Tag Archives: Estimating process

Would you recommend estimating as a career?

I was recently asked if I would recommend estimating as a career.  This being the first time anyone ever asked me this question, I was unprepared for how complicated it felt to answer.  I find myself between two competing perspectives on this vocation.  On the positive side, most people who major in Construction Management do not voluntarily pursue estimating.  As a result, there is usually a tremendous amount of competition for Project Management positions, which in turn, limits the individual’s ability to move up the ranks.

Project Managers multiply like…well you get the idea!

The Good

Estimating in contrast, has very little competition.  It’s very common for successful estimators to get rapidly promoted to senior positions. A quick survey of construction contracting will reveal that estimators are well represented at the ownership level.  Estimators are in a unique position to witness market and industry trends.  If they’re paying attention, they can see what’s going on both inside, and outside of their firm to make better decisions.  Estimating is a wonderful way to network with professionals in your market.  Bid deadlines can be very short, so coordinating everything and everyone requires a lot of direct communication.  That direct communication provides lots of opportunities to stand out as an individual.  Being perceived as a real contender attracts market leaders, which can make you a winning bidder.  These are the proven connections between your integrity, your reputation, and your success.

Plus you’ll be surrounded by some good company!

The Bad

The construction industry has some serious challenges that will factor heavily into your daily life as an estimator.  It’s entirely possible to be the lowest complete bidder and still lose the job.  Major economic trends cascade through the industry upending everybody’s plans.  It is very frustrating to see hard-won projects getting postponed or abandoned when your firm badly needs work.  Oftentimes there will be lot of pressure to generate results when work is scarce.  People tell me that they wouldn’t want a job that depends upon their day to day performance.  I see it differently.  Just about everyone’s job depends on their day to day performance.  The same transparency that exposes all the bids I lost, will equally showcase all the jobs I won.  I can see, and more importantly prove my value to my employer.

The Ugly

Desperation encourages a lot of bad behavior on all sides of this industry.  I often remind people that it’s not the job you lose that puts you out of business, it’s the job you win.  All of the very worst projects of my career had one thing in common; dishonesty.  You will encounter a lot of people who will rationalize dishonest and unethical business practices as being somehow necessary.  “The thing you gotta understand…” is the familiar preamble, cheating is the inevitable conclusion.  It’s presented in terms of negotiation where the arrangement just so happens to require cheating the winning bidder out of their contract award.   If they didn’t want to work with a firm, why did they accept the bid?  As crazy as it might sound, I’ve had clients who claimed they had a lower bid than mine and asked me to beat it after the fact.  When I declined their request (called their bluff), they went quiet for a while, then sent me a contract for my full bid amount.  Some days, it can be very difficult not to take it all personally.

Jim does his best to stand out from the crowd, but sometimes the job eats at you…”

So where do I start?

I could list off all the education and work experience stuff, but it won’t lead to success on it’s own.  Estimating is a unique profession in that I meet very few who pursued it intentionally.  The vast majority of beginning estimators go on to pursue other lines of work.  It’s my belief that this career misalignment is largely due to two things;  clarity of purpose, and perspective.  When people don’t really understand what they’re supposed to achieve, they make poor decisions that prioritize process over production.  This kind of thinking is how we end up with “bid mills” where firms push their estimators to recklessly bid everything in hopes that it will increase their odds of winning.  It doesn’t work, it never worked, and it’s always been a very bad practice.  The estimators purpose is to secure profitable work by managing risk.  If you want to be an estimator, you’ll need to maintain clarity of purpose.  Chasing everything to appear busy is confusing motion with progress.  Aiming at the opportunities you can actually hit is where perspective comes in.

Jared was all eyes and ears which is why he’s always running around”.

There’s a meaningful difference between perspective and opinion in this context.  Perspective comes from the honest observation of what’s going on, driven by the curiosity to determine what actually matters to success.  Since we know that our success is defined by securing profitable work, we can focus our attention on the variables that affect that outcome.  A word of warning here, make sure that your focus is proportional to the indicative value of a given variable.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  Let’s say you’re competing on near-identical projects like retail chain stores.  If you find that you’re losing by 5%, it makes sense to find a way to trim 5% from your bid on the next one.  However, if you make that cut (or more) on each successive bid, yet continue to lose by 5%, you should focus your attention onto other variables.  Find out how it’s possible to “miss” with such precision.  Are you working with the same people as the wining bidders?  If so, there may be relationships you need to build up, or work around, to improve your odds of securing profitable work.  If the work in question is outside of your efficiency of scale, your company will need to make structural changes to profitably secure that work.

Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world

Archimedes

These are just some of the many reasons that estimators must have the perspective to know what is and is not, a viable opportunity to pursue.  With clarity of purpose and the right perspective, you will be well equipped to recognize the risks and rewards of any given “best practice” in estimating.  There are a lot of “solutions” that are worse than the original problems.  I worked for a company that painstakingly measured every square inch of each paint color where painting was consistently worth less than 1% of the total project cost.  When I started, this same company used crude, square foot costs for complex trades like structural steel and Electrical which were consistently worth 12% and 20% respectively of the total project cost.  Over 30% of their project value was guesswork because the estimator never found time to learn how to quantify and estimate the more complex trades.  The rationale was that the painters weren’t very good bidders, compared to skilled trades so they needed fine detail to verify the painters bids.  While this was generally true, it ignored the relative risk versus reward.  Any error in a skilled trade bid was probably worth more than the entire paint scope.  Simply put, there was no reason to even measure the paint because we could plug in double the average paint contract value without materially affecting our odds of winning the overall bid.  In fact, most of their jobs were won or lost on the basis of six critical trades.

Learn from your losses

Careful readers have likely noticed that there’s a lot of valuable information to be gained from losing a bid.  Depending on the internal bureaucracy of a given firm, it can be difficult for an estimator to know how successful their wins really were.  There’s a built-in delay on this feedback because you must wait for the project to conclude before the full story is revealed.  Estimators working in booming economies may not lose enough jobs to keep their perspective honed.  When things slow down (and they always do), these estimators are often blindsided by layoffs.  Savvy estimators who know the market value of, and market leaders in hardscrabble work are in a much better position to weather a downturn.  Wherever possible, seek the tutelage of a senior estimator who has weathered recessions.  There is no greater test of an estimators skill than to consistently land profitable work in a recession.

Walk tall

Estimating is a humbling pursuit because it’s impossible to achieve your potential without experiencing some failure.  There are however, many moments where you’ll know your worth with a clarity that is undeniable.  That confidence adds to everything you touch, and inspires the good people you’ll work with.

There will be opportunities to help people who may help you in a time of need.  In so doing, you can change your corner of the world for the better.  If all of that encourages you to become an estimator, I hope to see you out there!


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