Tag Archives: excellence

Snowflakes and the hammer

As much as it might deflate our sense of importance, an awful lot of business is about doing something obvious. Many firms suffer through “self-caused disasters” in the form of mismanagement, lost productivity, etcetera.


Artistic rendering of mismanagement, lost productivity, etc….

By far the most frequent self-caused disaster in this industry is over-commitment to clients. I’ll never tire of reminding people that it’s not the job you lose that puts you out of business, but the job you win. Estimators should be ever wary of their firm’s abilities and limitations when bidding.


Some people have a tendency to believe that their situation is so unique that normal expectations can’t be applied to them. These “snowflakes” inevitably follow patterns of behavior that lead to setbacks, cost/schedule overruns, and angry clients.

Contracts are specifically written to punish failure. If the job falls short, the hammer comes down on the contractor and sometimes their subcontractors. At a business level, it’s obvious that anything contributing to failure is a liability. Yet it’s incredibly common for problems to persist because key players are snowflakes, kept insulated from the havoc they create.


Enough with the trampoline already  … Hey what’d you do with Bob and the sled anyway?

Estimators are frequently reminded that their bids are fine in theory but the build team’s got real world problems to contend with. That’s true because every “snowflake” is unique, fragile, and part of every avalanche. If everyone (estimating included) adhered to best practices and ethical behavior, the real world would look a lot like the estimates.

So what’s the solution?

Aristotle once said : “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

That is a roundabout way of saying you can’t just demand excellence of snowflakes, and expect them to perform. However establishing a habit of excellence revolves around some very simple concepts.

simple steps

“Yes sir, just five simple steps…”

Every task has a consistent process, with well-defined criteria for successful completion before it starts

Every task has a deadline

Every deadline brings evaluation to correct what’s wrong, or reward what’s working.

Correct deficits before moving on.

Spot check the work for consistency and quality because the two are absolutely interdependent.

But we’re REALLY busy, there’s no time for that.

In my experience, firms without quality control are working harder to produce less. These firms will often have someone run ragged just trying to keep all the workers going. Time is spent “putting out fires” that get their start on jobs that were neglected. It doesn’t take long for one job’s problems to cause systemic failures. Job-sites that are suddenly flooded with manpower indicate an idle job elsewhere. Getting caught up with one client puts them behind with another. As Aristotle would say; “We are what we repeatedly do”. Some firms could be described as little more than incorporated arson.


You’ve gotta love what you do!

Very often the selfsame person run ragged trying to fix problems, is the one who most needs that culture of excellence.   It’s my opinion that these efforts only work when promoted from the top and the bottom of the company. At every level, it’s crucial to be providing direction, expectation, evaluation, correction, and promotion for the level below.

Intensity can’t replace quality

Lots of companies have a demanding culture that attempts to replace quality with intensity. Long hours and excessive workloads are common with these firms. Lacking a cohesive and well-reasoned plan, these firms often burn bridges with clients, contractors, and employees in their haste to make production. A pattern of long hours, “big pushes”, and heroic efforts to meet deadlines are indicative of a problem. It is lot less theatrical to reliably knock out profitable wins by working steadily. Don’t confuse performance with results. 80 hour work-weeks and dismal hit-rates often go hand in hand.

Evaluation isn’t a punishment

We’ve become a very conflict-averse society which leads people to focus on the negative aspects of evaluation. It’s much easier to “catch” someone doing something right, if you’re checking often enough, and providing meaningful feedback. Praising success without being critical of failure confuses priorities and leads to mediocrity. Cowardice opposes excellence.


“Excellence has a way of standing out from the crowd…”

If oversight is easy, games will be played

A great deal of project control amounts to an effort to evaluate what’s working.   If everything is evaluated “by the numbers” as in audit’s, or accounting reports, the natural response for some is to “game” the system. Rigid, formulaic, and quota-driven evaluations are as easy to develop as they are to game. A culture of excellence won’t be achieved through “easy” oversight. Managers dressed for golf should take note of where the games are really being played.

You get more of whatever you reward

Quotas can become a factor in decision making even for well-meaning employees. For example, a sudden increase in traffic tickets at the end of a month is hardly indicative of better policing or a sudden surge in crime.   It’s merely a pivot from their daily work to get management off their back. Rewarding excellence requires managers who work to cultivate excellence. Bureaucracy is rarely the right tool for cultivating excellence. There are no short-cuts or work-a rounds with something this simple.


Brian was really big on short-cuts, he’s… in a better place now.”

Working in cycles is better than running in circles

I’ve written before about my “one pass” method for takeoffs. Summing it up quickly, I believe a great deal of mistakes come from scanning a page looking for something relevant to a single discipline, detail, or issue. Looking at the information with “filters on” tends to leave out the unique, oddball, and painfully expensive items. People don’t miss huge contributing elements of projects too often, but they regularly miss a solitary note for a specialty item. Specialty / oddball stuff gets missed because we’re not looking for it. If you’re objective is to note everything on the page regardless of discipline, the filters are taken off.

Tied to the one-pass method is the process milestone. “Known-good” points in your process are created by reviewing your information to check for errors. Generally speaking, errors found in these reviews are MUCH easier to fix. There’s also the benefit of repeated exposure to your data and your process which further hones your judgment of every successive stage. This is particularly helpful when compiling, transferring, importing, or exporting data from one system to another. “Check the chute” to make sure the data made it from one end to the other without problems. I’ve found that making sure I’ve checked each part of a project three different ways substantially cuts down on errors. Plus it lets me sleep at night!

Meetings, the import/export data function of the business world

It may seem odd to put it this way but meetings are often about transferring data from one system of thinking to another. We get used to the shortcomings of computer systems which require data re-formatting, or sorting before they’ll work properly. People are often similar yet we’ve all sat through meetings where one party won’t consider the responsibilities, limitations, and motivations of the other party, leading to inevitable communication breakdowns. I had a business professor who recommended that we conclude every meeting with the following three questions;

What are we working on?

Who is it for?

When is it due?

Really basic stuff that rarely happens because we’re all so sure that somebody else is going to do it.

Nature abhors a vacuum

Earlier I touched on how conflict-averse society has become. Innovations like email and text-messaging have created opportunities for managers to carefully compose their responses to challenges from the sidelines rather than provide direction face-to-face. A time-stamped record of clearly worded directions can be an especially effective way to lead. However some folks attempt to avoid accountability for problems while maintaining a window to claim credit for successes. The most common tactic is to “play for time” by not responding to an issue or just not addressing the real issue. This leadership vacuum is transparent to all concerned.

behind you

“We know what you’re up to back there”

Nature, including human nature, abhors a vacuum. Opportunists will take their chances at extorting whatever they can. Jobs run late, over budget, under-staffed as a result. Some will follow the leaders example and concern themselves with only their posteriors as well. Every snowflake manager who thinks they can hide out until somebody solves their problems will eventually feel the hammer fall on them.

“I didn’t act so I could say I didn’t know”

“Plausible deny-ability” is a terrible reason to do anything. It’s not conflict avoidance, it’s premeditated political maneuvering at the obvious cost of doing the right thing. The more contrived, and convoluted the reasons to depart from best practices, the more certain they are to cause things to fail. Anyone who plans to fail in a way that lays the blame elsewhere has effectively chosen to hurt the company to get ahead. Parasites work along the same lines.

I sure hope nobody told you this would be easy!

Often we’re in a position to see a leadership failure where professional decorum, contractual relationships, or politics lead to silence. Failure is punished regardless of who’s to blame so we all have a vested interest in doing our best to fill leadership shortfalls.

It may be surprising to hear, but Architects spend a great deal of their time running management meetings that were never really addressed in their education. Few Colleges provide robust leadership / management training for Architects. I can’t imagine the struggle a new Architect must face learning this stuff as they go along. Knowing this, it’s incumbent upon all professionals to aid when they can. Leadership is not always about authority, position, or social status. If you know what you’re talking about and speak truthfully, others will hear you.

It can be difficult to admit that jobs go wrong because of choice we make. However the advantage of a solid process and unclouded vision of what’s really going on greatly reduces the odds of making a bad call. With strong fundamentals and a good attitude, it’s amazing how far you can go. Let excellence become your habit.




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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved

Relationships and their place. Push vs. Pull

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

What would you say you do here?

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

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

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

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

Put your back into it.

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

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

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

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

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

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

Design relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

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

Professional conduct

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

Opportunity may only knock once

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

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

Don’t be an obstacle to success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does the client care about?

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

What they see

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

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

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

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

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

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

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

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

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

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


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© Anton Takken 2014 all rights reserved