Tag Archives: Estimating process

The market changed, what do I do?

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

The Bid mill

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

Advancements in estimating technology are still in testing… 

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

Estimators have an image problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve got competition coming in HOT!

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

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

You can’t plan without strategy

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

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

Priorities are the foundation of strategy

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

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

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

Priorities should be defined, ranked, and consistent.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing pains

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

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

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

We need more work to pay for all this overhead!

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

That includes interns

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

Strategy is neither a task, nor a goal.

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

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

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

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

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

Napoleon Bonaparte

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

So what do you do when the market has changed?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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© Anton Takken 2018 all rights reserved


Finding Mistakes

In a lot of businesses, estimating is a bothersome hang-up standing between an opportunity and a contract.  It can be painstaking and detailed work that has little resemblance to whatever the business actually does.  Making a mistake in the bid can have devastating consequences so it’s a pretty big deal to get things right.  The main problem is that there typically won’t be anything you can compare your bid against to spot if something went wrong.  For little stuff, it’s pretty easy to “see” the whole picture as a list of stuff adding to the total.

When things get more complex, the estimate can be several pages of fine print.

The bigger an estimate is, the more opportunities there are to make a mistake.  So how do we spot them?  Well a whole lot of estimators would tell you to just go looking for them.  That sounds good, but unless the mistake is fairly obvious, it won’t stand out as one entry in a list of hundreds (or thousands).  So now you’re combing through the spreadsheet looking for small deviations.  Maybe you’ll catch a few, maybe you’ll miss a few.  This is where estimators will tell you to do another review, in hopes the second dragnet will catch whatever you overlooked.  So, you start again with the fine-toothed comb, going over every entry.

By this point, you’ve probably seen everything in that estimate several times.  Anything you really analyzed has become familiar to the point where you’re memorizing figures. When people play a matching game, things only “look right” when the relationship they remember stays the same.  It’s happened to me, and I’ve basically gone “blind” to mistakes I was actually looking at.

Artistic rendering of an estimate under review.

 

If we checked in with estimators again, they’d probably tell you that they factor in a contingency to pay for mistakes they couldn’t find.  How much?  Well that really depends on how badly you intend to screw up doesn’t it?  With all that said, it’s probably not too surprising that there’s a lot of turnover in the estimating profession.

However, all is not lost.  For starters, I think it’s important to point out that wherever (mostly) normal people are working, emotions will factor into their behavior.  On the surface, estimating seems to be a strictly facts and figures profession.  People take the job and eventually the facts don’t meet the figures.  Then the estimator succumbs to the stress and seeks alternate employment.  That approach has some obvious problems.  Instead, what if we emotionally connect with the risks and the rewards?  See making a mistake is a risk, catching it is a reward.  That emotional and mental balance promotes agility, creativity, and confidence.

So how does that apply to finding a screw-up on page 6?

Well for starters, you have to connect with all the little things you’ve caught along the way.  Most of the time a little mistake gets swept aside as quickly as possible.  Maybe it seemed embarrassing, or trifling.  Take a second to consider what would have happened if you hadn’t caught it.  Chances are good that some of them would have been pretty serious.  The key here is to take this as a rallying point.

You just caught a costly mistake.  Maybe it was a decimal point, or a typo, or some other subtle detail that would have had big consequences.

Now you’re connecting an emotional reward with spotting subtle details.

Enjoy the moment.

You’re also learning to spot patterns in your work.  Consistently making a mistake you can correct is the long way around.  There’s no point in “rough drafts” that include pointless errors, so you’ll stop making most of them.  By being emotionally connected to your process, you’ll start looking where these errors are likely to hide.

Circling back to finding that mistake on page 6, we must understand that we’re not the sum of our mistakes.  Going looking for every mistake you’ve ever caught is going to doom you by experience.  I’ve been doing this for ten years.  I’ve caught thousands of mistakes in my estimates.  I once had a boss who wanted me to compose a binder listing every single mistake I’d ever found which was to be used as a “checklist” against all future work.  If every job was consistent enough that an item specific checklist was worthwhile, there would be no “estimating” involved.

Instead, I go through the estimate and I allow myself to reminisce about the processes that put each figure on that spreadsheet.  That keeps things familiar without mindlessly memorizing everything I see.  If you’ve ever reminisced about an experience, you’ve doubtlessly recalled thoughts and emotions.  Sometimes you’ll remember a thought, or a feeling that you hadn’t had in years.  As often as not, you’ll remember something tangential to the topic, like the scent of your favorite food when you reminisce about your childhood home.

It works the same way in estimating.  All those little successes in catching an error will suggest themselves as you’re reminiscing your way through today’s spreadsheet.

Bonus points if you look cool doing it!

Bystanders might see what I’ve done and attribute it to experience or painstaking diligence.  I can tell you that I’ve worked with some seriously intense people who had more experience than I do.  They work awfully hard to catch stuff that just pops out for me.

There are some downsides to my approach.  Perhaps the worst of which is that my approach requires sincerity.  You must genuinely feel a reward for finding a mistake.   People in general, and your employer in specific may tend to focus on mistakes as the source of all problems.  Tell your boss that you caught a huge mistake, and they’re likely to only hear that you’re a danger to the business.  It’s difficult to keep your chin up in these situations so you often must keep your own council.  That’s a whole lot harder than it sounds, especially when you’re working with/for insincere people.

Another downside is that it’s easy to get infatuated with your own inventions.  If any part of your process is faulty, no amount of massaging will offset that fact.  I’ve sunk lots of time into constructing elaborate error catching shortcuts that overlooked something critical.  Sometimes these shortcuts would work, other times they wouldn’t.  It was like an ambulance with a dodgy starter.

Every little thought that pops up as your reminiscing won’t be relevant.  People are capable of spotting patterns that don’t really exist.  Unless you’ve arrived at the cause of your mistake, you can’t celebrate catching it.  Playing it fast and loose with what you actually know is guessing, which is worse than being wrong because it’s irresponsible.  Again, everything here depends on sincerity.

It occurs to me that I know a lot of people I know might have read to this point and come up with an equivalency without realizing it.  See it’s super-common for people to think in terms of the proverbial carrot and stick.  Whatever incentive is proposed may be equally substituted with a sufficient punishment without affecting the desired outcome.  This may explain why so many employers cling to the notion that all estimating mistakes are perfectly obvious oversights.  To this way of thinking, an estimator should be motivated by fear of missing stuff.  There’s a huge, gaping hole in this logic.  They’re basing this assessment on omissions found in winning bids.   It’s anywhere from possible to probable that the entire reason you won the job was because of an “omission”.  Nobody (but the estimator) cares about the absolutely perfect estimate that lost the job.  This point of view encourages big contingency funds (sandbagging) which won’t win work in a tight market.

Finally, my approach has a fatal flaw for anyone who started out in a boom.  When it’s easy to win work, there’s less risk in being wrong so standards slip.  Everyone has to start somewhere, so if you’re starting in a boom, seek out an estimator who was successful during a down market.  If they’ll review your work, acknowledge each mistake as a discovery.  Challenge yourself to find them on your own and give yourself credit for improving when you find them.

Hopefully this approach will be as helpful to you as it has been for me.

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© Anton Takken 2018 all rights reserved


Power tool safety for estimators Part 1 : Software hazards

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

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

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

Research on perspective enhancement is ongoing…

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

Caution, powerful settings buried below

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

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

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

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

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

Warning! This machine has no reverse!

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

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

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

Repetitive Stress Injuries

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

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

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

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

Transfer traffic safety

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

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

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

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

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

Pop up windows, the Big Red Button of estimating software

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Automatic update, friend or foe?

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

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

 

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

 

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© Anton Takken 2017 all rights reserved


Are pricing revisions costing you work?

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

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

Are pricing revisions costing you work?

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

 

Making the right moves

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

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

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

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

Building a pyramid is an iterative process

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

Are bid revisions costing you work?

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

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

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

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

Are bid revisions costing you work?

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

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

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

  • Curiosity
  • Testing the contractors
  • Scope to budget alignment

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

  • Distrust
  • Dishonesty
  • Incompetence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we apply all of this?

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

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

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

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

Are bid revisions costing you work?

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

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

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

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

 

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© Anton Takken 2017 all rights reserved

 

 

 


Estimating tools; Computer Mice

For many estimators, the shift from paper plans to digital or “on-screen” takeoffs brought about a fundamental change to how they spend their days. By extension, the familiar scales, calculators, measuring wheels, digitizers, and ubiquitous colored pencils all get used much less now. Digital takeoff systems are run on computers just like those used in accounting, project management, scheduling, or marketing.

Periscope vision

Digital takeoff systems have one obstacle that creates a unique user experience, the plan area is nearly always larger than the computer’s monitor. Typical architectural standard sheet sizes like ARCH D (24″ x 36″) or ARCH E1 (30″ x 42″) would require a 46.47″ and 51.63″ monitor respectively to display at 100% size.

Even if your company would pay for such a large monitor, it wouldn’t be convenient to work at the extreme corners of the display . Imagine holding an open newspaper at arms’ length and trying to read the top left paragraph of print and it will be obvious why bigger isn’t always better.  The current solution is to adjust the zoom in and out as needed which feels like you’re trying to read the plans with a periscope.

Estimating tools; Computer Mice

As you might have guessed, there are some design issues…

 Most programs offer the user two ways to adjust the zoom; toolbar buttons, and scroll wheel. I’m sure someone out there uses the toolbar buttons, but I’ve never met them. The reality is that most accurate measurements will require zooming in. A continuous measurement like a long wall, or a large area will quickly reach the border of the displayed area. Waiting at the edge of the border will occasionally cause the program to side-scroll but it’s almost always too fast or too slow to be useful.

It’s unspeakably frustrating to be focused on items in the middle of the displayed area and controlling the zoom with a toolbar button that’s somewhere on the perimeter of the program window. You’re forced to stop everything you’re doing to futz with the zoom buttons so you can see where to continue your work. Mousing across the entire screen to access the buttons is slower than using the scroll wheel. It’s been a while since I used Planswift, but it used to allow zoom commands from the zoom toggle on my Microsoft Wireless Comfort keyboard. I’m currently using On Center’s On Screen Takeoff which doesn’t recognize the zoom toggle.

You’ve got a hitch in your get-along

Zooming in and out to see what’s going on is only half the struggle. Actually moving the displayed area on-screen can be a surprisingly counter-intuitive process. Planswift assigned the right mouse button as a “grab” that let the user move the sheet around within the display window. OST does have a “grab” tool which they call “pan” but it’s only activated through a toolbar at the perimeter of the display area. You can shift the displayed area in with the scroll wheel to move the display up or down and Shift+scroll to move the display left or right.

This method prevents moving longitudinally and laterally at the same time. You can however zoom out, place the cursor where you’d like to center the display, then zoom in. Zoom in OST is control+scroll. I should mention that the keyboard arrows do technically work, and that you could also use the OST overview window to “grab” and move the sheet. The problem is that you’re making gross corrections within a display window that’s maybe 1/10th the size of your working window. The lack of coordination makes this VERY frustrating. If anybody at On Center is reading this, it would be HUGE if you could assign keyboard shortcuts to change cursor functions.  The spacebar toggles between takeoff and select, but it’s clumsy and it would be awesome to engage “pan/grab” without the all-too-distant toolbar.

Estimating tools; Computer Mice

The upgrade affects your performance as soon as you lift the handles

Why the mouse’s design becomes critical

Digital takeoff programs require a lot of “horsing” to simultaneously see what you’re doing, and get to where you need to be. Neither of those functions are actually getting the work done, yet a good half of my mouse movements are spent this way. Entering data in a spreadsheet, you can happily tab, arrow, or enter your way around for most of the day without needing the mouse for anything. A digital takeoff program will have you switching between the keyboard and the mouse constantly. Most digitizing operations require data input, and the majority of that will be numeric. This sets up a repetitive stress situation where a right-handed estimator has their hand pivoting between the mouse and the “ten key” numeric pad.

A “typical” mouse presents a unique problem here because it’s movable nature means that when you’re returning to the mouse from the ten key, it won’t be in a consistent location. Further, most “ergonomic” mouse designs won’t “come to hand” easily for the estimators intermittent usage.

At this point I think it’s helpful to list the necessary attributes that I would be looking for in a mouse.  For the record, I am simply providing my observations and opinions on equipment I purchased with my own money.  I have received no compensation and I have no vested interest in any of the companies or products mentioned in this article.

#1 Static position. Since the digitizing requires near constant movement between the keyboard ten key pad and the mouse, it’s an obvious advantage for the mouse to “stay put” so your hand can quickly and reliably get into and out of mouse operation.

#2 Low profile. This one takes a little explaining. A mouse profile that is substantially higher than the keyboard requires the mouse hand to make a “jump” to get the mouse into action without disturbing the pointer location. The movement from a keyboard to mouse for a right-handed person is particularly likely to unintentionally strike the tallest part of the mouse.

#3 Scroll wheel. It’s difficult to understate just how much of the user experience depends on scroll functioning. Being able to “whip” through a particularly long menu/ text file, or to move the viewing area quickly is a pivotal mouse feature. Some designs allow the user to switch from “free-wheeling” to the typical notched detent scrolling.

#4 Traverse speed and precision. There are a lot of mice out there with adjustable Dots Per Inch (DPI), some even have buttons for on-the-fly DPI changes. The best and most useful designs allow rapid movements without becoming too coarse for accurate mouse control. Designs that allow “whipping” or “spinning” of the movement control let the estimator get to perimeter menu or buttons without sacrificing accuracy.

#5 Function buttons. Some mice have additional buttons which can add some useful functions. The most common are the “Forward and Back” buttons which typically control web browsers and multi-page document displays. “Copy” and “Paste” are profoundly useful functions with wide-ranging utility within digital takeoff systems. One often overlooked function is a “double click left” button. It seems like a minor convenience to press a button once instead of twice, but digital estimating involves lots of movement. It’s particularly difficult to double-click without moving the cursor in some situations. Many estimating programs involve extensive database negotiation so this feature can greatly reduce your repetitive movements.

#6 Durability. I’ve worn out many mice in my career, some lasted years, others only a few months. It’s particularly difficult to find durable mice that aren’t of the “typical” design. Many mice that are marketed as ergonomic prioritize comfort over durability. I know from experience how debilitating it is to have your mouse fail on bid-day. I’ve always got a backup mouse at the ready, just in case.

Estimating tools; Computer Mice

 

 

Pursuit of perfection

Logitech Wireless Trackball M570

I started off with a Logitech Wireless Trackball M570. While it’s called a track ball mouse, it’s really set up to control the ball with the just the right thumb and index finger. Being a track ball, it easily meets the static position requirement. The ball itself is fairly low profile so it worked out pretty well transitioning between the keyboard and the mouse. The scroll wheel didn’t allow for free-wheeling so the detents kept me from whipping through lengthy lists. The “middle” mouse button is the wheel. It works but I didn’t use it much because it’s difficult to control the automatic scrolling. The thing I absolutely loved about it was how quickly I could whip the ball to cross the screen or scroll through a long document. Being able to stop the ball and incrementally control it took some getting used to. The key is to wedge your fingers along the socket and add friction when you need greater precision. Logitech did a brilliant job of making the cursor move vertically when you slide your thumb along the socket. This mouse has two function buttons; forward, and back.  These buttons are most useful for web browsing, and the occasional text program that interprets these as page up/down commands.  Durability with the M570 is a mixed bag. I got about a year out of my first one which was a hard-wired version, and maybe 6 months on the second. The open ball design tends to capture crud in the little bearings. It’s not too difficult to get in a clean them but eventually I wore the bearings down until the ball would only move in twitchy starts and stops. I tried all the online tips about petroleum jelly and hair oil, but nothing worked. I gave up on the Logitech because I had developed shooting pains through my elbow, wrist, and fingers.

Kensington Expert Trackball Mouse

Image result for kensington expert

 

 

Next up was a Kensington Expert Trackball mouse. This is a substantial device with a cue-ball sized ball placed in the middle. There are four user-programmable buttons placed symmetrically in quadrants around the central ball. Surrounding the socket is a rotating ring that’s used to control scroll functions.   I thought the larger ball would give my thumb a rest because I could control the whole ball with my fingertips. The huge buttons seemed like they’d help as well. Right out of the box I found that I needed to re-arrange the programmed settings. The scroll wheel worked exactly the opposite direction of what I expected. Since the mouse has an angled base, the two buttons on the lower side are actually more useful as your “left” and “right” mouse clicks. Using the top left or right button requires raising your arm to clear the ball which isn’t convenient or comfortable if you’re doing it often. The mouse comes with a removable wrist support pad which didn’t work for me.  I found the ball moved smoothly and it “whipped” across the screen more easily than the smaller Logitech. The scroll ring/wheel was a disappointment. New out of the box, the scroll wheel had a very soft feeling detent. The size and arrangement of the ring required a finger and a thumb to move it around most of the time. Within two months scroll ring had become gritty, and caused jerky page movements. I found some advice online that suggested removing the magnet that causes the “detent”.  Please note that this requires disassembling the device which almost certainly voids any manufacturer warranty.   Even without the magnet, the scroll wheel was gritty to the extent that it was a constant struggle to stop and start a scroll.   I tried several different lubricants to smooth the wheel, but nothing worked. The size of that ball coupled with the angled face of the mouse made it easy to unintentionally move the cursor when returning from the keyboard. No matter where I placed it in relation to my keyboard, it just wasn’t possible to make an easy transition between the two. I continued to have pain in my right arm and fingers, this just wasn’t the mouse for me.

3D Connexion Space Navigator

Estimating tools; Computer Mice

This time I decided to look well and truly outside of the normal mouse offerings. I found an incredibly promising option in the 3D Connexion Space Navigator. It looks like a stubby joystick on a heavy aluminum base. This mouse was developed for Architects and Engineers working in 3D CAD programs. According to the company, it’s meant to be used in the left hand with a traditional mouse in the right. There are four axes of movement along with a left and right button on the base. At the time I found a forum post where someone said they’d downloaded a driver that allowed it to be used like the famous/infamous IBM pointing stick. I gave it a shot and ordered it. First off, the quality of the product is simply outstanding. Absolutely everything about it was awesome.

Out of the box it worked perfectly with Google Earth, and it’s absolutely amazing how quickly you learn to “fly” through the 3-D landscape. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the driver from the forum post and I am not a software programmer. When I contacted the company, they were adamant that they didn’t intend for their mouse to be used outside of 3D applications. So I had little choice but to return it. It’s a terrible shame because it would be a game changer for digital estimating. Imagine lifting or pushing down on the stick to control zoom while scrolling right or left! The best part about this device is how it uses analog force measurements to taper the speed of the cursor movement. You don’t have to choose between fast or accurate, and you don’t have to apply much effort to make things happen.

Sungwoo 2.4GHz Wireless Optical Pen Mouse

Sungwoo® 2.4GHz Wireless Optical Pen Mouse Adjustable 500/1000DPI Handwriting Smart Mouse for PC Laptop iMac Android Tablet (Black)

Desperate for solution I was online and found a completely different direction. The Sungwoo pen mouse is like a pen with an optical mouse at the tip. In use you simply move the tip along your desk and the buttons are mounted along the top and left sides (for a right-handed person). This mouse was surprising because it was VERY easy to digitize with. The left and right buttons took a little getting used to but soon became natural. The scroll wheel is just behind the “left” mouse button and it’s controlled with the index finger. You can lift the “pen” tip off your desk so that the cursor stays put while you operate the buttons or scroll wheel. It’s lightweight and intuitive to use but I couldn’t transition to my keyboard without a struggle. Setting the mouse down often caused the cursor to jump, and it’s simply too big to hold while trying to type. It came with a little stand that can be used to “park” the pen in an upright position. While it’s possible to slide the pen and stand around, the high-profile of the mouse means it gets knocked over when you’re back and forth to the keyboard. It did reduce my arm, wrist, and finger pain. It’s a shame that it didn’t work out.

Logitech Performance MX

After years of trying to find the perfect mouse I found something that looked promising, but it was terribly expensive (more on that later). That got me thinking that I hadn’t really tried using a traditional mouse in a while. After surveying the offerings at a local office supply store, I settled on the Logitech Performance MX mouse.  This mouse has a top-mounted switch which allows the scroll wheel to change from detent, to free-wheeling.  There are back and forward buttons as well as a Zoom  button.  In OST, the Zoom button shifts the cursor to zoom mode just like holding the control button down.  Rolling the scroll wheel adjusts the zoom until you press the zoom button again. There’s a “hidden” button inside the thumb well which engages a “task switcher” which pulls up minimized widows of all running programs.  One feature I had strong hopes for was the side-scrolling wheel.  By tipping the scroll wheel left and right, the display scrolls left or right accordingly.  Unfortunately, OST doesn’t recognize this control, and the limited range of side-to-side motion meant the side scrolling wasn’t too useful in other programs either.  The screen motion is so slow and imprecise that it’s less effort to simply grab a display window slider. It must be said that this is a very good traditional mouse. In fact it’s my backup mouse. Unfortunately all the reasons that traditional mice fall short for digital estimating apply to this mouse as well.  I found myself struggling to maintain my typical production simply because the traditional mouse takes so much extra movement to achieve the same outcome.  I tried all of the DPI settings and optimization controls.  I tried to stick it out in hopes that the repetitive stress pain would ease. Unfortunately, it just didn’t help.

The best by far

Earlier I alluded to a promising solution that was very expensive. The Contour Design Roller Mouse Red is a profound departure from everything I’d tried before. The RollerMouse is used below your keyboard and it features a rubber-covered roller that also slides left and right. It’s used just like a trackball. You just roll and/or slide the roller wherever you want to go. Pushing down on the roller gives you a left click, however the RollerMouse also has dedicated left, right, and double buttons. This means that you can operate the mouse with either or both hands. There is a central and separate wheel for scroll which is blessedly wide which again, allows operation with either hand. In addition to the other buttons, the RollerMouse has dedicated copy, and paste buttons. The DPI, click volume, and click force settings are all user adjustable.   The scroll wheel can be pressed for “middle” button or the user can swap the “double” function button for “middle”.

I initially tried to use the RollerMouse with my (no antiquated) Microsoft Wireless Comfort keyboard which has a wavelike ergonomic shape. This wasn’t ideal because the curved profile at the bottom edge of the keyboard pushed the RollerMouse away from the keys. I found I had to constantly slide my arms forward to type and it wasn’t very comfortable. It was pretty clear that I needed a straight keyboard. I switched over to a Logitech K360 which is a compact design. This allowed me to keep the 10 key numeric pad while using the built-in wrist support of the RollerMouse. I could seamlessly transition from keyboard to mouse without moving my right arm left or right which solved my pain problems. Not only is it more comfortable, it’s profoundly faster. I can complete my takeoffs with much less movement and far greater precision. The star of the show is the roller but I have to say that I’m stunned at how helpful the dedicated copy, paste, and, double, buttons are.

Image result for rollermouse red images

I use On Center’s OST for my digital takeoffs and I’ve found that if you’re accustomed to pulling the copy and paste command out of the right-click menu, the program can be onerous. You can’t simply select items to be copied without keeping the cursor on top of one of the selected items. This sounds petty until you realize just how precise this requirement is when you’re zoomed out. The most common time to copy and paste takeoffs is when you’re looking at “big picture” repetitions.

I should mention that it’s entirely possible to copy and paste using the timeworn control+C and control+V commands, however it’s much faster to simply tap the mouse button than to do a two key command.

The RollerMouse scroll wheel is an excellent example of what I think a scroll wheel should be. There are no detents but the program “steps” an adjustable number of lines in text programs. The wheel has enough resistance to allow precision, but it’s free enough to whip across a page. It has a “middle” button but I don’t use it much because auto scrolling just hasn’t been useful to me.

The roller itself is capable of great precision but it takes a little getting used to. One trick is to wedge your finger between the roller and the keyboard to offer a little resistance to nullify any wobble. I’ve found that I use two hands very often and it’s particularly nice to be able to mouse left-handed when you’ve got a bunch of numeric entry. I use the roller as left click about as often as the dedicated left button. Using the roller to left click works perfectly in most circumstances but it’s possible to roll up or down just a little before the click. If I’m working on a particularly precise measurement, it’s wonderful to be able to click without disturbing the cursor alignment. I can often use my right hand for the cursor control and my left for the button. This gives me great precision and speed.Image result for rollermouse red images

The RollerMouse Red is made of Aluminum and it’s very solidly made. The top edge of the mouse has continuous slots to accept “risers” which are rubber coated pieces that go under your keyboard. They can be configured to adjust the tilt and height of the keyboard relative to the roller mouse. The risers also keep the keyboard from sliding away from the mouse. The fit between the RollerMouse and the Logitech K360 is just about perfect. It’s a petty point, but the keyboard and mouse look like they were built for one another. Initially I was concerned that I’d bump the mouse while typing. The wrist pad shape on the RollerMouse gives me enough support that nothing is touching the roller when my hands are on the keyboard. It’s a balancing act that RollerMouse has managed to execute perfectly.

At this point I’ve had the RollerMouse for a year and haven’t had any major issues with it. I have noticed that my PC fails to acknowledge it after hibernating, but that seems to be a problem with the PC rather than the RollerMouse. I downloaded a driver from Comfort Design which helped with the hibernating problem but now I can’t adjust the click force or volume. Thankfully they’re both set where I like them, but it’s worth mentioning. I’m working on a five-year old PC and it’s possible these issues will be resolved when it’s replaced.

One thing I was curious about was what happens when the roller is slid all the way to one extreme. My cursor will cross the entire width of the screen when the roller is slid about one and a half inches. Anything beyond that stalls the cursor at the edge of the screen until you slide back to center. One half rotation of the roller brings the cursor from top to bottom so it’s not like you’re cranking on it to move around. Again, this is all based on my individual settings with my specific machine. As they say; your mileage may vary.

I paid just under $265.00 for my RollerMouse which is the most expensive mouse I’ve ever bought. However my hunt for a workable solution involved five different mice, spanned nearly three years, and involved a few trips to the doctor’s office for the arm pain. I can honestly say that I wish I’d spent the money earlier. Good tools make all the difference.

 

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved

 


Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

The plans are on the street, now what?

Once the Invitation to bid (ITB) is drafted, and sent to every subcontractor on your bid list, you’re free to pursue the other work that piled up. The more your internal systems are built to output an accurate ITB and an optimal bid-list, the more these tasks will depend on a thorough review of the Construction Documents (CD’s). By having an ITB template that requires answers to the most common bidder questions, you’ll be able to focus your review of the Request For Proposal (RFP) and Construction Documents (CDs). Be advised that defining which trades you need to invite isn’t necessarily a quick process.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

“Sure you’re doing six things at once, but could you go a bit faster?”

A specialty trade or a really small scope of work may be required via a single note in the drawings. It may be a better choice to get the ITB out to the obvious trades, than to hold everything until you’ve scoured the plans for a buried specialty vendor.

An absolutely pivotal concept of reliable estimating is knowing that time is more valuable earlier than later.

You get more out of the early minute than the final hour.

Learning you need to fix a “hole” in your estimate one hour to deadline means you’ve got 60 minutes to get a viable bid together. Until that problem is solved, the idea of winning takes a back seat to the risk of submitting an incomplete bid!   In comparison, an estimator who found just 20 minutes three weeks earlier could have addressed all the issues completely.

I’ve been in the war room in the final hour when we discovered that nobody had invited an entire trade of subcontractors! Until we found a sub with a complete bid, we had only our historical pricing to go on. If we bid and won using our historical pricing, we took a risk that subcontractor proposals would be substantially higher than what we carried. Given the great value of that scope of work, our exposure threatened the success of entire job.   We were in such a hurry with the bid letting software that a single trade was left out.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

Even with the satellite, Dave couldn’t make the connection…

Nobody found time to verify the invite list in the intervening weeks. Don’t let it happen to you.

Series of sweeps

It’s really simplistic to assume that estimating is a function of counting, pricing, and totaling. The efforts that make the difference between winning and losing are rarely attributed to punctilious spreadsheets. Broadly speaking, a GC estimator needs to conduct a series of sequential sweeps through the CD’s looking for four basic criteria.

Sub sweep

Getting the ITB on the street required the first sweep of the CD’s to determine who needs to be invited, and what information they’ll need to get started.

Scope sweep

This is where the estimator gets a handle on what’s supposed to happen in the project. Estimators must pay particular attention to where scopes of work overlap between design consultants. Architects are famous for not telling their engineering consultants about an alternate request, and engineering consultants are famous for not sharing requirements that should be included in another consultants documents. For example, an electrically operated smoke damper which is shown on the mechanical plans, but not on the electrical. Estimators must review plans looking for where trades will overlap on scope. If the plans aren’t clear on who does what, it’s the estimators job to provide direction to all concerned. Leaving this to chance on bid-day ends up with double-ups or holes. The scope sweep should enable the estimator to roughly define how much work there is for each trade. Any trade with an especially small scope of work should be noted for a mandatory follow-up with a trusted sub. The same goes for sub-tier subs like Fire Alarm, Pavement striping, HVAC Controls, Coring/Drilling, Imaging, etc. I call these “ghost trades” because they’re never clearly visible, but they’ll haunt your bid if you ignore them!

Error Sweep

After two sweeps of the plans, the odds are good that you’ve already come up with some questions for the design team. The goal isn’t to pick the plans apart, so much as it is to resolve issues that are likely to impact the bid. CD’s often fall short of defining vital project information like site logistics, alternates and phasing. Getting these questions into Request For Information (RFI) format early in the process gives the design team more time to answer which may in turn allow you more time to communicate the answer to your bidders.

Strategy Sweep

There are lots of GC estimators out there whose entire strategy is to simply rely on subcontractor bids to deliver their victories. This flawed approach hinges on two fallacies. The first fallacy is that there’s something magical about their company that makes subs want to give them better prices.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

You can howl, but then you’re singing along!

The second fallacy is that all subs are bidding all jobs at all times. By inviting everyone, they feel sure that the market leaders will send them a bid. This “strategy” is successful only when there’s no real competition.

Estimating is about controlling risk. If it were possible to simply add everything up and arrive at an accurate price the industry would use cashiers instead of estimators. Risk and how it’s controlled is how a plan becomes an opportunity. A lot of estimators get hung up on risk as a one-sided concept. I hear a lot of GC estimators looking to press project risk onto their subcontractors. Poorly defined scope, misleading diagrams, or counter-intuitive specifications are all treated like it’s the subcontractors problem. These GC’s fail to understand that the uncontrolled risk raises subcontractor prices, making the GC noncompetitive. It’s of pivotal importance for a GC estimator to understand that winning bids is a function of reducing risk for everyone.

Taking responsibility for sorting this out is how a GC estimator can set themselves apart from the field and thereby attract the market leaders. It’s pivotally important to understand that this is a proactive measure administered fairly to all involved parties. Bid directives are an effective means to mass-communicate a plan of action but they can be easily shared with your competitors. I recommend using bid directives to provide clear and accountable leadership that your competitors would shirk. Strategies should be treated as confidential information, and communicated accordingly.

Very few jobs will present an opportunity for a single overarching strategy to secure a victory. That being said, if you can’t find any advantage, you won’t likely land a job. Very often the greatest advantage a GC will have is due to an existing relationship with market leading subs. In that case, picking work that’s best suited to the top performers becomes the GC’s strategy for success.

Measuring time!

Finally, we’ve reached the point where most folks believe the real estimating begins; the quantity take off (QTO). I’ve written about software technology for estimating before. There have been notable advancements in how estimators tasks are completed, like computerized QTO. For example, it’s now possible to measure, count, and color the plans without the printed plans, scale, paper, calculators and pencils. While that’s a huge advancement, most of these proprietary programs lack the logical “polish” of standard business programs. These programs offer an exponential increase in the speed of QTO’s provided the estimators learn their idiosyncrasies.

Whether you’re using a digital system or manual takeoffs, there are some aspects of reliable estimating that never change.

“One pass” takeoff

After all the effort to define which Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) Masterformat divisions pertain to your project, it’s tempting to conduct the QTO in “CSI order”. Lots of estimators will begin their takeoffs with Division 2 Sitework and skim through the plans looking for anything that pertains to that division. Unfortunately there are often solitary notes pertaining to a small scope of work that’s unique from everything else shown on the page. This means that the estimator skimming for a specific CSI division will ignore that solitary note figuring that they’ll get it when they sweep for that division. When the note is on a particularly unlikely sheet, it’s often forgotten. Later, when their Project Manager comes down the hall complaining about how they missed something, that note will be very familiar.

I advocate what I call the “one pass” takeoff. I make sure that absolutely everything depicted, noted, or specified on the page be taken off before I go to the next page. If you’re doing manual takeoffs, this means you’ll have to start a CSI division sheet for each division as they present themselves. It’s a lot of shuffling to record your measurements, and the sheets tend to look less tidy from the many edits. This is still worth the effort since it not only catches the one-note traps, I’ve found it’s actually faster than repeated skimming.

Knowing where to stop is as important as knowing when to stop

Unless the job is fairly small, chances are good that your QTO’s will be interrupted or at least spread across several days. Estimators should understand that co-workers have no comprehension of how much focus it takes to complete some takeoffs.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

I’m…gonna need a moment here…

Something as simple as the height of a concrete stem-wall may require calculations based on information scattered across several sheets. It’s therefore good practice to write (or type) notes on the plans providing the necessary information where it would actually do you some good. General items like area and perimeter measurements for each room can prove incredibly helpful since a myriad of takeoffs are based on these two pieces of information. By leaving a record of basic measurements, you’re able to pick up where you left off with minimal wind-up.

I would also recommend that your day’s work be paused at a meaningful and reliable point. Stopping mid-way through a sheet is sure to keep you up worrying about what you missed. Choose to either stop early or work late in order to leave yourself a clear conscience.

Before you begin an intense take-off, consider your schedule and the day’s obligations. It’s unwise to get a half-baked start on something complicated right before a meeting. One of the advantages of the one-pass takeoff method is that you don’t have to do the sheets in order. If you’ve got a limited amount of time before an appointment, pick a sheet you can complete. Estimators must accurately track and predict how long each element of a QTO will take. The fastest QTO’s are the ones that aren’t interrupted, however estimating is about more than take offs. Getting interrupted at an inopportune time is part of the job.

Three round review

Checking for errors is the best way to catch them but how you go about it can greatly increase your reliability. Huge data sets and tiny differences can stymie even the most dedicated review. The key to catching errors is to structure your workflow around meaningful review points. The simplest problems are most easily caught earlier in the process. Breaking the QTO down, this begins at the page level. Before moving to the next page in the plans, the estimator should review everything they took off on that sheet. The minute detail is fresh in your memory, and transposition errors are more easily spotted. The vast majority of errors are caught at this level.

The next round of review is when tallying a division as a GC, or a major component as a sub. The errors found at this level tend to be more dramatic because you’re moving the contributions of several plan sheets. A flooring subcontractor might take a moment after tallying the carpet and the tile measurements to see if the relative difference they’re seeing aligns with what they’d expect. These order of magnitude comparisons can tell you if you’re missing an individual room or an entire floor.

The third round of review is after the QTO’s have been entered into the estimate. Does the estimated cost outcome align with the division level review? By using the earlier reviews as benchmarks to compare against, the subsequent reviews become more reliable.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

You could say the process leaves a mark on you…

I would strongly caution an estimator against more frequent reviews of their work because reviews without benchmarks are little more than skimming plans looking for stuff to add. After a person has looked at the same information a few hundred times, their ability to recognize new information diminishes. You have to be able to trust your work by testing it at intervals that allow you to know if you’re right or wrong.

Taking notes

An awful lot of estimating comes down to judgment when dealing with uncertainty. It’s not fair, but an estimators judgment is often criticized after the uncertainty is removed. People don’t care that you had a good reason for your decision, they only care about the outcome of your decision. It’s therefore absolutely critical to develop the habit of clarifying, stipulating, and excluding anything that requires judgment on the proposal. Effective proposals define with minute clarity what is driving the uncertainty. For that, you’ll need to take notes of where you found the problem. Keep in mind that as an estimator, your work is laying the foundation for the Project Manager’s efforts. Everyone needs to know where the tricky bits are located. Plus if you’re expected to present your estimates for review at your company, it’s good to be able to provide references for all the hard decisions you made.

Schedule slip

As mentioned earlier, interruptions at inopportune times are part of the job. I’ve had multi-million dollar estimates interrupted at the last moment over questions on a $50.00 change order! Estimating is about controlling risk even within the estimating process. Plainly speaking, an estimator must not only predict how long a QTO will take on a piecemeal basis, they must also be capable of plotting a path to recovery when they’ve been derailed. It’s at this point that many, many, “old-school” estimators just plan on spending the night. I believe that most estimators could substantially improve their quality of life by committing themselves to solving schedule problems with overtime as a means of last-resort.

Schedule recovery may involve many approaches ranging from additional workers, to less detailed takeoffs. Estimators should consider the value and the risk associated with each scope of work they’re taking off. A perfect paint takeoff can take a considerable amount of time, yet the paint scope is relatively inexpensive when compared to plumbing. Since the paint scope is relatively inexpensive, the relative risk of an imperfect takeoff is quite low unless you can’t attract more than one painting bid. Estimators should always prioritize on high value, and high risk scopes of work. As a GC estimator, knowing which direction to go between similar bids on bid-day is why you’re doing the takeoff. Continuing with the paint example, a pressed-for-time estimator might shift to a square foot cost for the paint scope followed by a list of scope inclusions that painters might miss. Providing sufficient information to scope sub bids is FAR more important than knowing the precise square footage of Paint color 1.

Lots of GC’s have a team of people working on an estimate. If you’re heading up the effort you will need to think on your feet when people call in sick, show up late, or otherwise drop the ball. Project Engineers are frequently “loaned out” to help in estimating, however they are rarely relieved of their normal responsibilities. Many will prioritize their ongoing projects at the cost of your time-sensitive estimate simply because they don’t work for the estimator. Lead estimators must provide and enforce deadlines for every task. Never give a helper sufficient time to squander your recovery. It’s better to check on them too much, than to find they’ve dug you a deeper hole.

Estimators who are working with interns, Project Engineers, etc. should make a special effort to simplify and compartmentalize the tasks they are delegating. Estimators are used to thinking in terms of length, area, and volume measurements, however these terms can quickly overwhelm someone who’s facing their first takeoff. Estimators should understand that “standard” units for takeoffs are arbitrary to a newcomer. For example carpet is measured by the square yard, yet ceramic tile is measure by the square foot. Taking the time to explain that there are nine square feet per square yard can make the difference between a useful takeoff and a mess that nobody understands.

And for goodness sake, if you’re having people do this work without a digitizer, or on-screen takeoff system, then at least give them a courtesy lesson on how to measure areas that aren’t squares or rectangles! While we’re at it, teach them to use decimal feet in lieu of inches! For some reason, this rather obvious point is overlooked in most construction education.

Addenda of mass distraction

Many architects will respond to bidder questions via an addendum before the deadline. Projects and professionalism will vary which means that GC estimators will have anywhere from over a week to only a few hours to incorporate changes made via the addendum. This practice is easily the single most stressful aspect of professional construction estimating because unclear, misleading, and outright contradictory information is often presented without sufficient time to get clarification. Estimators should note that shoddy plans, municipal or “public work” clients, and last-minute addenda are constant companions.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

The architect finds last minute changes to be the most fashionable…

The absolute #1 priority is to get that information disseminated to the bidders as soon as possible. The second priority is to provide the necessary leadership and communication to ensure your bid-team isn’t derailed by the Addendum.

As a start, every Addendum should be scoured for changes to the deadline, proposal format, etc. Everything that goes to the bid-team should have the most current deadline printed where it’s easily seen. Wherever possible, notify bidders when an Addendum has little or no impact on their scope. If the Addendum ONLY affects the GC’s, don’t bother the subs with needless panic-inducing addenda.

If your Request For Information (RFI) was answered in the Addendum, you might reference whether the Architect response is consistent with your earlier bid-directives. The better your direction, the lower the risk your subs will face. Lower risk leads to lower prices, this is where the truly professional estimator earns their keep. If you do your best to get in front of issues, you may be rewarded with an addendum that confirms all of your bid-directives which means your subs are the only ones who don’t have last-minute changes.

Preparing for the blitz

Bid day is a real test of your skills, knowledge, tools, endurance, and patience. The better part of victory is preparation. Heading into bid-day you’ll need several critical elements in place. First and foremost, you’ll need your estimate “built” which is to say that your QTO has been imported or entered into your template form and prepared to accept subcontractor proposals. You should have a reasonable estimate of every trades worth, and a decent idea of what the final cost will be. Second, you’ll need your bid packet, which is all the completed forms identified in the Request For Proposal (RFP). Generally, this is the proposal itself, a CSI breakdown, a construction schedule, bond, etc. Everything should be as ready as possible for the bid-runner to deliver.

Third, you’ll need the “bid tab” or “scope sheets”. These are the scope of work as broken down in the estimate in anticipation of how the subs will bid. The scope of work is generally listed in rows, and a series of columns are made for subcontractor comparison. As the subcontractor proposal is compared against each row, the item is either checked as included, marked for follow-up, or an allowance is inserted. Once all the columns are filled for a given sub, their tally is calculated at the bottom and the subs are ranked by price lowest to highest for entry into the estimate.

I should mention that every Alternate that affects the given scope of work should be built into the scope sheet. Poorly defined Alternates can wreak havoc on bid-day. It’s important to know what to expect.

Estimators with plenty of time often export their bid-tab as a checklist which they have their subs fill out, endorse and return. This helps to prevent the “gotcha” nonsense that comes with indecipherable inclusions, exclusions, and clarifications on subcontractor forms.

Projects with special requirements for Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) participation should be tracked in real-time in the estimate. Allowing for “what-if” strategy is a crucial tool to making timely decisions. Very rarely will MBE companies be the lowest bidders, so it becomes a balancing act to meet participation goals, without undue cost.

As you head into the final hour, all of your hard work preceding the bid will be paying off. Be sure to “close the loop” with everything you’ve learned on this estimate by tying your estimate tracking to your bid results. An awful lot of an estimators daily struggle comes down to reconciling the big picture against today’s efforts.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

Winning profitable work is the estimators constant goal.  Very little has more influence on your ability to win than choosing the right opportunities. Everything is an opportunity to people lacking perspective. Estimators must take it upon themselves to provide not only estimates for projects they’ve bid, but perspective on the market in which they compete. It’s vitally important to show your work in much the same way as an estimate validates the proposal amount.

Reliable estimating practices not only improve bidding, they enable decision-making.

 

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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved

 


Principles of Estimating

“So…how do you figure out how much it’ll cost?”

There’s a lot to it but everything builds on one concept; estimating is about systematically getting closer to the answer.  The most simplistic method is bounding the answer.  By defining the range that contains your answer, you’ve reduced the problem.  The next step is to determine what you need to know to reduce that range further.  As counter-intuitive as it may seem, asking yourself what you don’t need to know can be very helpful.  The idea is to reduce uncertainty by systematically answering questions that divide the range sort of like playing “I spy”. For example: a client asks for conceptual pricing on an office remodel.  The number of occupants and what paint colors they’d choose are irrelevant.  The square footage of the space won’t change in a simple remodel and the cost of paint isn’t typically driven by color choice.

Right off the top it’s important to understand that it’s very hard to remove all uncertainty.  Better design, or past-project similarity can help to reduce the uncertainty but some will always remain.  I like to think that estimating is actually about controlling risk rather than pricing stuff.  There are lots of ways to arrive at a price – heck you might even win a competitive bid by throwing darts at numbers.  But here’s the thing that makes the estimating mindset different from an Entrepreneur.  It’s never the job that you lose that puts you out of business, it’s the job you win.  Look at it this way, the total bid amount is the company’s minimum risk for not completing the job.  That risk goes down as the project reaches milestones, and only goes away entirely after the warranty period.  All the projects a company has underway have risk which added together amounts to running risk.  More than one company has had to drop everything to jump on a project that was going badly.  That can make every job suffer which is why it’s important for someone to be thinking about this at the bid stage.  Every time I think about the risk to reward ratio in the construction market, my respect for the entrepreneurial spirit grows.

Principles of Estimating

Especially the cat washing contractors…

 

So how do you reduce risk?  As a bidder there are several approaches.  The most common is to define what is included and what is excluded from your bid.  Contract parlance refers to these as inclusions, and exclusions which appear on the bid proposal.  These can range from standards like “daytime working hours”, to more project specific details like “excluding carpet on floor two”. Remember they’re called “General Contractors” instead of “Builders” for a reason!

Another way to reduce uncertainty is to put part of the work out to bid. Things go out to bid for several reasons.  The first and most obvious is to use market competition to keep the price down.  A  less obvious reason is to reduce risk.  Let’s say that three subcontractors bid on a project.  The two low bidders are 3% apart.  If you win the bid with the low bidder amount and later learn they’re missing something huge, or they back out, you can hire the 2nd low for 3% more which makes your minimum risk 3% for that trade.

A good principle of business is to have a policy of “the record is always on”.  Anything you put in writing, you should expect to be saved and used later.   The subcontractor bids will have inclusions and exclusions on them.  Comparing them against each other is very illuminating.  It won’t take long to see that exclusions are the embodiment of the expression “The devils in the details“!  I’ll get more into reading bids which is called “Bid scoping” in a later post.

For now, it’s important to see that risk is contained by knowing the spread (difference between bids), and  knowing the differences in the exclusions.  Sometimes the high bidder picked up on something significant that the competition didn’t which spells disaster if you’d hired the low bidder.  Remember to call your clients attention to anything you’ve included that was tricky to see, or understand.  For example: the plans may show something is existing that you find missing during your job walk.

It’s a terrific illusion that the construction documents will provide enough information to know every quantity, every time.  In the commercial construction world, the owners and architects expect the estimator to “make reasonable assumptions” often based on “standard means and methods” when a design fails to cover something.  The consequence of these expectations is the practice of stating assumptions via inclusions and exclusions on the bid form or proposal letter. Control risk by clearly defining what you are and are not including in your scope of work.

This brings us to the Estimators Paradox which is:

When you win you worry about what you overlooked, but when you lose, you worry it’s because of something you shouldn’t have included.

Next I’d like to cover a few principles of effective estimating.  It’s hard work to count and measure everything on a project.  Conceptual or budgetary efforts for a client or an Architect are “free” services that consume valuable resources.  Many times historical data, allowances and minimal research will provide adequate accuracy for the purpose.  Having Subcontractors price conceptual work should be studiously avoided whenever possible.  Every bid should be retained for use as historical pricing.  I’ll get more into how to track your files to make this easier in a later post.

Historical pricing is only as useful as your records, and your efforts to improve on what you’ve learned.  At the General Contracting level there is a tremendous range of acceptable detail  for estimating measurements called Quantity Take offs.  (QTO).  In my experience, a more detailed QTO is a more useful QTO provided the detail exists on the plans.  For example, If the plans resolution is to the nearest foot, there is no advantage to QTO’s carried to the nearest inch.  While on the topic of inches, it bears mentioning to those inclined to the metric system that a decimal foot is a far more useful system for QTO’s i.e.twelve feet, six inches would be notated as 12.5′.  No accuracy is lost and the spreadsheets are immensely simplified.

Measurements alone are not useful without showing how they relate to cost.  I’ll provide some simple template ideas in a future post.  Speaking of units, the unit of measurement for materials aren’t always obvious.  For example carpet is measured by the square yard whereas floor tile is measured by the square foot.  The “RS MEANS” series of books will provide valuable insight into both the units of measure, and what ballpark price to use.  There are other similar resources, but I’m most familiar with RS Means.  Beware of trusting one source implicitly.  There are many factors that must be adjusted to reflect the exact situation you’re facing.  Anything that strives to be all things to all people fails on both fronts.  Get used to the idea that you’ll have to use multiple references to check accuracy.

 

.Principles of Estimating

 

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© Anton Takken 2014 all rights reserved