Tag Archives: Accountability

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.

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© Anton Takken 2020 all rights reserved

 

 


Honesty speaks

Construction firms love to advertise their integrity, their honesty, and their commitment to doing their best.  In contrast, we don’t see a lot of advertising space used to mention on-time deliveries, site logistics, or accurate accounting.  Surely the client cares about their project’s timely completion as much as their contractors integrity, so what’s going on?

Honesty speaks

Maybe we need to put up more safety banners?

If advertising exists to encourage clients to select your firm over your competitors, it would appear that most construction advertising operates on the assumption that contractor selection hinges on the client’s perception of your honesty.  By extension, this communicates that there aren’t noteworthy differences in abilities, experience, equipment, trade-craft, market share, or purchasing power for the client to consider.  In most companies, the estimating staff is a huge portion of their marketing efforts.  Often it’s estimators who form the clients first impression of their firm.  How well does the estimators actions align with the firm’s message?

Standards versus statements

Taking another approach, if we assume that the principles of these firms are simply advertising based on their deeply held beliefs, we must then ask how they go about ensuring that their staff meet these expectations.  Without enforceable standards, these are merely hollow statements.  In my experience, most of them are.  There are discussions among various estimator groups about how to create some form of ethical guidelines or integrity-based mission statement for the vocation.  Lacking a means to enforce standards, it’s more likely to attract scoundrels seeking legitimacy, than it is to attract honest professionals seeking company.

Honesty speaks

Don’t be fooled by the diploma he bought online,  Eddy didn’t study like his classmates.

Gray areas and grease

The first stumble towards enforceable standards will come from folks who are surrounded by “gray areas”.  Absolutely every opportunity to do the right thing is carefully weighed against an opportunity to feign confusion that just so happens to lead them to a more pleasing outcome.  I’ve personally encountered estimators who thought nothing of revealing their dishonest choices, right before they asked for my help.

For example: “I know we bid this one several months back with the promise that we’d hire the subs on that round of bidding, but you only beat your competitor by a few hundred bucks so we figured we’d have the two low bidders go another round to see what we could save…”

They broke their first promise to hire the low bidder on the last round of bidding.  They’re specifically telling me that they knew that hiring me was low risk because I’d just barely beaten a competitor thereby proving the price was market value.  Now they’re telling me that they’re hoping to “save money” on another round of competitive bidding.

The GC won the job on the basis of my bid.  Now they’re pretending that it’s “too close to call” to see if they can eke out some additional profitability (at no risk) by making me compete on the job I already won.  Plus, they’ve likely provided my competitor with bid results so we both know what the GC’s maximum price is for our scope of work.

The impressive thing about this person is that they think it’s fair because both companies have an equal opportunity to win on this round.  It makes no difference if the mechanism is a formal bid, backroom bid-shopping or a verbal auction, this person won’t do the right thing unless it’s the most profitable option.

Honesty speaks

Your reputation is like a shadow that reveals the outcome before the game

Ethical obligation to win

I’ve written before about how estimators must have clarity of purpose.  Estimators exist to win profitable work.  Some folks interpret this to mean that they must win, then make the job profitable via bid-shopping, collusion, and other deplorable (if not illegal) actions.  This self-defeating approach ignores that successful businesses will need to reliably win work in your market continuously.  Cheating the subcontractors (subs) will only work until the General  Contractor (GC) burns their last bridge.  These are the GC’s who are constantly begging for bids.  They’re not calling with a great opportunity, they’re simply out of trusting subs.  Estimators should consider their reputation to be a vital means of winning work.  GC’s who attract market leading subs will not only win more, but they’ll get better pricing allowing them to achieve higher profitability than any of their competitors.

Accurate estimating, and proving the truth

Construction estimating has a paradoxical relationship with the truth.  Consider how best practices for estimating call for detailed quantity take offs (QTO’s) that are tabulated according to material, labor, etc.  Every effort is made to accurately reflect the real world costs of the project.  Upon request, the estimator can provide facts, figures, measurements, and detailed illustrations to prove any aspect of the project’s cost.  Yet when we consider estimating in relationship to the market, specifically focusing on how an individual estimator may prove they’re acting with integrity, the trail goes cold.

Bid results are supposedly provided “upon request”.  On the rare occasion that a GC provides bid results on the record, the information provided will often be stripped of accuracy, context, or actionable content.  Off-the-record bid results are far more common because there’s plausible deny-ability for the GC.

Honesty speaks

Silence and plausible deny-ability are rarely good when you’re on the receiving end…

Considering that the underlying agreement of an Invitation to bid (ITB) is to solicit free sub proposals in exchange for either the fair award of the contract, or bid results, it would seem rather obvious that proving fairness is a basic estimating necessity.

Broadcast

GC estimators are already mass-communicating project information to the sub market.  Everything is optimized for efficiency, speed, and competition before the bid deadline.  This is because even a small delay could spell defeat.  After the deadline, everything goes to silence because the winning GC will need time to check the bid for errors, and to be sure of which subs they will award.

The losing GC’s have no such obligations or concerns.  In fact, timely, accurate, voluntary, and public bid results would give their bidders the information they need to curtail any cheating.  More to the point, sharing the information as a public broadcast provides transparency and accountability.  This incredibly simple approach is much easier than answering hundreds of subs asking for bid results.  It’s just as easy to publish bid results when you’ve won, with the notable requirement that it’s delayed until the letters of intent are sent out.  Subs will happily accept this modest concession to discretion, to have proof of fair-dealing.

Meaningful marketing

If Clients are seeking Contractor virtue in terms of integrity and honesty, it’s time to have enforceable standards, made meaningful by transparency.  Estimators are uniquely able to prove they walk the talk by publishing bid results publicly.  Giving clients an insight into how the company acts with integrity to respect and protect their industry makes for a great first impression.  Perhaps more importantly, the client would be empowered to identify what an honest firm does differently.

 

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved

 


Stress and boredom

Life as a construction estimator involves a lot of ebb and flow. Building estimates, doing quantity take offs (QTO’s) and tabulating results can range from steady progress, to boring slogs through minutia. Sharply contrasted are bid days which can move at a fevered pace studded with snap decisions that will make or break all the work that’s gone before.

There’s a hidden nuance to this pattern; boredom is its own kind of stress. Tedious or repetitive measurements are prone to error because it’s difficult to recognize subtle differences when everything looks the same. Conscientious estimators know that boredom can lead to mistakes. It can be very frustrating because checking for mistakes often means going through the same boring material. Each review loses its potency until you’re so familiar with the material that you’ve lost perspective.

Stress and boredom

Even estimators who aren’t worried about making mistakes can find boredom stressful. Tedious and repetitive tasks are the “grunt work” of estimating. In firms with a dedicated estimating department, the hierarchy often dictates who does what. Since General Contractors (GCs) employ fewer estimators than Project Managers, Project Engineers, and Superintendents, the estimator advancement potential at any given firm is typically tied to vacancies or company growth. This can lead to situations where seniority is a greater factor in advancement than skill, ability, or performance. For the perpetual “junior” or “assistant” estimator, this can mean years of doing the grunt work without much opportunity to advance your skills. Human Resource professionals refer to this condition as “underutilization” and it’s been shown to harm morale, and reduce productivity.

Stress is often discussed in exclusively negative terms which can serve to conceal the real picture of what’s going on. For example, bid day can be described as a hectic experience with plenty of hazards to negotiate. Bid day might also be described as the culmination of weeks of labor where all the parts come together according to plan, ending in a well-deserved victory. Lots of folks are so used to thinking of estimating as a brief process in a larger chain of events that it becomes reasonable or them to think that generating a price is like turning a crank. Smooth and uneventful bidding reinforces this perception while concealing the work it took to get there.

Being part of a well-organized and highly motivated team of professionals can be exhilarating. Spending the day in constant motion makes it seem like time is flying past. However it’s often difficult to “let go” of everything in your free time. As an estimator I’ve lost more sleep thinking about mundane jobs than I’d like to admit.

Stress and boredom

Smoothing the peaks and filling the valleys

From an outsiders perspective, it might be difficult to see what estimators are getting so worked-up over. To most folks, estimating is a combination of ringing up a total like a cashier, and running an audit of the plans. The reality is that estimating is about controlling risk. There are many forms of risk to contend with, but uncertainty is the one that attracts the most estimator attention. QTO’s go a long way towards becoming certain of what’s required. The natural extension of this thinking is that greater detail leads to higher certainty. The problem is that time is always limited, and there are risks beyond what’s depicted in the drawings that must be accounted for. Minutia nourishes limited perspectives while starving big-picture thinking. Estimators need to understand the driving forces of a project in meaningful and actionable terms. GC estimators should build their estimates to furnish pertinent information for comparing and scoping subcontractor bids. For example, it’s not as important to know component level pricing (screws, nails, etc) as it is to know assembly level (meeting room carpet, air handling unit, etc.) pricing.

There’s a balancing point to be struck on relative detail. You’ll always feel better with a bit more information, but you can achieve a lot with a bit more time early on. When it comes to the really tedious QTO stuff, it’s worth taking the time to consider how useful that information will be. It damages a lot of ego’s to point out that perfect QTO’s of low-value and high tedium items have little bearing on successful bidding. Time sunk into tedious tasks early in the bid cycle robs you of time to develop strategies, answer questions, and direct resources to make the entire estimate successful.

Rather than strictly recording quantities for later comparison, your time might go towards communicating intentions which leaves less potential for discrepancy on bid day. Estimators looking to control risk should remember that losing the job through misplaced priorities is a very real possibility. Perfect spreadsheets are little consolation for lost opportunities.

Routine tasks

Some routine tasks lend themselves to interruption or working in stages, like QTO’s for example. There are some tasks that must be completed entirely or you’ll lose time constantly attending to remaining items that won’t wait.  The Invitation to bid (ITB) is a simple document that conveys the who, what, when, where, and why of the project to the invited subcontractors. Incomplete ITB’s are distressingly common, especially among GC’s who are using a bid-letting software/service. Documents that generate more questions than answers ensure that the estimator will be constantly interrupted by bidders looking for necessary information. Creating an ITB that gives bidders everything they need will take longer to assemble, but it leaves much less for follow-up. Being able to move on from a routine task not only reduces your stress, it’s a vital stage of a successful bid.

It bears mentioning that time spent on bidder convenience is often an investment in reliable turnout. One obvious and constantly overlooked element is the how the Construction Documents (CDs) are configured. It’s a waste of a subs time to download an enormous drawing file just to access a single page. The old argument that giving subs the entire set guarantees they’ll catch the buried architectural note, is hollow because it’s the GC estimators job to find all the “gotcha” nonsense, and communicate it to the subs. Label the individual sheets with accurate and understandable terms. Whenever possible, group the sheets by discipline (Civil, Structural, Architectural, Interior Design, Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, etc.) to speed bidders to the files they actually need. Be advised that delegating this task to the office receptionist, or summer intern is a risky move because they rarely understand the pivotal importance of naming things properly.

Stress and boredom

Office designers are finally addressing interns in the workplace

Estimators should develop the habit of organizing their work to maximize expediency, reliability, and professionalism because it’s very likely they’ll need answers in a hurry.

While we’re on the topic of file storage, it’s a good practice to maintain saved copies on more than one machine. For example if the company server goes down, you might need to progress on your standalone computer. Having older iterations on file allows you to “fall back” if your most current version gets corrupted. Plus, it can be handy to have time stamped “save points” to plot your progress through your work afterwards. Don’t forget to maintain this practice on bid-day. It might save your bid should the “war room” computer falter at a vital moment.

Perspective on pressure

About the only thing worse than a tedious takeoff, is knowing that you’re running out of time to get it done. Procrastination and poor planning leads to a lot of unnecessary overtime. We hear about how working well under pressure is a vital quality in an estimator, but there’s little curiosity about the source of the pressure. Estimators need to get their heads up and pay attention to the scope of their own operation. How long does it really take you to get the QTO done for this or that? Working backwards from the deadline, how does the sum of your estimated durations line up with reality?

Fighting the clock

It’s ironic that stressed-out estimators are often unwilling to apply their craft to their own schedule. Create a schedule, then track your time against it so you’ll see when and where you’ll need corrections. Every successive schedule will become more and more accurate. Identify where most of your time is spent, and take stock of what that means. If you’re constantly answering bidder questions, you might consider publishing a bid-directive that proactively answers group questions.

Slow grind

If you’re mired in QTO, it might be time to look into better software, hardware, training, or templates. Looking back at your performance, you should see an increase in QTO speed without any loss in accuracy. If you’re not improving with experience, you’ll almost certainly stagnate or stress out. It’s not discussed much, but lots of GC’s do painstaking estimates on things like paint, but square foot cost items like Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) simply because they don’t know enough about those trades. The MEP trades are among the most expensive subs on a typical project. These estimators would be better served by square foot costing the paint, and spending the time learning what drives MEP pricing.

Quick-hitter quicksand

If you’re constantly transmitting RFI’s, Addenda, and bid-directives for quick-hitter bids, you might find relief in a higher level of client. Insincere, underfunded, and unprofessional clients rarely attract top-level design teams. It’s a LOT more work to bid an incomplete design for an underfunded client and you’ll have little to nothing to show for it. Marketing folks are loath to admit that low barrier to entry clients are the most likely to waste an estimators time. Tire-kickers aren’t clients, pretending otherwise is busy work theater and you’ll be the star of the show! Conceptual pricing techniques shouldn’t drift into design-build territory.

Stress and boredom

Bob’s not sure why he never wins, but he’s having fun and that’s the important part.

There’s a lot of fast ways to render a courtesy bid without wasting your companies (or your subs) resources. Good record keeping builds a vital reference resource for these tasks.

Redundant department of redundancy

Some GCs strongly believe that good sub turnout on bid day is directly tied to “working the phones”. Nagging subcontractors to bid is an incredible time-sink that’s based on a fundamentally flawed perspective of how bidder relationships should work. Estimators often call a project an “opportunity” because a competitive bid offers professionals a chance to win a contract by doing their best as part of a team. If the GC or the project lack sufficient luster to attract market leading subcontractor attention, it’s spectacularly unlikely that any amount of nagging will change that. Building “pull” with subcontractors is a function of establishing a valued relationship with the market. Winning bids obviously gets the market’s attention, but so too, does transparency, honesty, and leadership. There’s a lot a GC estimator can do to bid an “ugly” project successfully. Nagging is never the answer. Voluntary, accurate, and timely bid results are the single most effective means for building pull in your market.

Furious futility

Some GC’s respond to lost bids by increasing the volume of bidding in the hopes that volume will lead to victories. Grinding out bids as quickly as possible means that there’s never time for strategy, skill, or teamwork. There’s never a shortage of low-end clients looking for quick-hitter bids. Sadly, the majority will be fruitless because insincere clients and urgent bid requests are constant companions.

If you’re tracking your estimates, you’ll be able to assess projects in terms of how successful you expect to be. Lots of companies think they’re excellent at everything, but the reality is that most companies are only market leaders in specific areas. Estimators should keep in mind that the project management side of their firm may adore a client or design team that’s generated profitable change orders. Being profitable on the basis of what might happen is better known as gambling. Estimators should be looking for work that will be profitable at the bid amount. GC estimators should learn to look at their market potential in terms of their subcontractor base. If the GC can’t attract market leading subs for the work in question, they’re going to lose to a contractor who can. Picking work that aligns with your best subs abilities is critical to success. Most GC’s see this entirely backwards. They pick projects that look profitable, easy, or fun to manage. If they chose work that aligned with their market leading subs, there would be less difficulty, and more profitability, regardless of how fun, pretty, or prestigious the project appears to be.

Blind faith in the process             

Estimators need to maintain a sense of purpose. You’re there to profitably win work by controlling risk. While we spend a lot of our time building estimates, it’s vitally important to maintain perspective on the market, competitors, and clients. There’s entirely too much blind faith placed on QTO’s, spreadsheets, and bureaucracy. Estimators need to see what’s really going on and they need to respond accordingly. Contracts are awarded to the best market value, if you don’t know what that is, you’ll struggle to profitably compete.

Perspective is an investment

The key to building a meaningful perspective is to faithfully record what’s happened on past bids. Bid results are often treated as a vestigial appendage of the estimators craft. “Yeah, yeah, we lost but we’ll do better next time…” neatly sums up the attitudes of many estimators. The bid cost real time and real money to produce. It’s truly remarkable how little effort goes into defining how a job was lost, compared to the work put into bidding. With a more accurate picture of what happened on a loss, the next bids benefit from refined judgment. REALLY simple things like getting a winning competitors sub on your bid list can make all the difference. There’s an interesting element to post-bid investigations that’s constantly overlooked. You get more information from your allies, when you share more information with your allies. Once an estimator has lost their bid, they’ve got plenty of useful information to exchange that can materially change their position on the next bid.

Stress and boredom

Earlier I brought up career stagnation in estimating and it’s here that I hope to offer some help to the folks trapped on the lower rungs. Most GC’s aren’t particularly scientific about tracking their bids, their subs, or their markets. By and large, they trade on their established contacts in their market which brings them varying degrees of success according to luck, market conditions, and subcontractor quality. If you’re doing the grunt work without seeing much opportunity for advancement, I encourage you to build your own tracking systems to help define for yourself what is and isn’t working. Be advised that your daily tasks are higher priorities to your superiors so it may be necessary to invest your personal time.

Be cautious about relying on small data sets, or those with wide-ranging values that will skew results. In time you’ll develop perspective on your clients, your market, and your subs. If you decide to offer suggestions on how things might change, you’ll have facts and figures to lend credence to your perspective. Advancement is never guaranteed, but you’re wiser for the effort and you’ll learn what to look for wherever you go. It’s worth pointing out that we’ve all learned from those who went before us. Do your part to improve our craft by sharing what you’ve learned. I’ve found that a policy of forthright honesty has been a profound and enduring advantage against my competitors.

Policy driven pinch points

The bid-day blitz can be a terrifically stressful experience for a GC estimator. Bids come rushing in at the last moment and everything must be done at high speed if you’re to make the deadline. Last minute sub proposals aren’t happening by accident. It’s a calculated effort to limit or obstruct bid-shopping by starving the estimators of time to act. Getting right to the root of the problem, last-minute bids are a sign that the market views corruption as a serious threat. The lack of trust may be anywhere in the supply chain. Corruption thrives in secrecy and wherever it’s possible to curtail competition.

Accountable transparency is the only effective way to counter corruption. It’s predictably unpopular because it requires a strong moral compulsion to act when it won’t help you directly or immediately. Lots of people opt to remain silent which prevents the honest majority from working together.

Stress and boredom

Estimators need to understand that they can’t win work alone. Company policies that work against transparency, accountability, profitability, and good judgment should be questioned and if necessary, changed. Estimators need to be able to show the market that they are ethical professionals if they’re to be market leaders.   It’s worth saying that accountability means facing repercussions for mistakes. Estimators should take heart in knowing that while accountable transparency will reveal their honest mistakes, it won’t conceal their honest intentions.

To recap, much of an estimators daily stress comes from incomplete tasks, dysfunctional relationships, and misplaced priorities. With greater perspective, we can find avenues to re-direct our energies towards successful outcomes. Boredom is an insidious source of stress with roots in minutia. We must make the connection between utility and effort before we commit our valuable resources to proving things we already know. Growing our base of knowledge and sharpening our decision-making skills should be constant pursuits. Finally, we should all do our part to improve our craft by acting ethically, sharing what we’ve learned, and facilitating advancement in our ranks.

 

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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved


Stuff nobody will tell you about estimating

I suspect every profession has a few hidden qualities you wouldn’t discover until you’d been at the job a while. Estimating has some interesting features that can really make or break your chances of success, provided there’s somebody to point them out to you.

Speed is your friend

On the surface, estimating seems to be about careful measurements, considered accounting, and an overwhelming obsession with minute detail. In practice, successful estimating is about time management. General Contractor (GC) estimators are responsible for getting the information out to their subcontractors (subs) as well as getting the subs questions answered by the design team. Every problem needs time to resolve so it’s really important to maintain rapid communications during the bid.

Stuff nobody will tell you about estimating

Mobile office solutions, speeding you on your way to the next crash…

It’s really tempting to silence your phone and ignore your email for a few hours to get something done. Which leads to the next item…

Leadership is more important than takeoffs

If your estimate relies on sub or vendor quotes, your first priority should always be to providing direction, insight, and encouragement to those bidders. Specifically, your efforts should be directed towards finding a unique and advantageous approach to the project. Ineffective estimators tend to assume that there’s something special about their company that will ensure that bidders will give them their best efforts. In a vacuum of leadership, subs will hedge towards protecting their own interests which never means low prices.

Perspective, then persistence

Hard work and persistence are admirable qualities that absolutely will not lead to success on their own. Lots of estimators assume that bidding and winning have a cause and effect relationship. It’s true that you can’t win if you don’t bid. However the reverse is not always true because there are insincere/unfunded clients with projects bidding that have no chance of being awarded. Sadly these clients consume the lion’s share of the slow market. While they can occur at any level of the market, these clients tend towards the bottom strata wherever they appear. They can be identified by their incomplete plans, short deadlines, multiple alternates, and resistance to answering questions. Everything is supposed to start right away despite the lack of permits, or even plans that would pass building department review. These clients range from uninformed neophytes, to jaded negotiators. What they have in common is the general belief that they don’t owe the low bidders a contract award in exchange for the free bids.

In the worst cases, the client will use the proposals to inform their negotiations for bid shopping. “Helping” an unethical client to award your competitor is a destructive use of your time. Morally flexible estimators might think it’s great to be the person such a client calls to “negotiate” with. Clients who bid shop are cheating all the companies who bid in good faith.   These negotiations open with two assumptions; the client is never fair to their contractor, and they think you aren’t smart enough to see that.

Any estimate that will not lead to contract is a waste of time. Better estimators don’t make better clients. Until such time as estimators can seek recompense for time wasted on feckless clients, we must protect our companies interests by declining to bid. In hard times, the estimator must be prepared to accept that this means precious few real opportunities will exist. This reality escapes those consumed with hope that behind every half-baked set of plans lies a great opportunity. The fact remains, when the good clients exit, the market declines. Down markets always have lots of terrible clients wasting everyone’s time with profitless jobs that rarely happen. It’s the only time they can attract bidders.

Stuff nobody will tell you about estimating

“Attention everyone, ship Desperation is now boarding..”

There is no market for bad news

Estimators looking to trade publications, and mass-media for relevant information on their market are bound to discover that there are precious few articles that will admit when things are bad in the present. Unless the article is written to influence an election, you can count on the article to refer to bad markets in the past tense framed in the perspective of steady improvement since then.

Periods of intense bidding with low backlog should indicate that contractors are starving for work and are chasing whatever is out to bid. Often, these times are couched in phrases like “Bidding picked up in the 4th quarter signaling potential growth this spring”.

Once spring rolls around and the summer rush work comes out to bid, these articles will say “Despite holiday season slow-downs, construction steadily climbs”.

This optimistic world-view is on display whenever you talk to other estimators. Go to a job walk and eventually you’ll hear someone ask; “You guy’s staying busy?”. With rare exception, the response is merely a list of the most impressive sounding projects that estimator won within the last nine months or so. Nobody likes a downer but it’s important to understand that what you’re hearing is not the entire truth. Estimators must learn to look beyond what’s said, and listen for what is missing.

If you’re struggling to land work, consider what you’re hearing from others. If the projects listed at a job walk are all finishing up, that’s a strong indicator that new victories aren’t newsworthy which may suggest that your problems are shared. Subs bidding to GCs should pursue bid results aggressively. GC’s are often more candid about the client, and the market after they’ve lost a bid. Estimators who speak truthfully and share what they see often benefit from information shared in kind. GC estimators are often listening intently to the nuance of what their subs are telling them. Don’t get too involved in trying to appear strong when you’re trying to find work.  Posturing sends the wrong message.

Decisions define us

Estimators exist because it’s not possible to simply “add everything up” like a cashier. Simply put, estimators must make decisions about what to do when things aren’t perfectly clear. The lack of information is a risk, making a decision on how to handle that risk means you’re accepting responsibility for the outcome of that decision. It’s easy to see that decisions based on the worst case scenario is the most likely to add money and time to your estimate. GCs who habitually sandbag their estimates are communicating their priorities. Competitive sub bids will go where they won’t be squandered.

While on the topic of unclear plans, it’s worth commenting on motivations. Missing, incomplete, or contradictory requirements may be a symptom of design team motivations. Estimators who’ve reviewed plans from a design-build project may notice that the plans have far fewer notes, and shorter specifications than projects developed for hard-bidding. Design professionals working on hard-bid projects are primarily concerned with their liability.

Design teams know that budget blowouts are a frequent outcome of bidding. Costly items are often sparsely mentioned on plans in the hopes they’ll be overlooked by the contractors. These buried notes are an owner-placating feature that the designer is trying to buy with the contractors money.

Stuff nobody will tell you about estimating

It’s rare to see such a perfect application for existing technology

Their decision to be predatory speaks volumes on their character. Exposing these traps through Request For Information (RFI’s) is how you can control risk without losing the job.

The advantage of ethics

Dishonesty is rampant in the construction industry. Incomplete plans labeled “100%”, or unrealistic schedules, are simple examples but this issue runs deeper. Information is withheld simply because it’s less risky to remain silent.

Bid results are traditionally provided upon request.  In practice, this typically means the GC estimator plays “keep away” with the information until it’s all but assured that the sub will never profit from it. Some GC’s are so focused on their own interests that it borders on cruelty. Providing bid results is seen as additional work that only benefits subs.

The deal offered to subs is to either award them a contract or furnish them with bid results in exchange for a free bid. GCs should promptly and publicly furnish this information to recompense subs for their bids. Better informed subs deliver better bids.

Acting ethically can present huge advantages beyond good-will. Trustworthy estimators benefit from stronger relationships with their vendors and subs. There’s less risk in working with honest people, lower risk means lower prices, which means you’re harder to beat and more profitable than your competitors.

It won’t do much good to pursue the bottom of the market with high-minded principles. However an established reputation for fair-dealing has a way of opening doors to quieter opportunities. The very best clients choose to work with honest contractors. There may be fewer opportunities compared to the hardscrabble market. However the work you’ll land is more successful, and reliably profitable than the high volume of profitless work out for public bidding.

Good estimators have pull

With all the information going back and forth, it’s easy to overlook a vital aspect of an estimators craft. GC estimators rely on subcontractor proposals to help define, describe, and value the scope of work. Attracting market attention is a function of a good opportunity, minimized risk, and profitability. Market leaders will avoid unprofitable, risky, or difficult projects. As an estimator it’s easy to think that the project’s intrinsic qualities aren’t under your control. To be sure, there are definite challenges in bidding ugly work.

The estimator must understand why they’re pursuing a project. Simply grinding out bids because a Request For Proposal (RFP) landed on your desk is what I call bid-milling. Bid-milling is the practice of chasing everything in the hopes that higher volume of bidding will create profitable wins.

Stuff nobody will tell you about estimating

It’s not a good look

This never works because each firm will be a market leader for specific opportunities. A contractor with a high volume of losses communicates that they’re not a real contender. The market-leading subs won’t waste a bid on GC’s who aren’t sincere about winning.

A GC estimator needs to understand that a mediocre project with a good client can be made into a profitable and low-risk opportunity through their leadership. GC’s who habitually work for good clients naturally attract market leaders. Contractors with a history of well-managed and reliably profitable projects are able to reduce the risk of less professional clients and their design teams. All of this starts with the estimators commitment to controlling risk.

Estimators who pursue good opportunities with accountable leadership, ethical dealing, and meaningful feedback are more successful than their competitors because they are the professionals, that everyone wants to work with.

I encourage you to consider those actions carefully. These simple actions are profoundly rare in professional estimating because most folks think their situation is different, therefore some aspect doesn’t apply to them.

Success in this craft requires clarity and intent above all else. There are no shortcuts with something this simple.

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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 


Industry problems we can solve

I’m sure every industry has some practices that are not ideal or could do with improvement. The construction industry is home to some really detrimental practices that are as rooted in ignorance as they are in tradition. Estimators have a unique opportunity to lay the groundwork to move their companies away from some of the worst practices. Like most worthwhile things, it’s going to take extra work, greater perspective, and a commitment to long-term planning. My intention is to list issues that are hurting the construction industry along with possible solutions for the estimator.

Problem: There’s much more risk than reward

General Contractors (GCs) take on the project risk when they are awarded the contract. It’s a critical concept to understand that although they may subcontract (sub) out portions of the work to spread the risk, they are looking at a liability until the work is properly completed. While many entrepreneurs would focus on the profit amount, the estimator must understand that the average construction contract presents FAR more risk than reward.

Industry problems we can solve

“You’ll never taste anything like this again!”

Setting the project-driven risk aside, the average net profit for a GC is quite low compared to other industries. It’s very difficult to win competitive bids with higher profit margins.

Possible Solution: Owners representative at-risk.

Clients naturally want a contract to address all their concerns. The most popular solution is the adversarial relationship between the owners representative and the GC. In most cases, the Architect serves as owners rep. The Architect typically develops the plans, specifications, and contract which are collectively known as construction documents (CD’s). This creates a situation where the party most able to affect the project cost, duration, and risk, is the least responsible for these ramifications to the owner. GC’s are under contract to perform the work regardless of what the Architect throws at them. It’s especially critical to understand that Schools of Architecture do not regularly include curriculum on contracts, scheduling, business, or management. Ostensibly, Architects rose to fill a leadership gap because they understand the project vision better than anyone else.

Industry problems we can solve

“Without expert interpretation, this might seem like a bad idea…”

Their critical role in ensuring that the design integrity is maintained has been waylaid into construction management. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Architects are miserable largely because of the management meetings.

Accountable construction management between the design team and the build team is the solution. Accountability is assured by sharing risk and reward. I suggest that the traditional retainage of 10% of contract value be the monetary risk the Construction Manager (CM) and Architect individually face under their contracts. As owners rep, the CM would have contractual authority to direct, approve, or decline changes to both the build team and the design team on the client’s behalf. Naturally the CM would need to be an entirely independent entity. Basic CM services would start before the bid, to provide conceptual pricing assistance, constructability review, and bid list selection. CMs would then conduct the bid, collate the results and present their recommendation to the client.

Industry problems we can solve

“Now yer digging where there’s taters!”

Since some clients stall out after the bid, CM’s should seek an hourly rate for all their pre-contract award work. Estimates are not free, clients need to face financial liability for wasting the markets time.

But what about negotiated agreements and/or GMP contracts?

GCs reading this might naturally claim that they’d do all of this under a negotiated agreement, potentially saving their client the fees of an unnecessary representative. In the best possible case, the GC will act professionally and ethically to deliver the best possible value to their client. In my experience, the average GC will interpret this to mean that the risk created by Architects as Owners rep, is a monetary inclusion into the GC’s  bottom line. Simply put, the GC knows the client won’t pay for additional costs that their architect caused, so the GC pads their bid to guard against losses. These Architects are led to believe they are infallible, as their tab is quietly deducted from a secret fund. As long as the build team must work around unaccountable oversight, the risk will hurt the client and the contractor which ultimately damages the entire market.

Guaranteed Maximum Price contracts are often the outcome of a CM at-risk contract arrangement. The problem with this approach is the inverse of the negotiated agreement in that the owners rep is the GC’s employee first, and the client’s second. The project risk is still carried by the General Contractor, but augmented by their authority to direct the design beforehand. There still isn’t an independent, and accountable owners representative which means the client will not capitalize on controlled risk.

Problem: We must estimate the risk and the job, but the client awards only the low bidder.

Estimators prepare bids which are driven by estimates. The trick is that all the unqualified uncertainty that makes estimating necessary, is contractually ignored!

Consider the paraphrased example of how bids progress into jobs:

Client: Quick, how much to build this design?

GC: We estimate the cost of what we see right now at $X amount.

Client: Here is your contract in the sum of $X amount, get going!

Architect: Here are the revised plans including the building department comments…

GC: That will cost $Y amount extra

Client: Typical contractor, ignore stuff you know we’d need then hit me for change orders!

Now consider this alternate example:

Consider the paraphrased example of how bids progress into jobs:

Client: Quick, how much to build this design?

GC: We estimate the cost of what we see and what we think you’ll need at $X + $Y amount.

Client: I’m sorry, your number wasn’t competitive.

Possible solution: Stop providing free construction consultation services.

GC estimators eager to sell their firm, forfeit their leverage to encourage an ethical contract award. Pricing what the design team missed, (or didn’t include) for the client, drives a pattern where design teams use “free” bids to outsource their responsibilities. Clients could contractually bind their design teams to accept responsibility for errors and omissions in their work. Notification of this contractual obligation could be included in the RFP. Alternately, the client could hire a CM as owners rep who would share a portion of the Architect’s accountability for errors and omissions in the CDs. The CM’s accountability should be likewise published in the RFP. Cut the risk and the price of construction will fall.

Industry problems we can solve

Clients must understand that design-side risk should be design-side responsibility. Incomplete plans marked “100% Construction Drawings” would stop happening if the Architect had to pay for later additions. A CM as owners-rep working in concert with the architect would provide a meaningful benchmark by confirming status of the project before the bid. Many clients are unaware of when postponing the bid to finish the design would lead to project success. Far too many Architects are pushed into soliciting bids on their incomplete design by clients eager to “get started”.

Problem: Low barriers to entry, and technology have shifted our priorities

During good market conditions the construction industry sees incredible expansion. I once interviewed with a GC who told me they anticipated their revenues to double every year for the next decade! Seven years later, that firm closed its doors for lack of work. In most markets, it’s not particularly difficult to become a GC or a sub. For many GCs soliciting bids, the subcontractor pool appears to be constantly changing. Rising to meet these dynamic challenges, many software firms offer bid-letting programs which include access to subcontractor databases. The GC estimator can transmit an invitation to bid (ITB) to literally millions of subcontractors simultaneously. Many GC’s cast a wide “net” for their ITB, planning to interview any new subs that come in low on the bid. GCs in these situations tend towards a hedging mindset with these unproven subs. Most GC’s have some kind of Subcontractor Prequalification Process (Pre-qual) which usually involves filling out forms, providing pertinent financial information, references, insurance certificates, license status, Key staff resumes, and so forth. The purpose is clear, to define how risky the sub is.

The GC is facing the sub market like a fishing troller who seeks to get the most fish on deck, then sort whatever needs tossing. GCs bidding this way can’t see the sharks from the minnows till the whole mess is delivered on bid day. They assume they’ll get bids from all interested subs because one net is just as good as another from the fishes perspective.

Solution: There is absolutely no substitute for earning the respect of market leaders in your industry

GC’s need to fundamentally change their perspective of subcontractors in order to understand what motivates failure and success. GC’s do not perform much work as a rule. The typical subcontractor is responsible to provide absolutely everything in their scope of work (SOW) whether they make money or not. Despite the assumptions to the contrary, subcontractor scope of work is as much opinion as anything else. In general, the leading cause of problems between GC’s and Subs is different views on the SOW. The sub defined their SOW via their proposal. Often they omit, exclude, clarify, or stipulate changes to anything they don’t completely accept as their job. This is an understandable inconvenience for a GC who’s looking for a risk-free transfer of responsibility to the sub. That doesn’t change the fact that the sub is an independent entity making their proposal according to their abilities, limitations, and perspective of what is involved. Offering to award a contract is not an ownership stake in the sub’s business.

Industry problems we can solve

“Mike loves riding high on his subs, but he wonders why they’re so hungry.”

Starting with a firm comprehension of what the SOW entails is where GC’s can form an appreciation for what they’re asking. Once they know what they’re asking for, they should consider which subs are best for it. Inviting the same team of subs for every project big or small is inevitably leading to higher prices, lower profitability, and wasted time. This of course means that GC’s need to become curious about what their subcontractors are actually good at. Subs quickly figure out which GC’s are prone to wasting their time, and they bid accordingly. GC’s who pick a team of market-leading subs that are aligned with the project’s needs, inevitably win profitable work. These bids lead to successful projects because everyone involved is at the top of their craft.

Nothing here absolves the GC of a duty to investigate new subcontractors via pre-quals. The focus however, should be on finding market leaders, rather than culling risky subs.

Problem: GCs aren’t independently estimating their bids

GCs’ who simplify estimating to mean bidding typically see no problem in adding up the low subcontractor proposals along with a dose of overhead and profit to arrive at their bid amount. I call this process bid collecting because there is no real method for controlling risk which is the main purpose of estimating. These GCs predominately have their Project Manager (PM) bidding their own work in order to save time and overhead.

Enabled with the technology mentioned above, these GC’s are free to have all their PM’s bidding all the time. The theory being that more bids will lead to more wins. The reality is the overall hit rate declines, as does the profitability for everyone involved. Subs can’t afford to price endless estimates that rarely lead to work. As their focus wanders, they add money to compensate the risk of anything they might have missed. Over time, the GC’s concept of the going rate for work grows further away from market price. While estimating may be cheaper and faster for the GC, this practice has lowered revenue and profitability for everyone. The natural result is clients and subs are seeking better options.

Industry problems we can solve

Its the kind of plan that solves it’s own problems, but not before making a huge mess

Possible solution: Estimator oversight, best practices, and mentoring

There is no way to lose fast enough to save money on bidding. Estimating is about controlling risk. Lots of people think estimating is unnecessary until they lose money on a job. A certain proportion will insist it was simply “bad luck” that made a job unprofitable. A whole lot of them will insist they’ll “make it up on the next one” until they’re filing for bankruptcy. Gamblers ignore risk, which is why the house always wins.

Estimators stand opposed to the fatalistic notion that failure is inevitable and risk is incalculable. Any powerful process stands to do you harm if unattended. Letting your mind wander while using a power saw has serious consequences. Many construction projects encountered a single problem that created other problems, ultimately bringing the GC into court to hear the verdict. Surely that consequence merits greater attention during to the bid. Knowing what the subs should have in their bid, and approximately what it should cost are the most basic guidelines for decision-making. Anyone, whether they are a PM, a secretary, or a dog washer who’s been pressed into estimating should be making informed decisions based on best practices. As professionals we should all demand these basic tools to keep from putting our companies out of business. Estimators should rise to the task and provide mentoring, training and leadership wherever they see estimating going on.

Problem: Bid results are unaccountable, inaccurate, and delayed

If you are a GC who bids only projects with publicly read bid openings, it’s pretty easy to know how your bid compared. For everyone else, it takes some effort to get bid results. Even in the case of a GC who won a bid, it may take the client a considerable amount of time to make their decision public. For anyone who didn’t win a bid, it can become much harder to get a straight answer. Bidders are left in limbo on work they’ve bid, often causing them to forgo other opportunities that would conflict with their potential obligations.

Estimates are not free, the estimators time and effort is worth a great deal. Bidding one project may cause them to lose an opportunity on another. In total market terms, the estimate is worth a veritable fortune and the only recompense to the losers is bid results.

Every process benefits from evaluation and feedback. Timely and accurate bid results can be an invaluable aid to an estimator and it costs the client only a moment of their time. Insincere clients and GC’s are the least likely to provide bid results. Even then, the expectation is that they are only furnished upon request, and with as little context as possible.

Possible solution: Public bid results for the entire solicitation upon award, loss, or withdraw of the project.

There are some good reasons for confidentiality, not least among them is to uphold an ethical bid. Bid shopping, colluding, or bid peddling are all practices that depend on illicit sharing of information. Saying nothing to anyone before contract award is a firm, uniform, and fair means to assure everyone that you’re playing things straight.

Once all legitimate concerns to propriety, confidentiality, and ethics issues have been resolved, it’s time for whoever solicited the bids to provide complete, accurate, and public bid results. Transparency is not only morally superior, it’s better for the industry as well. The team of legitimate subs who brought a GC to victory on bid day should have every right to a contract. GC’s “beating the bushes” for better numbers should be exposed for their duplicitous behavior. The same goes for clients who continually re-bid their projects hoping to snare a lower bid. Every unethical action between bid and award is enabled by the silence of competitors who’ve already lost the job.

Industry problems we can solve

The writing’s on the wall, but who will read it aloud?

Ethical actors have nothing to lose and everything to gain by transparency. It’s particularly important to dispel the noxious idea that “upon request” equates to “transparency”. The selfsame means that the RFP or the ITB was distributed should be used to publish bid results. I used the bid-letting system for my ITB’s to publish my bid results. Not only did my phone stop ringing with endless requests for bid results, I gained the attention of new subs who were attracted by my transparency. If that weren’t enough, several subs saw how I had interpreted their confusing proposal which led to better wording on the next one.

Even when I lost the bid, my subs benefited from knowing how their number compared. Doubtlessly, this public information made it difficult for the winning GC to dabble in any bid shopping. This is an easy way to improve our industry, better our relationships, and win more work.

Conclusions

I believe the problems of the construction industry can be sorted into three basic causes;

  1. Unaccountable owners representation
  2. Contractual risk goes to the party without the authority or ability to control its cause.
  3. Modern contracting lacks transparency, training, and ethics.

Estimators can do more to change the outcome of their projects than anyone else in their firm. We often assume that anything on a form is a contractual certainty, like a concrete barrier to alternate solutions. The fact is, that clients and their design teams want the job to end well, and they want good value. Most clients have no idea of how much their project risk is costing them. If they did, there’s no doubt that design firms would see a dramatic shift in their revenues. Better decisions come from solid information and an honest assessment of what’s going on. Estimators can provide both.

General Contractors can offer CM services to clients based on their estimators input. By cutting down the GC’s risk, the bid day prices are lower, handily offsetting the cost of hiring the CM in the first place. CM’s can track average issue-resolution timelines on the project in comparison to the past projects the firm has on file Everything from RFI response times to change order prices will fall as a function of effective, accountable leadership.

GC’s would face a paradigm shift where transparency is their greatest tool because a competing GC on a bid for one project, may be the owners rep for another.   Overpriced specialty vendors would lose the protection of an unaccountable design team, and be forced to prove their worth against market prices. PM’s and estimators spend their careers mired in the struggle caused by unaccountable leadership, overpriced vendors, and incomplete designs. They have the experience, the skills, and the facts behind them to address these problems.

Industry problems we can solve

A client would be hard-pressed to find a more motivated group to take on this challenge..

Rather than hobbling project managers by making them bid their own work, let’s put their experience and skills to work in CM services. That would diversify the revenue streams by playing to the strengths of your staff. It bears repeating that CM services must face contractual risk and must offer the client a better outcome. Firms with motto’s like “Building relationships, empowering trust”, must put their words into action.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of this approach is that it creates pressure on everyone to do the best job for the client. Systems that reward accountability and transparency of all parties shift the priorities that drive the outcome. When good work is fairly rewarded, the client gets a job well-done.

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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved

 

 


Relationships and their place. Push vs. Pull

A quick view of most advertisements for the construction industry will reveal a few consistencies in how they perceive their client and their product.  Trite sayings hinging upon “building relationships” abound in construction advertisement.  Taken out of context, these same marketing efforts would have more in common with personal ads than custom manufacturers.

What would you say you do here?

Most General Contractors in the Commercial market do not self-perform the majority of the work.  In point of fact, they’re called General Contractors not builders because administering contracts is really what they do.  As a result most of them lack substantial focus on what they’re really there to do which is to faithfully execute the design according to the contract.  This means that the subcontractors are where the “rubber meets the road” so to speak since the subcontractors are the ones actually building the job.  Interestingly, few if any General Contractors make mention of their relationships with subcontractors when promoting their company.

Luxury car makers don’t advertise the special relationship they have with their clients.  They emphasize that they make the best car,  period.  Construction companies seem loath to admit that they  build what is designed; they don’t get to choose the level of quality, aesthetic appeal, or social prominence of their projects.

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

“Dang it Carl, I said move the Church AFTER the wedding.”

Put your back into it.

So what is a client getting when they call a GC?  Mostly they’re getting risk management, project control, contract administration, and subcontractor “pull”.  “Pull” in this sense is the market value of that particular GC to any given group of subcontractors.  GC’s with a reputation for not paying their subcontractors have less pull than better GC’s.  There’s a lot that goes into your pull.  For example, if a GC has been on a losing streak, they’ll lose pull with subcontractors.  GC’s that chase bad clients will lose pull with subcontractors.

Bringing focus back to estimating, the amount of pull you can generate has a lot to do with how you handle your bids.  For most subs, the only thing they have to go on is how you communicate with them.

Like a lot of things in life, it’s the outcome that matters not the intent.  Some folks get hung up on sending everyone the exact same message, without actually pausing to consider how that reads to an individual.

Bid invitations are a good example of this.  It’s fast and uniform to send everyone on the bid list the exact same message.  Often these invites cover a few key points like the deadlines, site walks, and such while excluding individual trade-level details for fear of it not applying to all recipients.  It’s pathetic how frequently invitations to bid fail to evoke any enthusiasm for the project, the client, or the opportunity.  Mostly they’re a bland memo directing the bidders through the GC’s particular brand of bureaucracy.  When coupled with bid-letting services, these invitations can end up appended to a “do not reply” email that conceals everything from the recipient until they summit the mountaintop of logins, sales pitches, and file downloads.

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

As an outcome, this is counterproductive to pulling subcontractors towards the opportunity the estimator is pursuing.  A great deal of what’s wrong in business relationships comes down to pushing when it would be better to pull.

Design relationships

Design teams fall victim to this process as well.  Traditionally, the Architect brought all the engineering disciplines together to develop a cohesive and thorough plan.  Like most industries, the concept of compartmentalization rose to the fore and now its common practice for a project to have a long roster of design consultants working in degrees of isolation from one another.

I don’t know what’s existing and neither do you, but it won’t be me that pays.  It’ll be you.

Projects that must refer to existing conditions are often riddled with notes declaring that all bidders have tacitly accepted responsibility for field verification of unknowable items.  These “gotcha” requirements are used in lieu of consultants making their own site inspection and designing accordingly.

Site inspections,  coordination meetings, and construction oversight are sometimes viewed as “add alternates” to the design package.  Clients often accept or decline these services based on their budget, schedule, and professional proclivities.  Clients pre-disposed to “hurry up” work can’t spare the time for consultants to fully fledge their designs.  Noteworthy examples are property managers pushing for Tenant Improvement projects that close the deal on a lease.

To the client, the savings in design fees and duration may appear worthwhile until the market pricing reflects the additional risk imposed by an incomplete design.  During market slumps, these clients use competitive bidding to flesh out the issues with the design which they ask bidders to solve.  Once they’ve got the answers, they incorporate them via addendum and put it back out to bid.

There’s no time to do it right the first time, but we’ll find time to do it again.

This “refine-design-by-bid” tactic initiates an unfortunate dynamic in the market.  Bidders who’ve invested in “helping” the client are rewarded with several costly rounds of bidding before the project goes to contract.  They know that rolling these expenses into their next proposal will all but guarantee a loss.  They also know that every answer they provide will be used to assist their competitors in arriving at a complete proposal.  Every round of bidding further diminishes the profitability of the project.  For some bidders the “solution” is to seek recompense in overpriced change orders.

This adversarial attitude angers clients who feel they invested heavily to see their project happen and feel exploited by greedy build teams.  Clients who’ve weathered this experience often arrive at the next bid with an enthusiastic commitment to pound out the issues before they sign another contract. Very rarely do they see the connection between “refine by bid” and overpriced change orders.

Perhaps the most frustrating observation to offer here is that the total pre-construction cycle on “hurry up” projects often end up matching the duration of having it properly designed in the first place.  Complete designs mitigate change orders, and bidding once restores profitability for the build team.  There’s more incentive to actually finish the job quickly when it’s clear the only profitable path is efficiency.   A critical aspect here is that clients need to comprehend that a request for proposal is supposed to be a commitment to actually hire the winning bidder.  Distorting the pre-construction process by eliciting free design help and  re-bidding is communicating a very one-sided  and unethical view of the Client-GC relationship.  It’s unreasonable to expect fair and ethical treatment when it’s not reciprocated.

Bringing this back to relationships it’s worth pointing out that departures from traditional responsibilities can’t and won’t happen without consequences.  Pushing off design responsibilities onto the build team will corrupt their relationships with the work and with each other. It also serves to alter the consultants relationship with the project in that they move away from taking responsibility for their design and move towards evading liability for every conceivable issue.  If consultants aren’t given sufficient time and opportunity to inspect existing site conditions, they tend to think there’s little alternative but to pass the buck.

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

Engineers haven’t been the same since we took the trains away from them…

Professional conduct

Much of the hijinks mentioned above is more prevalent during recessions than at other times.  Given the choice, most professionals would rather pursue legitimate work that offers sufficient time and opportunity to do a good job.  GC’s are by definition, subcontracting the bulk of the work they bid. Viewing the Construction Documents (CD’s) as a liability, many estimators believe their role is to ensure that every scope item is included in one of the subcontracts.  When the focus is exclusively covering your hind end, it’s easy to miss opportunities to better understand where the subcontractors are coming from.  Subcontractors bidding to notorious cowards will be reluctant to offer insights into how discrepancies in the plans may offer opportunities to win.

Opportunity may only knock once

GC estimators that don’t dig in and really make the effort to know what’s going on with a project are constantly caught flat-footed when subcontractors call with questions. Whether its incompetence, cowardice, or a lack of commitment, the result is the same; subcontractors will take their best ideas to wherever they’ll profit the most.  In practical terms that can mean competing GC’s will get better pricing or it could mean that subcontractors make tough decisions about how best to “play” the situation.

For example, I’ve encountered situations where subcontractors choose to take a chance on a scope discrepancy without telling the GC estimator because they had proven themselves to be unwilling and/or unable to take a measured risk. Since the subcontractor can’t rely on protection from the GC if their gambit doesn’t work, they hedge their bet by keeping a goodly portion of the potential savings.

Don’t be an obstacle to success

The GC estimator rolls into the bid carrying that subcontractor because they’re lower than their competitors but fails to fully capitalize on what that subcontractor relationship has to offer them.  The relationship becomes more about what the subcontractor can achieve despite the GC estimator than what the team can accomplish together.  It’s a short leap from not sharing the bounty achieved through special insight, to purposely working on deals to exploit weak GC estimators.  Subcontractors who view themselves as king-makers aren’t likely to be positive force in the market.  This is how they get their start.

“I don’t know what this is, what do I do?”

None of which is to say that a GC Estimator can’t rely upon their subcontractor relationships to help them with issues and scope items they don’t fully understand.  Skilled trades require an incredible amount of specialized knowledge that a GC estimator couldn’t be expected to possess.

There is however a difference between blind leadership, and taking the council of trusted allies.  The GC estimator should be consulting with trusted subcontractors on scope items they don’t understand with the goal of building a working knowledge of the issues involved.   It’s an odd thing but it’s often possible to change the dynamic of a bad relationship by asking for help in understanding what the other person is facing.   Be a good student and retain what you’ve learned to earn a reputation as a consummate professional.  Before long you’ll likely encounter a situation where you’re relating something you’ve learned to a bidder thereby re-paying the market for its investment in your education.  Keep that in mind the next time you hear a “dumb” question.

Once again, there’s greater benefit to all concerned when professionals actively seek out responsibility to pull the project forward rather than pushing responsibility for incomplete work down the line.

Civilization is in retreat because it’s become unfashionable to do the right thing.

Understanding the critical relationship between quality outcomes and individual professionalism at every stage is the metaphorical keystone supporting the project arch.   Every buck that’s passed get’s a “vig” tacked on and when the bill comes due (and it will) the project will pay.  It’s important to break from thinking of your task as being done in a small room with a door in and a door out.  What gets passed down the line matters.  Many projects with supernaturally bad design teams get built anyway.  Just because someone passed the buck to you, doesn’t mean you must pass it on in turn.  An estimator converts the nebulous construction documents into a real and enforceable, construction contract. Some Project Managers have a well-earned disdain for estimators who’ve bound them to build a disaster with a schedule and a budget. Don’t be that guy.

Actions have consequences, make certain that you are pulling in the right direction and that everyone “downstream” is as well.  Project Management needs to keep the promises made at the bid stage, and they need to ensure subcontractors hold up their end as well.  Otherwise subcontractors may again “game” the estimator knowing they can exploit Project Management once they’ve slipped past the bid stage.

What does the client care about?

An awful lot is put out about when to invest in this or that.  Terms like “Value” become little more than boardroom chaff.  In reality the client is very concerned with value, however what they value isn’t always so obvious.  Answering questions and making them feel good about their purchase may be contingent for a sale however it’s not what they THINK they’re paying for.  In fact, most of the talking, drawing, thinking, and demonstrating doesn’t really factor into their concept of what they’ve hired you to do.

What they see

To the client, actually making the thing is where the magic happens.  Those are the skills they imagine they’re paying you for.  Since they perceive your pre-construction time as “free” they indulge in every tangential thought that comes to mind.  During a project they perceive the job site to be chock-full of workers and materials so changing this or that seems easier than if they imagined that change as a separate job going out to bid.  Design teams are keenly aware that their mistakes, oversights, and mis-communications are costing time and money.  During construction the client typically views the design team more as an adviser and quality control enforcer than anything else.  GC’s’ are generally loath to expose design team shortcomings for fear of retribution.   Diplomatic efforts to price necessary change orders stemming from design shortfalls can devolve into bickering about cost legitimacy versus design integrity.

The client and design team camp may shake their heads at the gall of the build teams prices while the build team shares their exasperation with projects that are changing direction while the clock runs out.

The pattern of pushing project responsibility down the line without each tier pulling their own weight is the root cause.  Returning to the opening of this article; “Building relationships” need not be a vacuous and misdirected approach to success.  Clients are not in a position to actually know that decisions to short-change a fully developed design will cause the problems they sought to avoid by hiring a design professional if nobody has the courage to tell them so.

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

“Sure you’re attracting lots of attention, I’m just saying you might take a different route next time”

 Making mediocrity acceptable through placation, participation, and proliferation of stupidity is not “worth it if you get the job”.  Lowering standards and passing the buck are the stock in trade of hacks.  Blurring the line between hacks and pros from the clients perspective represents a strong deterrent to future business.

Be better, be honest, and don’t be afraid to speak up.

 It’s in everyone’s best interest to speak truthfully with the client.  Many incomplete designs are put to bid by design teams who are deeply (and silently) frustrated by the client’s miserly haste.  GC estimators often succumb to pressure from marketing and pre-construction directors to bid risky designs.  Pushing rather than pulling.  If instead the GC Estimator took the opportunity to present solutions before bidding, they might persuade the client to make changes that profoundly improve their odds of an ideal outcome.  At worst, the estimator could articulate the issues that could hurt the client, pulling them in the right direction.

Now it’s time to bring this all back to relationships.  In my experience, there’s a contingent of dubiously moral folks in the market who rely on “relationships” to cover or offset the fact that they’re neither a good value, nor a market leader.  They are “connected” and often use their connections to exploit or extort the industry.  It’s foolish and dangerous to allow these people to “do you a favor” because they’ll be sure to demand what you “owe” them.  Working around them will incur their wrath as well.  It’s bad business wherever they’re involved so pick your path with care.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the people who are a veritable institution of good value, straight dealing, and integrity.  It’s a privilege to work with these rare individuals.  The sad truth is that they are rare no matter how common it is to read an advertisement extolling these virtues.  I hope this article has inspired you to choose that legacy for yourself.

 

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© Anton Takken 2014 all rights reserved