes.  If something is working, there isn’t much incentive to push boundaries in search of weaknesses.

With their heads in the clouds, management keeps tripping on molehills

I worked for an entrepreneur who proudly told me that “big and clean” ground-up construction projects were the bread and butter of the company.  A quick review of the accounting would show that “ugly and small” remodel projects constituted 85% of the annual revenue, and well over 95% of the annual profits.  Simply put, the “ugly” remodels didn’t attract as much competition, so we could win with higher fees.  Since they were smaller, we could do more of them per year with the same size workforce.  This entrepreneur is by no means an isolated case.  I regularly encounter professionals whose company “identity” has little resemblance to reality.  Projecting the image of what they think they are into new markets rarely works out for them.

So, what’s the assumption with the “more of the market” part?

This is a two-part problem.  First, if the firm doesn’t know what they’re good at, they’re unlikely to be aware of the market factors that influence their success.  Very few companies are “good at everything” so there will only be a select few market segments that are viable to any specific firm.  Those segments can have many factors that influence the quality, quantity, and frequency, of opportunities to seize upon.  Simply put, there might not be “more” of the target market to pursue.  This is especially true for niche contractors in depressed economies.  Just before the last recession hit, there were lots of companies boasting about their growth into diversified client bases.  After the recession hit, most of those firms had layoffs.

The venturi effect 

Giovanni Venturi discovered the venturi effect which is visible with a simple experiment.  Blow at a right angle to the opening of a straw placed in a glass of water.  The venturi effect will cause pressure in the straw to drop, drawing the liquid up the straw.

During an economic boom, it’s not particularly hard to win bids.  Companies quickly decide that they need to grow in order to capture more of the expanding market.  So, they hire more people, buy more equipment, and generally take on more overhead.  Now that they have this overhead, they need to win even more work to pay for it.   The constant expansion creates a venturi-effect on overhead.  Some readers have gotten this far and figure this is all normal growth.

The bids aren’t just placeholders in the process of converting opportunities into profit.  Bids freeze the value of the project before it’s begun.  Adding overhead to the company post-bid is effectively trading profitability for growth.  During a boom, the revenue can be expanding so rapidly that it’s hard to tell that the individual job is actually getting less profitable.  Eventually, many such firms reach a point where their very survival depends on growth because none of their jobs were won with sufficient overhead to pay their own way.  Some readers might be asking themselves why the estimators at these firms didn’t react by raising the overhead in their bids.

While I’m sure that some of them do try, they’re often obliged to prioritize the more immediate problem of staying competitive enough to keep winning work.  Estimators should understand that businesses in general, and managers in specific, tend to prefer a flawed but executable plan over an effective strategy that requires constant judgement.

Strategy versus planning

As individuals, it’s impressive how easily professionals can spot the unfortunate outcomes of rigidly following a plan.  When personal accountability is threatened, many will claim “their hands are tied” by these selfsame plans.  People respond to incentives.  A “plan” sounds much less risky because people assume, they’ll be rewarded for following (or at least appearing to follow) the plan.  A strategy that requires judgement means you might be solely responsible for anything that goes wrong, even if your reasoning was sound.

Longtime readers of this blog know that estimating isn’t about a plan or a process.  Estimating is about controlling risk which requires good judgement.  In my experience, the better your judgement, the less you have to fear in terms of accountability.

“Matt spends a lot of time looking for a place where his reflection matches his image.”

Where do you start?

Estimators need to understand the power of perception.  Hard-charging entrepreneurs hire estimators to control risk, so they can focus on growth.  When sports cars are advertised; the horsepower, the speed, the looks and the luxury are all prominently featured.  Nobody’s talking about the brakes.  Race car drivers know that better brakes slow the car in less time which means they can maintain higher speeds for a bit longer before they must brake for a turn.  This means that they’re covering more distance in less time.  As odd as it might sound, it’s entirely possible for a car with better brakes to win a twisty race against a car capable of higher top speeds.

Estimators looking to gain traction with leadership need to illustrate the effect of controlled risk.  How does winning a given bid relate to securing a better position for the company in the future?  Mindless assumptions should be challenged.  I had a boss who wanted to “really impress” a municipal client with a very low hard-bid in hopes of securing no-compete contracts for future work.  The city in question has charter rules expressly forbidding city contract award without a competitive bid.

Strategic thinking looks beyond the client-retention platitudes.  In this example, there will always be competition, so the focus should be on maximizing profitability at the market-leading price point.  In practice, we found that we were able to profitably win work in a handful of cities.  Looking deeper, I was able to determine that a longstanding culture of bid-shopping among the local General Contractors (GC’s) in one city had created an incentive for the local subcontractors to work with out-of-town contractors.  By being honest and forthright about everything including bid results, I was rewarded with better subcontractor pricing than my competitors.

Since repeat business depended upon winning bids, we had an incentive to reveal any design-driven chicanery that threatened to exceed the client’s budget.  On one such project, there was a sole-specified vendor for window coverings that was three times the cost of their competition for a plain “white goods” product.  From a strategic standpoint, the estimator has three options.  They can bid per plans and specs hoping that everyone else does too.  They can carry the cheaper product in their bid in hopes that it will be accepted by the Architect, and finally, they can expose the cost difference to the client on their bid form.

Options one and two depend heavily on the integrity of others for success.  Option three risks angering the Architect by exposing their chicanery.  When weighing the strategies, compare the relative risks.  Any one of them might fail, thus losing you the job.  Option two might still anger the architect when you submit on the “wrong” product.  If the alternate material is rejected, option two could result in winning a job at a loss which is worse than not having a job at all.

Option three presents the least total risk and most potential reward. If the base bid is per plans and specifications, you’re not violating any trust or instructions.  The alternate is voluntary and can be truthfully presented as an alternate equal. If presented as a way to achieve their design intent within the client’s budget, the Architect can accept your alternate and save face.

The “savings” presented can be whatever you choose to offer.  Strategically, it’s smarter to allow yourself greater profitability to counterbalance the potential difficulty in getting an alternate approved.  As an estimator speaking to leadership, this strategy is a win for the client and the contractor.

 

A journey of a thousand steps

Strategic growth is more difficult than it sounds.  During the ebb and flow of larger market trends, it can feel as though a perfect strategy has no priority over your daily concerns.  There will almost certainly be times where the best course of action is to simply press onward, making the best of what you have to work with.

Quick story.  I started working for a company that chased hard-scrabble projects for low budget General Contractors (GC’s).  Every client who put us on their bid list was treated like an unassailable gift from the heavens.  Bidding was miserable because deadlines were short, bid shopping was rampant, and the work was virtually worthless.  Things weren’t much better in the field where most of the jobs ran late, over budget, and suffered from chronic mismanagement.

Strategy was regarded as a nicety we never had time for.  Since the jobs were small, I was constantly inundated with bids to keep everyone busy.  Chasing larger projects with the same class of client didn’t improve my fortunes.  By one year in, it was clear that our three “best” clients were a financial illusion.  They hired us for more work than anyone else, but all of their work was so poorly managed that we lost productivity and profitability on everything else we had going at the same time.

I was deeply frustrated, and at an annual review, I presented a list of the top 100 GC’s in my area to my boss.  I insisted that we make an earnest effort to get ourselves invited to bid on their work.  Some put us on their “small projects” list which was a feeding frenzy of projects identical to the work we were trying to escape.  Others only invited us to bid on work that was too far from our market.  Eventually, we were invited to bid on a modest job with a major GC.  It was a rousing success!  Every single project since has been awesome.  We met with their pre-construction managers where we learned that they were very selective about who they’ll invite to bid.

Mesas and Buttes

Mesas and Buttes are often confused.  A Mesa is flat topped land mass where the width is greater than the height.  In contrast, a Butte is a flat-topped land mass where the height is greater than the width.

Submitted without comment.

It’s pretty easy to spot market stratification in the construction industry.  Some projects command higher prices than others, even when they are very similar.  When we see “price point” markets, there’s a wide selection of mostly standardized offerings from similar providers.  I once bid a job which had a tremendous number of bidders in each trade.  Plotting the bid amounts on a continuum from smallest to largest, it was plainly obvious that the bids clustered around three separate values.  Broadly speaking, the clustered bidders had strong similarities in terms of market share.  Among peers in their cluster, all of the bidders were strong competitors.

Comparing individual bidders from one stratum to the other, it didn’t seem probable that they were looking at the same scope of work.  For the most part, the bidders in a given stratum had similar economies of scale relative to the scope of work.  At the cheapest stratum, the bidders were neither too big, nor too small, they were just right.

Bid invitations that are open to all comers will generally result in an award to the stratum that best matches the scope of work.  We can visualize the market stratification as if there are populations living atop mesas of different heights. Everything is organized roughly the same on each mesa, but they’re too far apart to bridge the gap between them.  Moving from one mesa to the other requires painful transformation because there are no resources at the valley floor.  It’s dark down there, and there’s no one to guide you so only the determined, or desperate dare to try.

Markets can stratify in less obvious ways as well.  Elite clientele may decide to solicit bids from only the most qualified general contractors, who in turn, will only solicit bids from the most qualified subcontractors (subs).  In many cases, the business is conducted with such discretion that only the most observant of the mesa dwellers can tell that it happened at all.

Getting to this level is a formidable struggle, which is why there is less competition.  We can visualize this kind of market stratification as a butte.  The butte can be at the same height as a mesa, but the butte dwellers benefit from a completely different client base.

An island in the clouds

Chasing elite clients sounds like a foolproof plan, and honestly, there’s a lot to recommend it.  However, there’s a big difference in the relationships that underpin every opportunity.  Going back to my butte metaphor, it’s significant to realize that while the height might seem familiar, the boundaries are sheer cliffs.  Any failure to perform, even the perception that you might fail to perform, may be all it takes to be kicked out.  It’s critical to understand that these rules apply to virtually everyone on the butte.  A GC with a sub that’s not performing, is an existential threat to their livelihood.

The greatest advantage of life on the butte is that you can’t exist here without doing construction management right.  Half-baked, absentee Project Managers (PMs) doing their best to maintain plausible-deniability are not tolerated at all.  This is a huge improvement for all concerned, including the GC, because the client is willing to pay the going rate for qualified leadership.

So what’s not to love?

Elite clients have different motives than commodity level consumers.  Time and money may not be their primary concerns.  For example, bank tellers require a lot of costly in-house and on the job training. Once a given teller has the necessary skills, they can easily work for a competitor.  The bank was much more concerned about inconveniencing tellers, than time or money.

Elite clients know that they’re paying a premium, so they expect the build team to do whatever it takes to make the project successful.  Design teams aren’t appraised by their construction documents (CD’s), or the efficacy of their management, but by their portfolio of built projects.  The quality of the finished work may not reflect the quality of the original design.  Astute readers will note how this “cuts both ways” for every professional involved.

There are many unique challenges to working for elite clients, but the biggest risk by far isn’t obvious to most people.  When things are going well, life on the butte is pretty awesome.  As a company, you can be doing less revenue for higher profit with less overhead, and manpower than you’re used to.  When an elite market slows down, your company may face some really difficult adjustments in order to successfully pursue hard-bid work.

Estimators love to think that they’re constantly diversifying their client base in case of a turnaround.  In reality, the butte work is always the highest priority.  Coming down from that height and climbing back up the hard-bid mesa isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Even if the estimating department is up for the challenge, the leadership and the workers all need to adjust to very different priorities.

For more articles like this click here

© Anton Takken 2020 all rights reserved

 

 


Who pays the price for being wrong?

I’ve spent most of my working life in the construction industry and it’s a rare day when everything goes to plan.  Mistakes, misunderstandings, or simple lack of thinking things through causes a whole lot of negotiation about what comes next.  Change orders can be immensely profitable, indeed many businesses depend on them to be profitable.  That being said, negotiations don’t always land in your favor so it’s important to understand what’s at stake.

I’ve seen situations that escalated because one or more parties’ lost sight of the bigger picture.

“You know, I think we’re looking at this negotiation all wrong, we’d love to have you for dinner tonight”

For example, let’s say the client is on a shoestring budget.  The design team didn’t get paid to investigate existing conditions, so lots of surprises are popping up.  Further, let’s say the client decided to purchase salvaged materials that turn out to be different from what they told the design team to include.

So far, it sounds like this is all clearly the client’s fault, and they’ll have to pay to remedy the situation.

Let’s say this client is desperate to open on time because they would otherwise miss out on peak season that accounts for nearly all their annual revenue.  To protect themselves, the client required a payment and performance bond for everyone on the job and stipulated liquidated damages of $10,000 per day for being late.

The client is in a tough situation, so they’re particularly concerned about overpaying on change orders.  This leads to squabbles that go on much longer than they should.  To be efficient and productive, the work at issue needs to happen before other tasks so the job doesn’t progress like it should.  A lot of low-budget construction clients aren’t very experienced.  They’re not concerned with how this squabble is affecting the overall job because they have contract terms and bonds ensuring their deadline.

So, who pays the price for being wrong?  In situations like this, the immediate answer depends on timing.  If the squabble drags on long enough, the client may call in the bonds to replace the contractors and get their project built.  The replacement contractors aren’t going to be cheap because they’re getting paid for by the bonding agency who can (and likely will) seize assets to settle the exorbitant tab.

Now I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so none of this should be misconstrued as legal advice.  I suppose it’s possible that a contractor could win a case against the client, but that will take a lot of time and money.  Keep in mind that said legal battle would probably take place after you’ve had assets seized by your bonding agency which likely preclude you from conducting business anywhere else.

For most contractors, getting their bond invoked is an “extinction level event”.  I’ve seen situations where a particularly malignant client drove the project into delays, then used the threat of invoking bonds to demand extreme discounts.  Over the years I’ve had several situations where it was considerably cheaper to pay for the clients mistake so we could avoid more costly problems.  That’s something to consider the next time the client wants to change something on the project.

I’ve found that more contractors go out of business because of problems with a job they won, than from all the jobs they lost.  Don’t let it happen to you!

For more articles like this click here

© Anton Takken 2019 all rights reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 


The market changed, what do I do?

The daily tasks of an estimator involve a lot of repetitive measurements, processes, and conversations.  For some, the estimators job is almost a ritual, complete with the enduring faith that “this time it’ll work”.  A losing streak  sends estimators in search of answers.  The most common conclusion is that the market has changed.  Ok, now what?  Sadly, many estimators figure they should do whatever they usually do just faster and cheaper.  If that sounds familiar, you probably know what comes next.

The Bid mill

Bidding more leads to winning less because there’s never any time to focus on the opportunities you could actually win.  High-speed cost-cutting generally comes down to lowering your personal, professional, ethical and moral standards.  Many of the most significant problems in our industry have roots in this practice.

Advancements in estimating technology are still in testing… 

Obviously this approach isn’t a solution to the problem.  Now what if I told you that we’re trying to solve the wrong problem?

Estimators have an image problem

On the surface, it seems pretty simple.  Estimators are supposed to win work.  When they don’t, it seems reasonable to focus on production.  After all, what else can you measure?

This is where estimating bites itself.  Everyone outside of estimating figures that the estimator should be able to “count stuff” and report back with a semi-obvious answer.  Another way to phrase this would be to say that an estimators credibility is directly tied to the generation of “charts and graphs”.

Summing up, estimators are perceived as process drones whose credibility is directly proportional to how much they prove their faith in the aforementioned processes.

Did you ever get the feeling that people just weren’t listening to you?  This is probably why.

OK, so everyone thinks we’re drones. What can I do about it?

Well, for starters we could consider the credibility of the information we are working with.  I typically check in with the trade publications for RealtorsArchitects and Contractors to see what’s going on at least once a month.  In my experience, the most accurate information is bad news which is typically reported in retrospect.  Construction trends track over time from Realtors to Architects to Contractors as clients move from speculation to occupancy.

The American Institute of Architecture’s past reports have suggested that an average commercial project takes a design firm six months to get to construction documents.  This is a particularly important factor to the construction estimator because downturns are bad news which aren’t prominently reported when they happen.  What I have found, are articles published months after the downturn began, predicting growth in comparison to the first month(s) of said downturn.  By the time an estimator is reading actual figures on the downturn, they have effectively lost six to nine months of prospects.  I’ve read Realtor reports indicating several months of stagnation on the very same day that contractor publications were predicting a boom.

From the estimators desk, none of these problematic trends will be visible until there’s suddenly a whole lot more competition for whatever is bidding.

We’ve got competition coming in HOT!

People in hard times tend to present their favorite excuses to explain what’s going on.  False conclusions will limit your options.

Please keep in mind that it’s entirely possible that the aforementioned Realtor’s report and the contractor publications prediction will prove to be true.  That’s difficult to act upon without context which is why it’s important to track the trends from Real Estate, to Architecture, to Contractors over time.

You can’t plan without strategy

So everybody’s got a plan to trade work for money.  We like consistency so we tend to repeat whatever worked last time.  No matter what the break-room poster says, in most companies the “plan” is one part repetition, and several parts reaction.  The success of the plan is dutifully tracked in accounting, scheduling, signed change orders, etc.  Process is built around those metrics, bureaucracy happens, next thing you know, everyone is in meetings reporting on the metrics of the processes.

With thinking like this, it’s inevitable that market shifts will be a huge problem.

Priorities are the foundation of strategy

Estimators often overlook one of their most significant skills; prioritizing information.   Measuring stuff generates a lot of data points.  Some of it is really important, some isn’t.  There are often relationships between data points that pull out a unique circumstance that influences everything that follows.

For example, open to structure ceilings.  When the Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, etc. trades are all exposed to view, the installation will be more expensive.  HVAC return-air lines have to be ducted with attractive material, exposed electrical is generally required to be in costly conduit compared to inexpensive cable.  Structural supports for these systems have to be better-looking which takes more time and material.  In some cases, the total cost impact would exceed the price of a ceiling.

A savvy estimator anticipating a budget blowout might suggest adding an acoustical ceiling to save money.  This naturally leads to bargaining against the design intent.  “How much (or little) ceiling would it take to save money?”  That’s a tough question to answer for your competitors.  In this example, prioritizing cost-effective options gave the estimator a viable strategy to succeed.

Priorities should be defined, ranked, and consistent.  

I’ve encountered a lot of construction marketing that placed three words below the logo suggestive of priorities such as “Integrity, Excellence, Vision”.

Nobody working for such a business could prioritize integrity over excellence without guidance from whoever picked those words.

The estimator trying to fill in these gaps should start by doing something uncommon.  The estimator should determine what the company is actually good at.   In most of the companies I’ve worked for, the leadership overlooked the successful nature of boring, difficult, or small jobs.  Next, determine what makes them good at that work.

“Chris is a snazzy dresser but that’s not what makes him a good boy”

It may sound counter-intuitive but working from successful outcome to requisite priorities is a more productive approach.  If so, consider what you’re likely to get by asking why pure intentions and brute force were unsuccessful!

With clear priorities, the next step is ranking.  If every priority has equal standing, there’s no strategy beyond placation to whoever set the priorities. Consistent priorities encourage accountability because everyone is working with the same standards.  Inconsistent priorities are a major source of conflict between marketing and estimating.  Everyone has to be pulling in the same direction.

Growing pains

In many companies, growth is a major priority.  A lot of contractors in a boom figure they can pay today’s bills with tomorrows growth.  When times get harder, there’s a huge push on estimating to “grow” into new markets as the old ones falter.

Much harm can be done in blind pursuit of a single priority.  It doesn’t get mentioned very often but the majority of contractors fail because of contract work they wonbut couldn’t complete. This happens in good times and bad.

Many firms find it’s relatively easy to land work in a boom so they simply add staff to pursue more contract work.  Every addition increases the overhead.  Most construction contracts include a retainage provision which withholds 10% of the contract total until the project is completely finished.  In most cases the contractors profit margin is below 10% which means that every active job is contributing to an overhead deficit for your firm.  An average commercial ground-up construction project has a six month duration. Which means…

We need more work to pay for all this overhead!

Now the firm will have to fund the retained portion of their overhead out of their earnings to date for the duration of each job.   Every job added to the ongoing work queue has the potential to magnify a cash-flow problem.  The smart way to proceed, is to increase the overhead on all bids going out during a boom, before additional staff are hired.

That includes interns

This leads to a lot more work for fewer people.  Growth is slower but it’s “paid for”.  So when the market changes (as it always does), the firm isn’t running a line of credit to fund cash-flow issues with overhead.  I’ve witnessed market downturn situations where firms that grew exponentially during a boom laid off entire estimating departments without notice.  One week they were hiring new people, the next they laid off 30 percent of the firm.  “Growth” is not a sustainable plan.

Strategy is neither a task, nor a goal.

Earlier I outlined how an estimator could determine the priorities that guided their firms through and to their most successful projects.  Seasoned estimators with a lot of successful bids would call this “good judgment” or “wisdom”.  These estimators have incredibly valuable insights to share but as I mentioned before, their credibility is often tied to a pile of charts and graphs.  In many firms, wisdom and judgment are downgraded to opinion which is dismissed when some shiny thing captures leaderships attention.

I thought I had a lot of things worked out until I actually did the priority development for the companies I worked for.  I made a lot of surprising discoveries.  For example, the single most definitive feature of a successful project that was visible from the estimators position was client honesty.  The second was client competence. Opportunities that resembled our bread and butter work came in third.

I suspect a lot of estimators reading this figured an honest or competent client would go into the nice to have category, well behind important stuff like contract value, duration, or proximity.

This is where we unlock the real value of strategy.  Mindlessly chasing whatever is worth the right amount, at a convenient time, within range of your business isn’t a strategy, it’s a  reactionary plan that’s very likely shared among all of your competitors.  That means that every ideal job will have increased competition pushing profitability down.  We don’t have equal odds of winning bids.  That’s a loathsome myth ranking up there with “free estimates“.  There is no sense in shooting at stuff you can’t hit.  There’s even less sense in winning work that threatens your company’s survival.

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake ”

Napoleon Bonaparte

With the right priorities, the real opportunities become clear.  Chasing the ugly little project that’s out-of-town might well be the very best strategy for your firm.  The goal is to be successful.  Estimators need to link their credibility to results rather than reports.

So what do you do when the market has changed?

The plan starts with credibility.  No amount of busy-work will offset a plan built on misinformation.  Estimators need to see market trends before they arrive.  Major trends should chart through related industry publications over time.  Think about what these trends will mean to each industry.  Follow up to see what actually happens in your market.  How these trends actually affect your situation is what matters.

Figure out the priorities that lead to successful work.  Make sure the priorities are visible from the estimators position during the bid.  Work out the ranking, and lock them in so everyone involved is pulling in the same direction.

Apply these priorities to what’s available on the market in the context of oncoming trends.  This is where strategies form.  Patience, courage, credibility and commitment will be tested. If this was easy, someone else would be in charge.  Learn from mistakes and do the best you can with what’s available right now.

“I’m just not sure the grass will be greener on the other side of the fence”

Above all, stay informed of oncoming trends.  Unpleasant (but critical) information is often delayed or downplayed which can leave little time for reaction.  Conversely, good news is reported immediately.  Keep in mind that positive changes in the market can take a long time to materialize at your level.

 

For more articles like this click here

© Anton Takken 2018 all rights reserved


Finding Mistakes

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.

For more articles like this click here

© Anton Takken 2018 all rights reserved


Power tool safety for estimators Part 2 : Headaches and Hard hats

In part 1, I touched on some of the dangers presented by estimating software along with some advice on how to work and bid safely.  In part 2, I will be looking into estimating hazards that are uniquely human.  A lot of frustrated and unsuccessful estimators get that way by overlooking human nature.  While estimating involves lots of facts and figures, we must keep in mind that we are working with, and working for, people.

Submitted without comment…

In my experience, people define organizational policies according to their outcome.  Bureaucracy generates lots of work that is peripheral to the task at hand.  In contrast, Leadership aligns people and resources with the task at hand.  Within the context of competitive bidding, effective leadership involves communicating expectations that are aligned with the interests of everyone involved.  This starts with considering the interests of parties outside of the estimators office.

The four P recipe

  • Perspective What do people expect to see? How does that compare with what they actually see?
  • Predict How could people do things differently than you might have planned?
  • Prepare What can you do to accommodate the inconsistencies, differences, and individual choices of others?
  • Perform How can you coordinate the interests of everyone involved to maximize your odds of delivering a successful outcome?

Schools, academies, and trade associations promoting “best practices” in estimating tend to put great emphasis on process uniformity, deference to design professionals and obsequious devotion to every client request.  While tidy spreadsheets and good manners are part of being a professional, they hardly define the estimators purpose.

Losing estimators are often telling me how they were “just doing their job” because “their hands were tied“.   While some contractors do micro-manage their estimators, this mindset is more common among estimators who prefer to believe their job security is a function of avoiding accountability. If they were making and communicating the right decisions, they’d win more profitable work which is why the job exists in the first place.  When a process interferes with your purpose, it won’t be the best practice to follow.

There is no more important safety rule than to wear your reading glasses

Estimates are used to compile and condense a great deal of information into a single number.  Even the spreadsheets illustrating what’s going into the single number can be densely packed with information.  Since everything must balance utility against clarity, the location of the information in an estimate is almost as important as the quality of the information.

Estimators working by hand are used to categorizing the information according to Construction Specification Institute (CSI) Masterformat guidelines.  The Masterformat assigns a unique serial number to commonly encountered building materials arranged so that the materials generally align with similar materials that broadly align with trades.  As anyone with experience in actual general contracting could tell you, the CSI divisions aren’t a good indicator of how the work is actually divided among contractors.   For example, division 9, finishes may involve a dozen or more trade-level subcontractors, whereas division 14 Conveying systems will ordinarily involve only one.

There are a lot of estimating programs which are configured to organize the Quantity Take Off (QTO) according to CSI divisions.  While this is great in terms of adhering to a standard, it doesn’t lend itself to compiling the relevant information to scope subcontractor bids.  For example, there are a lot of “flooring” subcontractors (subs) that will install vinyl flooring as well as carpet, but they won’t do any ceramic tile or wood flooring.

The CSI codes place vinyl flooring and carpet in separate areas of the estimate that are often surrounded by completely unrelated trades.  This means that on bid-day, the estimator is figuring out how to make one bid apply to two scopes of work which might be separated by hundreds of lines of information.  When the deadline is fast approaching and low bids trickle through the door, this creates an arbitrary obstacle that can trip the estimator when they least expect it.

 

Lizzy was following the instructions perfectly, but then everything went sideways

 

If you’re using a spreadsheet program to compile your estimate, it’s possible to temporarily move relevant divisions to conform with the sub proposals that are coming in the door.  Time invested in building a “working” worksheet that is linked to a “formal” estimate worksheet can make it possible for the estimator to have a streamlined layout for bid-day revisions, without sacrificing the uniformity of a formal layout.

Make sure it works seamlessly because spreadsheet errors on bid-day are serious problems.  The “old school” approach to this problem was to print separate pages for every CSI division including a row for bidders and columns to verify, add, or subtract relevant scope items.  Each of these sheets were put into binders with tabbed dividers.  “Bid tabs” is industry slang for these comparison sheets which “show the math” for how the estimator scoped the bids of every relevant subcontractor on bid day.

Combo bids: Two for one, or double the trouble?

Subcontractors rarely specify which CSI divisions they’re bidding which means the estimator must not only sort the CSI divisions being bid, but must attribute them separately to their estimate.  Despite all the heated rhetoric, the subcontractor (sub) is not an employee of the General Contractor (GC).  GC’s can “demand” pricing breakouts from subs in direct proportion to the goodwill they’ve cultivated from fair dealing.  GC’s cannot afford to ignore competitive bids from subs who are reluctant to provide breakouts that may be used to help a competitor win the job.

This means that GC estimators must be prepared to take the best subcontractor number they can get, even if it combines several “separate” scopes of work.  Estimating programs will often generate error messages for any CSI Division that is left empty.  If one bid applies to multiple divisions, most programs won’t allow the estimator to group them together.  Instead, estimators are forced to use workarounds.

Let’s say a flooring sub’s bid for carpet and vinyl flooring is cheaper than any combination of independent carpet and vinyl flooring bids.  They didn’t provide separate prices for vinyl or carpet because they want an “all or nothing” award.

The GC Estimator needs to enter the “combo” bid into the estimate but this raises several issues.  Everything they enter in as a quoted value will be documented which means the Project Manager (PM) running the job will expect to find a subcontractor bid for the exact same amount in the bid file.  If the estimator arbitrarily divides the quoted amount into plausible-looking amounts for carpet and vinyl respectively, there’s no bid in the file that actually matches either number.  Now the estimator could put the entire bid amount into just one of the CSI divisions.  That solves the problem of quoted numbers matching bids in the file.  However, this causes two new problems.  First, the default of most estimating programs is to “select” the lowest available bid in each entered quote.  If the combo bid was entered into the carpet division, it would likely be higher than the carpet-only bidders because it’s also including vinyl flooring.  This means the default setting for that division must be overridden in order for the estimate to select the combo bid.  The second problem is that the vinyl flooring division needs to have a quote entered and most programs will not accept zero as a valid bid.  Some estimators enter $0.01 for the quote as a workaround because no PM would go looking for a one penny quote for the vinyl flooring.

CSI Masterformat is tremendously helpful for design and management professionals who want a uniform system for coding information.  Many Project Management programs include estimating functionality which not only imposes the CSI structure, but also includes the accounting structure for the job that follows.  The estimating program’s lack of flexibility means that on bid-day an estimator might enter a one penny bid for a subcontract amount which later causes administrative issues in accounting and project management.

Breakouts are the leading cause of breakdowns

Alternates can multiply the estimators labor to an incredible degree.  In their simplest form, Alternates are a request to add or subtract something to the project.  In their most complex form, they’re a multi-dimensional problem that generates its own risk for the bidder.

For simple additions or subtractions, the alternate needs its own mini-estimate to address what’s going on.  When the changes become more convoluted, the Alternate essentially replaces the original bid.  Estimating programs may feature user-defined breakout tags which allow the estimator to sort, group, and compile the different breakouts into different schemes that reflect the alternate.  Unfortunately, many estimating programs with breakout functionality are unable to compile multiple breakdowns into a cohesive estimate.  This is very common for trade-specific estimating programs.

For example, let’s say there is an alternate which substantially changes the vinyl flooring scope.  Some areas grew, other areas got smaller. As there are several alternates pertaining to the vinyl flooring, the estimator would have breakouts defined by the rooms involved.

Rather than a single line item for all the vinyl tile in that alternate, the program would output each room’s vinyl flooring separately.  As silly as it sounds, some estimating programs will not compile the breakdown information into a cohesive estimate the way it does for an ordinary bid.

“With our new mirror technology you can double your horsepower!”

 

When GC estimators call the subcontractor wanting to make changes to the Alternates, the Subcontractor ends up going into intense “manual override” to answer relatively simple questions.  The sub is usually under incredible pressure to answer quickly because the deadline is rapidly approaching.   It’s much worse when the GC calls the sub whenever they are away from their desk, and unable to wrangle a simple answer from an obstinate program.  I know of at least one competitor who guessed at a breakout price on bid-day that dramatically under-bid one portion of a project.  That mistake was the first of many cascading events that ended in bankruptcy.  Learn from their mistake, professional estimators do not guess!  It’s much better to replace a lost opportunity than it is to “win” a project that imperils your company’s survival.

Bigger blocks, fewer breakdowns

One successful strategy to counteract an estimating programs clunky breakdown system is to use the definable breakdowns for complete alternates.  Picking up on the earlier tile example, the estimator would conduct separate breakdown-level QTO’s for each alternate separately.

Let’s say there were four rooms pertaining to the base bid and two alternates.

In the base bid, rooms one, two, and four get vinyl flooring.

In Alternate #1, rooms two, three, and four get vinyl flooring

In Alternate #2 rooms one, three, and four get vinyl flooring.

This means that one definable breakdown would be named “base bid” and the estimator would conduct their QTO for the rooms as normal.  Then the estimator would name a definable breakdown “Alternate #1” and would do a QTO for rooms one, three, and four.  Note that this repeats the QTO of room four.  Finally, the estimator would name a definable breakdown “Alternate #2” and would do a QTO for rooms one, three, and four.  At this point, every room has been measured twice, and the vinyl flooring has arguably been estimated three times.

However, the estimator can now output their reports by the individual breakdown with all the pertinent information correlated normally.  This means that the Alternates will display the total vinyl flooring as a single line item, tremendously simplifying the information you’re reading at Mach 6 when the GC calls.  Only in estimating do we have situations where taking the long way around gets us to our destination faster than a direct path.

Quoth the vendor: “It costs more”

Quoted goods pertain to items with requirements that influence the price such as custom-built equipment.  Some quoted goods are unique materials represented by an agent or a firm that promotes the material to design professionals to secure exclusive sales rights.  Wherever competition and transparency are discouraged, artificial pricing hikes are sure to follow.   As a result, the quoted goods can constitute an out sized proportion of the total estimate.

Quoted goods can be material exclusively, or they can be materials plus some labor or service.  “Parts and Smarts” is industry parlance for a proprietary system of components that the contractor must install themselves, according to the design and programming requirements of the quoting firm.  This is most common in fire-alarm and HVAC controls systems.  “Turnkey” proposals are generally understood to be standalone quotes to deliver a completely built system.  At the trade-level estimators desk, it’s critical to correctly attribute labor hours to the quotes you expect to receive.

Trade-level estimating program defaults can be very complex.  For example, a fire alarm vendor supplying a “parts and smarts” quote will provide the fire alarm devices which the electrical contractor must install on a dedicated system.  The electrical contractor is expected to furnish the junction boxes, conduit, and wire, for a fire alarm system that has not been designed yet.  Estimating programs might have a “helpful” default for fire alarm takeoffs however they will only quantify the quoted goods.  This means the estimator must carefully supplement the “fire alarm” takeoffs with all the parts and pieces that the fire alarm vendor omitted.  Unless the whole system is attributed to a dedicated breakout, the quoted aspects of the fire alarm will be separated from the costs to furnish and install all the stuff needed to make the vendor’s quote work.

It’s good practice to conduct separate breakout estimates for any quoted goods that involve bidder groups with inconsistent levels of scope delivery.  For example, the breakout combined with parts and smarts quotes can be directly compared to turnkey proposals.

Getting more information out of less data

Reading along, it would be easy to conclude that the best approach is “more breakouts”.  Being better informed certainly helps when making decisions.  To serve its purpose, the estimate must be a condensed explanation of what a project entails.  Specifically, the estimate should reveal what is driving the cost, duration, and risk, of the project.  I’ve encountered plenty of estimates that were so detailed that they buried the meaningful project attributes.  This can be described as the “noise to signal ratio”.  If you’ve ever been listening to a radio station when an adjacent station intruded, you can appreciate how difficult it is to understand what’s being said.

The Request For Proposal (RFP) may list alternates the owner requested alongside breakdowns the Architect wants to see.  The intention and implication of each may serve different purposes which occasionally makes them difficult to understand.

I’ve seen projects with twenty or more breakout requests on the RFP get whittled down to three alternates in the course of a single exchange with the client at the job walk.  Clients and Architects aren’t always considering the quality or the context of the information they’re requesting in the RFP.  It’s often easier to generate a long list of things they might want, than it is to consider which things they would actually be willing to combine.  There’s also a tendency to be additive rather than reductive when tasked with writing a wish list.

For example, lets imagine a project which is comprised of three connected buildings named A, B, and C.  The client asks that all buildings be included in the base bid.  They then ask for an alternate to move building B to the other side of building A, and to omit building C altogether.

Their second alternate request is to build only building’s A and B as originally aligned, omitting C altogether.

At this point, we’re up to three prices due on bid day.  To bid them separately, all the estimating for buildings A and B would be repeated for all three prices.

In contrast, we could arrive at the same answers by answering two questions.  What does building C cost? and “What cost difference is there in moving building B’s alignment with Building A?

That’s one breakout, and one alternate which is never repeated elsewhere in the estimate.  More importantly, the estimate for building C generates 100% of the accuracy with 50% of the data compared to estimating A and B together.  It’s probably a whole lot easier to review an estimate for building C against the drawings than it is to check a “combo bid” against multiple buildings.  If your process is the same for all the buildings, the check on building C will be instructive towards determining if there are issues with your estimate for buildings A and B.

It’s also very significant to note that the building alignment question is pulled out as a line item cost.  This allows careful consideration of what the result implies without the “noise” of building A and B’s total factoring in.  I really can’t stress this enough because alternates are often sparsely documented by the design team.  It’s fairly common for a complex alternate to be completely and exclusively defined in a few sentences on the RFP.  What may sound like a simple “add this” or “take away that” alternate request can generate a long list of subtle consequences to the project.  The knock-on effect for the client is sticker shock.  Estimators who’ve carefully constructed their approach to reveal the subtleties are better equipped to present a solid explanation.

Savvy estimators will have already noticed that this advice could lead to a situation where you win the job and the client selects one of the alternates.  Now when you go to hand off the estimate to a Project Manager (PM), you don’t have a single estimate which perfectly reflects the contract scope of work.

Your options will depend heavily on your software.  In some cases, an estimator can copy the Building C breakout into the base bid and “multiply” the new version by -1 thereby generating a subtraction amount in all takeoffs.  When grouped with the original total, and the relocation alternate, the output would be reconciled to the actual quantities needed.

Without question, this will require additional work, however it’s important to note that most estimators don’t win every bid.  Spending a bit of extra time on those you win is an easy trade to make when you’re sinking less time into the losing bids.  Negotiated agreement or “sure shot” bids should be done so that the estimates can be handed to a PM without confusion, rework, corrections, or delay.

Estimating is about controlling risk to secure profitable work.  We can worry about risk created by the limitations of people and machines, or we can build our operations to accommodate them.  I’ve provided a few examples to show how applying the four P’s can lead to opportunities that competitors only saw as obstacles.

For more articles like this click here

© Anton Takken 2017 all rights reserved

 

 


Power tool safety for estimators Part 1 : Software hazards

There are no shortage of software “solutions” for construction estimating.  It seems like every one is advertised to deliver greater accuracy with less effort so one estimator can do more.  Experience has taught me to be pay attention to the problems these software systems are claiming to solve.  I’ve worked with several of the most popular estimating programs and all of them exhibited basic problems that can really mess up a bid.  Speed and ease are selling points for systems that are very difficult to override when they screw up.   If we think of these programs as the “power tools” of estimating, we can easily see the need for “safety training”.

There is no more important estimating safety tool, than to wear your reading glasses…

Looking at a floor plan, it might be fairly obvious that the flooring is 60% carpet and 40%  vinyl tile.  When the quantity measurements are entered into the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) format , it’s difficult to see the carpet quantity relative to the vinyl flooring because they’re often separated by hundreds of lines in the final estimate.  Many Quantity Take Off (QTO) programs will convert to  square yards when measuring carpet versus square footage for vinyl flooring.  This means that the numeric difference between two installations that are commonly installed in the same areas, will appear nine times less significant than they really are.

Research on perspective enhancement is ongoing…

Take the 60-40% split mentioned above with 1,000 square foot total.  1000 * .6 equals 600 square feet.  Divide 600 by 9 to convert to square yards and you get 66.66 SY.  Compare that to the vinyl at 1000 * .4 and you’ve got 400 square feet.  If you are quickly scanning the output numbers looking for obvious errors, 66 looks a whole lot smaller than 400.  Depending on the software’s report settings, the units of measure might not appear immediately alongside the measured quantity you’re checking.  Trying to check quantities and units in the software can be very tricky when the software doesn’t allow the user to highlight or increase the contrast of a particular line.  That’s a serious downside to software designed with a minimalist aesthetic.  This is why some  estimators prefer to check their work with a printout and a straight edge.

Caution, powerful settings buried below

While I’m on the topic of minimalist aesthetics in software, there are a few other issues that bear mentioning.  Program-specific terminology can be a major stumbling block.  One industry-leading QTO program conceals its ability to multiply repetitive takeoffs like hotel rooms in a multi-story building behind a two item drop-down list.  Neither item on that list alludes to this functionality.  Making things even more difficult, the relationship between floors and rooms are defined by a matrix where the rows are defined through completely different menus than those to define the columns.

The matrix menu allows changes to the rows, but not the columns.  This means that an estimator who’s discovered an error in the columns of the matrix, must close out the screen showing the matrix and return through a completely different set of menu options to fix it.  The window displaying the matrix is limited in size and is only open while a menu is active which means that an apartment building with ten or more unit types cannot display all the rooms and all the floors in a single screen.  This makes error checking much more difficult than it needs to be.  Answering simple questions like “how many apartments are in the estimate?” is profoundly difficult because the program’s design isn’t effective.

QTO programs are often bristling with options to adjust the scale, alignment (level), image rotation, image contrast, etc.  Rarely are these options identified with meaningful terminology, nor are they located to minimize the mouse movement required to operate the program.  Terms like invert, flip, and rotate are scuttled in preference to diminutive arrow icons that all look the same.

I’ve worked with a market leading QTO program that won’t allow a to scale setting change after any substantial amount of takeoffs have been done.  If you discover that the scale is wrong on a page, you have to delete all the takeoffs before you can correct the problem.  Always check that the labeled scale is correct by measuring a known feature.  Be sure to check vertical and horizontal measurements.  More than once I’ve encountered .pdf format drawings with an aspect ratio problem.  Most QTO programs cannot accommodate a separate scale for horizontal  and vertical.

Even relatively innocuous changes can be harder than necessary.  Some programs require multi page menu navigation to achieve what other programs do with a single drop-down list.  All of them get slower in proportion to the total file size of the job.  This leads to an infuriating situation where the program reduces workflow to a crawl right when the estimator has the least amount of time to wait.  The critical lesson here is to confirm that your settings are right early on.

Warning! This machine has no reverse!

Some estimating programs are only capable of importing QTO measurements that add to a takeoff smoothly.  Any sort of deduction, or change of breakout to imported quantities may require a manual import for each individual measurement.  For many estimating systems, the manual overriding triggers an overall update to the estimate which can take several minutes on a large estimate.  If that wasn’t bad enough, it’s not possible to group import several negative measurements.

To the user, this means scrolling through thousands of lines of small print text looking for items that don’t have a small check mark in the “imported” column.  There’s no “search” or “sort” functions to cull the data, nor are there any means to adjust the diminutive single-spaced fonts.  These programs are like a drag race car.  Everything is optimized for moving in only one direction.  If you need to back up, you have to get out and push!  For an estimator with an error in their QTO and a deadline rapidly approaching,  they may need to make some hard decisions.

I recommend using a proposal template that is completely separate from the estimating or QTO program.  A simple spreadsheet or word-processing program will allow the estimator to enter what’s actually needed when time is short.  If/when a situation arises where there is an error in the estimate without sufficient time to  fix it, the totals can be manually adjusted on the proposal template.  I’ve known several contractors who missed a deadline because they couldn’t generate a proposal without fixing a simple subtraction problem with their intractable estimating program.

Repetitive Stress Injuries

Some QTO programs will attribute each assembly takeoff to the plan page of the drawing set.  This gives the estimator a way to determine where the quantities are coming from.  Other QTO programs will allow for repetitive applications like hotels or apartment buildings.  Each “Unit type” can be taken off one time, then their resulting QTO can be attributed to however many repetitions the design requires.  The time savings can be profound, however estimators should be very cautious lest a mistake be multiplied throughout their estimate!

One particularly tricky aspect of this practice pertains to rooms that only appear to be symmetrical.  For example, consider a hotel with L shaped rooms running along a hallway oriented North to South.  The “L” shape intersects between pairs of adjacent rooms so that the “L” is upside down on alternating rooms.

Now for sake of example, let’s say they are all the same room dimensions.  The room finish schedule defines the walls by cardinal directions (North, South, East, and West).   Let’s say that the finish schedule defines the West wall finish as wallcovering (a.k.a. Wall paper).  It’s tempting to simply choose a unit, and measure the West wall to define the wallcovering takeoff for all the rooms.

The problem here, is that the rooms with a long axis on the West wall will have more wallcovering than the rooms with a short axis on the West wall.  Depending on the overall design, and the discipline of the Architect, the odd room numbers may correspond to one condition, with the even-numbered rooms corresponding to the other.   Estimators must  verify for themselves because they are responsible for knowing what is actually required.  Be very careful about getting these measurements correct because even small errors get compounded in repetitive takeoffs.

Transfer traffic safety

Every QTO and estimating program I’ve ever used allowed for user-customized parts/items in the estimate.  The “rules” for how these customized parts work within the larger estimate are similar to pre-defined parts with a couple of notable exceptions.  In most situations the QTO program and the Estimate program are “patched” together via an import/export relationship.  In theory, it’s possible to generate the custom part in either program.  If the part is generated in the estimating program, it needs to be exported to the QTO program to be used for measurements.  On the other hand, if the part is  generated in the QTO program, it needs to be imported into the estimating program.  Depending on the specific nuances of the programs and how the patch works, there will be one direction (import vs. export)  that works better than the other.  Generally, the provided training or tutorial videos accompanying the software bundle will present the direction that works the best.

“Sure, there’s a faster way to get where you’re going but I… wouldn’t recommend it”

Keep in mind that some exports need to happen with the receiving program closed, while others won’t reliably work unless the receiving program is open.  Training videos and software instructors often neglect to mention when the receiving program must be closed for reliable transfer.  It’s on the estimator to pay attention to whether they are opening verses maximizing the receiving program.

Savvy readers will have noticed that I emphasized reliable transfer.  I’ve used several program packages which appear to import and export without any particular issue or error message.   Yet when I check the received information against the sent information, I’ve found custom parts that were not fully transferred.  In my particular case, custom parts that are generated in the estimating program, then exported to the closed  QTO program, will work like any ordinary part for QTO, then will import properly into the open estimating program.  Any other combination leads to failures in about one-third of the cases.

It took me a long time to figure this out because the problem was intermittent.  Once when I was on a technical support call regarding another issue with the software, I mentioned my discovery to the technician.  The technician told me that was a known issue and pointed out that their training videos only depict that specific approach.  It was only after the call that I noticed that their video left out any sort of warning about doing things differently than they recommended.  There’s a lot of that sort of thing in estimating software.  If you’re using the program differently than they envisioned it, there’s no guarantee that it will behave as advertised.

Pop up windows, the Big Red Button of estimating software

Manual overrides are any kind of user-input that interrupts, or changes something during an automatic function.  An estimating program might be configured to provide a pop up window for the user to adjust a variable, or to confirm that a default is acceptable.  Very often, a user-generated custom part will trigger a pop up window during the import.  Every pop up halts the import until it is answered.

In use, the estimator has completed the QTO and has imported all the measurements into the import stack of the estimating program.  The whole import stack is selected and “import all” is initiated.  At this point the program will import the data serially which may take some time if the estimate involves a lot of measurements.  As soon as a custom part is encountered, the pop up window interrupts the import.  Nine times out of ten, the estimator only needs to press the “enter” button to accept the value and continue the import.

This means that the estimator is looking at a twitching display of all the data being imported waiting for a pop up to tap the “enter” button again.  If there are a lot of custom parts, this can mean tapping the “enter” button every few seconds as the program makes its way down the import stack.  Since this is one of the final steps of an estimate and time is always short, the estimator might get anxious for these interruptions to be over.  Woe betide any estimator who taps “enter” before the pop up screen appears!  Inexplicably, this automatically excludes the next part requiring authorization from importation.  There won’t be any error message or notification that this happened.  The program will bury that custom part next to something  in the imported stack and leave it for the user to find.

Similarly, any other manual override pop-up that is “answered” prematurely will generate unpredictable yet consistently counter-productive results.  It behooves the estimator to be patient with these lumbering pop-ups.  A word of caution, if you decide to work on something else while the import is running, be sure to minimize the estimating program entirely to keep it from responding to the “enter” button.  Just be sure to check back periodically to see if there’s another pop up holding up the import.

 Safety net, or hidden snare?  Don’t let dopey defaults do you in

Trade-level estimating programs often feature default functions meant to avoid common mistakes.  For example, an electrical estimating program might trigger an error message if an estimator tries to put an oversized wire into an undersized conduit (protective pipe for wire).  Since these relationships are based on uniform standards like building codes, the defaults here are able to catch a lot of mistakes.  The savvy reader might have noticed that the default “saved” the estimator from mistakenly overfilling a conduit which ranges from a safety hazard to a physical impossibility depending on the degree of the mistake.

Now consider the relationship in reverse.  If the conduit is oversized for the wires within, there is no safety issue.  Since larger conduit is more expensive, it’s important to use the correct size for the application to keep the pricing competitive.

The “safety net” of the defaults only protects against underbidding the job in very specific situations.  Efforts to guide estimators to “just right” assemblies generally revolve around incredibly long lists of every possible permutation.  This is a terribly inefficient approach because the programs lack the intelligence to make reasonable suggestions for what is needed. Forcing an estimator to select one item from a list of one thousand means 99.9% of what’s presented is wrong!  These default lists are tightly packed error inducing machines.

Automatic update, friend or foe?

Another aspect of defaults that can play havoc pertains to “quoted” goods versus commodity pricing.  Trade-level estimating software often features commodity pricing which is updated periodically according to national, and local average databases.  Several trades involve thousands of different parts available in dozens of sizes which means that the complete list for commodities can have 100,000+ items.  Even a modest commercial project can require a thousand or more unique parts.  If all the contractors  requested distributor quotes for every line item on every one of their estimates, the distributors would be overwhelmed and gridlock would be inevitable

Commodity tracking systems are an invaluable aid to trade-level estimators because they automatically adjust the pricing of hundreds of thousands of parts to reflect current market conditions.  Errors can and do happen so it’s important to scan the estimate for anything that stands out.  One very embedded error that occasionally pops up is in the unit of measure for a commodity price.  Some parts are priced per each, others are priced per the hundred count, and still others are per the thousand count.  Commodity price updates might have the correct commodity price with the wrong unit of measure which can shift the commodity cost in your estimate by three orders of magnitude!  I’ve encountered situations where a single unit of measure error in the commodity pricing update added several million dollars to my estimate!

 

Continued in next article:  Power tool safety for estimators Part 2 : Safety in the estimators shop

 

For more articles like this click here

© Anton Takken 2017 all rights reserved


Are pricing revisions costing you work?

Sometimes the estimators job isn’t done at the bid deadline.  Clients, Architects, or the Owners Representatives may have questions for the bidders as they review the bids they’ve received.  In some cases, the estimator will need to make revisions to suit the client’s needs, or to facilitate direct comparison against a competitor.  So far, so good.

Estimators are under pressure to respond quickly because the client is planning to award the contract as soon as they are satisfied with the winners bid.   Clients can be very difficult to reach following a bid so it behooves an estimator to make sure their attention doesn’t drift to a competitors bid.  Most contractors pack the calendar with bids so there is always another deadline looming.  This means that every post-deadline revision is taking time away from the next bid.  Leisurely clients with lots of questions rarely understand the estimators need to hustle.

Are pricing revisions costing you work?

“Sam had a terrible feeling that the client wasn’t going to let the meeting end.”

 

Making the right moves

In times of stress and pressure, it’s helpful to prioritize your tasks.  A client requesting a revision to your bid presents a significant reward for the additional work invested.  Compared to an oncoming deadline for a competitive bid, the client’s request will often take priority because it’s more likely to result in a contract award.  However it’s possible that the Client is calling about a small job with limited profitability compared to the upcoming bid.  The estimators purpose is to secure profitable work for their company by controlling risk.  When everything demands speed, accuracy and competitive pricing, the estimator will see the truth in an old adage.

“Fast, Accurate, or Cheap, you can only pick two.”

With time always in short supply, the estimator must constantly decide between delivering a cheap or an accurate revision.  It’s worth pointing out that the estimators’ wages are generally funded out of overhead.  For many firms, estimating is the only advertising or marketing for the firm.  Time sunk into answering endless questions for a client who awards the contract to a competitor is a costly proposition.  While estimators must make decisions considering uncertainty, their bosses see the outcomes as though there was never any doubt.  Post-bid work is rarely noticed unless it leads to, (or costs you) a contract award.  Many estimators have gotten into trouble this way.

Often smaller General Contractors (GC’s) and subcontractors (subs) aren’t qualified to pursue larger projects for established clients.  Smaller projects are more likely to be for “one-off” projects for sole proprietors who’ve never built anything before.  Inexperienced clients and small budgets are constant companions, which brings us to cost-effective design teams.  Here again, the above adage comes into play.  Incomplete, erroneous, and misleading construction documents (CD’s) are common with clients who have neither the time nor the money for a professional design.  Estimators may expect the number of post-bid revisions to be inversely proportional to the professionalism of the CD’s.

Building a pyramid is an iterative process

Not all client questions are  focused on arriving at a defined outcome.  For example, let’s say a client is trying to reduce cost or waste in their project.  They might ask a question intended to generate a data-point which drives their next question.  With each “layer” of inquiry, they believe they’re cutting away the unnecessary, so that each iteration is better value.  We might imagine this process to look like a pyramid where each layer is successively smaller than the preceding one.

Are bid revisions costing you work?

Above: “An elegant process leading to a difficult position”

The pleasing aesthetics of this process are based on several assumptions that seldom hold true in real life.  For starters, estimators who are competitively bidding have market pressure encouraging them to reduce cost and waste from the project.  It takes great individual knowledge and skill to win competitive bids.  Unless the scope of work, or the risk involved in the work has changed, the client is asking the contractor for information to be used against them.  Estimators know this, so the information provided takes this into account.

Providing information that would reduce profitability, or increase risk is obviously detrimental to the contractor.  As much as possible, the contractor will seek to provide answers to the client in terms of reduced scope, or reduced risk.  Clients are quick to notice that anything that can be cheaply omitted, might be cheaply expanded.  This means that every price the contractor provides has the potential to work against them. Once a price for something has been provided, it becomes a “fact”  separated from the conditions that define it.  Clients will consistently remember the cheapest price they heard for something, and woe betide any estimator who tries to change their mind later on.

In situations where the client requests revisions to revisions, the estimator and the client are poring over the same information repeatedly.  Since the earlier revisions are “fact”, there’s a built-in incentive to assume the earlier work was correct.

Are bid revisions costing you work?

“Good news! We’ve defeated the camouflage but now we’re seeing double”

Between the pressure, the drudgery and the desire to move things along, the estimator may be making quick-but-wrong revisions just to get the client to contract.   Clients obsessively focused on culling waste may talk themselves into cutting out critical project scope.  Estimators foolish enough to price their demands will be rewarded with an angry client, who feels cheated when the critical scope must be restored.

Like most things, it’s pretty clear to see where things went wrong in hindsight.  Clients may have several motivations for their actions, and it behooves the estimator to quickly identify what can be done to bring them to a decision in as few iterations as possible.  It’s my considered opinion that there are three client motivations that should inspire patience and diligence in the estimator.

  • Curiosity
  • Testing the contractors
  • Scope to budget alignment

On the contrary, I believe there are three client motivations which should be cause for concern and reservation.

  • Distrust
  • Dishonesty
  • Incompetence

Answering questions that speak to the client’s curiosity, budget, or desire to vet their contractors will give them what they need to enter a contract that’s beneficial to all concerned.  Conversely, questions driven by incompetence, dishonesty, or distrust are likely to move the project further from an honest and practical effort to award the contract.   “Helping” an incompetent client by pretending every ill-advised question is valid is how a lot of estimators end up with a profitless job and an angry client.  It makes little difference whether the client is distrustful or dishonest when their condition prevents them from awarding a contract in good-faith.   Scoundrels will sometimes feign distrust on the grounds that they don’t know enough to properly protect themselves from greedy contractors.  Demands for post-bid breakout pricing to “prove” that the bidders aren’t overcharging is a common and fundamentally dishonest practice.  The goal here is to make the winning bidder compete against the losers’ breakouts.

Imagine watching a 1600 meter race in the Olympics.  The winner is the one who finishes in the least time.  Should it matter if they were winning at the  400 meter mark?

The client intentionally misled the bidders to believe the contract would be awarded in good faith to the lowest bid submitted before the deadline.   Pretending that it’s “too close to call” is the favorite line of the scoundrel.  Extending the “competition” to continually solicit “run-off” bid revisions for better pricing quickly devolves into outright bid shopping.  It should go without saying that the construction industry’s policy of withholding bid results enables this chicanery.

I’ve awarded half-million dollar contracts that were won by less than $50.00.  I did so cheerfully because my risk of the low bidder having missed something was negligible.  While we’re on the topic, I can only think of three ethical and honest reasons to conduct a “run-off” bid.

#1 The project scope has been significantly changed following a budgetary blowout.  This means that contract award based on the original bid is not possible.   This is notably different from having a “run-off” bid where the two or three lowest bidders are asked to deliver Value Engineering (VE) proposals.  This is dishonest because any VE ideas lifted from contractors who weren’t hired constitutes a theft.  Any estimator who participates in this kind of run-off should seek easier ways of helping their competitors!

#2 A contract was terminated after the project started, but before it reached completion.  The contractors who originally bid the job are in a better position to estimate the cost of taking over the project.  Taking over a failed contract presents a lot of risk which will deter bidders.  Asking only the second and third place bidders from the original bid for a run-off bid reduces their competition which may encourage them to bid.

#3 Two or more bidders sent proposals for the exact same amount.  If this is the case, the client should be careful to disclose the actual bid amount so all the affected parties know the client is conducting an honest bid.

So how do we apply all of this?

Estimators who find themselves with a client whose revisions seem endless should create an opportunity to speak directly to the client. Emails, faxes, and messages won’t do because there is no control over the narrators tone in our reader’s imagination.  A direct conversation provides nuance that is essential to diplomacy.

It’s been my experience that offering gentle resistance by presenting questions or your own, can disrupt the iterative patterns to reveal the clients motivations.

For example, I called one client who was on their fifth iteration of the bid in as many hours.  When I was on the line with the client, I explained that whenever a client requests so many changes, I assume I’m not getting them what they need.  This little disruption shifted our dynamic from call and response, to collaboration.  From there I could help them to define their problem, along with thresholds for acceptable solutions.  Working within that understanding, I was able to bring everything to conclusion with one final revision.

That’s not to suggest that all clients will respond as well.  I had a similar situation where I tried the same approach.  This client was only interested in breakout pricing to see “who was really low”.  Everything was presented as though the decision was just one unanswered question away, yet it’s just “too close to call” the original bid.  More than one such client, added scope of work in each revision over the span of several days, then called (to avoid written record)  to say they’d like to hire me if only I would do all the extra work for my original price.

Are bid revisions costing you work?

“If you show them where to cut, you won’t like it when they do.”

I’ve also had GC’s as clients who blustered officiously about how it’s their “standard procedure” to  answer even the most perilous questions from a client.  They didn’t care that it was potentially ruinous to the trust of all parties involved.  A question was asked, and it’s their duty to answer it.  It would be difficult to imagine another situation where someone could honestly work so hard to  appear incompetent, dishonest, and lazy to their client. As a sub, it’s not “good optics” to let a GC put your name on their mistakes.  Rookies at the GC level are particularly likely to cause this problem, which is why their subs won’t follow instructions.

Good reputations can take a lifetime to earn, but only a moment to lose.

Estimators inclined towards a more charitable view of their incompetent or dishonest clients should consider how costly a failed project can be.  The people involved can either generate, or ameliorate the projects risk.  Estimators should consider their part in the projects risk.   How did the pricing revisions affect the project risk?  How did the outcome of your efforts compare to your intentions?  If pricing revisions are costing you work, look back on your efforts to identify where you might have taken a different approach.  Estimating is more than measurements and spreadsheets.  Thinking beyond the obvious process reveals opportunities to set your work apart from competitors.

 

For more articles like this click here

© Anton Takken 2017 all rights reserved