Tag Archives: Risk

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

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

Submitted without comment…

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

The four P recipe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakouts are the leading cause of breakdowns

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Bigger blocks, fewer breakdowns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quoth the vendor: “It costs more”

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

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

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

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

Getting more information out of less data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

 

 

 


Seven new estimating ideas to try

We’re all looking for an edge to win a bid or make a project more profitable.  Estimating is a profession with deep roots going back through history.  It stands to reason that many of our current problems were familiar to our ancestors.  As with all human endeavors, we’re trying to improve on old problems, and sometimes a “new” idea is really just a rediscovery of a forgotten gem.  With that in mind, I hope the following seven ideas are at least new to most contemporary estimators.

#1 Provide constructability review for fee instead of conceptual competition for free

Conceptual estimating provides financial feedback on incomplete designs.  Since the complete design-development process can take months or even years, it’s important for clients to have a way to maintain alignment between their design and their budget.  There are many situations where a conceptual estimate can help the client to make an informed design decision.  General Contractors (GC’s) have traditionally extended this professional courtesy to assist and encourage upcoming projects.

Some GC’s believe they can make themselves indispensable to a project by providing extensive conceptual estimating.   They hope to secure a contract award before the design is completed.  This is commonly known as “client capture” and it’s the reason some firms will spend a considerable amount of time on conceptual bidding.

Seven new estimating ideas to try

“Scott does a lot of conceptual estimating and it’s starting to show.”

Since neither the Architect nor the Client pays for these conceptual estimates, they are naturally enthusiastic about soliciting bids from GC’s.  In some markets, it has become common to solicit competitive conceptual estimates from several GC’s without any intention or obligation to work with the “winning” GC on the final project.  The request for proposal (RFP) on such projects  encourage GC’s to provide design solutions, while studiously avoiding any reference to contract award.

GC’s with more optimism than caution end up as unpaid design consultants.  Some truly callous Clients will  “refine by bid” which is where all the estimators best ideas from one round of bidding are incorporated into the plans before they’re put back out to bid with their competitors.  This process is repeated until the client is satisfied that they’ve got the cheapest contractors building the best ideas.    I encourage estimators to find less frustrating ways to help their competition!

Clients may be unwilling (or unable) to award a contract to a GC on the basis of the conceptual estimate.  Nevertheless, these clients need budgetary feedback on their designs.  An unspoken detail of complimentary budgeting services, is that you can’t hold anyone responsible for bad information.  Clients who solicit several bidders are hoping to work around this problem by putting their trust in a budgetary consensus.  This encourages bidders to game the uncertainty to their advantage.  The bidders goal shifts from providing insightful conceptual estimates worthy of contract award, to landing an invitation to the final round of bidding.

Since Architects act as gatekeepers to new project opportunities, the GC’s will favor the Architects interests wherever they can.  This means that GC’s aren’t as interested in finding budget-blowing design choices as they are in delivering a plausible-sounding number.  GC’s who mostly chase conceptual work won’t attract market-leading subcontractors (subs) who have real opportunities to pursue.  Firms that cannot attract market-leading subs must often cut corners to be competitive.   All of these conflicting motivations serve to move the outcome of a conceptual estimate further from its purpose.   Many clients end up blind-sided by a budget blowout on their final bid as a result.

Estimates are not free.  Competitive bidders submit their estimates in a good faith exchange for either contract award, or bid results which help them to win their next bid.  Competitive conceptual bidding with no obligation to award or even select a contractor is a terrible practice that’s harmful to all parties excepting the Architect.

GC’s should offer clients an alternative.  A constructability review would furnish the client with not only the conceptual estimate, but a comprehensive report on the constructability of the plans.  Furnishing the client with a list of outstanding budgetary issues provides a way to track changes and guide progress.   The fee for these services should be commensurate with the labor involved in meeting the client’s needs, including recompense to any subcontractor consultants involved.

#2 Include sample subcontracts with every invitation to bid

It’s impressive that with the incredible amount of information that’s being effortlessly transmitted via email, and bid-letting software that one crucial document is virtually never shared before the bid deadline; the subcontract.   Many GC’s provide the sample contract under Division 1: General Conditions in the project specifications.  However that sample contract is only between the Client and the GC.  Most GC’s include subcontract terms that are much more stringent than those in the General Contract.  The most common are the “pay when paid” provisions which allow a GC to deny or delay payment to a sub because the client hasn’t paid them.  Some GC’s restrict the allowable percentages of overhead and profit on change orders on subcontractor’s change orders as well.  Other GC’s require every subcontractor to provide several hours of daily cleanup.  These are just a few of the many contractual requirements that Subs are expected to agree to after they’ve bid the job.  GC’s factor the general contract terms into their estimates as part of the project risk.  Providing a sample subcontract with every invitation to bid (ITB) shows the subs what the GC is expecting of them.  This avoids unnecessary arguments and negotiations for the Project Manager trying to get the project started.

Seven new estimating ideas to try

“Here we see a project manager fixing problems with the estimate… “

#3 Provide bidder responsibility matrix to delegate trade overlaps and identify sole-sourced vendors

Building on the concept of telling Bidders what you want from them, it’s a good idea to provide a bidder responsibility matrix.  There are tons of situations where several trades will overlap, yet nobody knows which trade the GC expects to do the work.  Rather than leaving these things to chance, it’s far better to actually provide direction so there won’t be any bid-day surprises.

Sole-sourced vendors are companies that must be hired for the project.  Sometimes they sell an exclusive material, other times there are proprietary systems that require specialist training.  The most common sole-sourced vendors will pertain to systems like; Security, Access control, HVAC Control, Fire Alarm, Elevators, Point of Sale (POS) systems, and Telecom.  Many of these vendors are “ghost trades” who only operate in a sub-tier-sub relationship.  If the affected trades don’t know who to call, they’ll just exclude the work entirely.   It’s absolutely incredible how much time gets wasted by all the subs trying to figure out who these sole-sourced vendors are.  GC estimators that provide leadership and information will quickly earn the loyalty of their subs.

#4 Provide “sellable” target budgets for individual trade solicitations on design-build estimates

GC’s who pursue competitive design-build bids rely on subcontractors to fill in a great deal of information.  These projects typically provide a narrative along with a rudimentary sketch of the work.  Lacking a target budget, the subcontractors have no context to interpret the design intent of the project narrative.  As a result, a lot of work is wasted in developing proposals that don’t meet the client’s needs.  Getting the subs dialed in to the GC’s expectations gives the whole team a cohesive plan of action.  Providing leadership and perspective is vital to successful bidding in a competitive market.

It’s worth pointing out that GC’s who have a Project Manager (PM) “bidding their own work” should make sure they adhere to estimating best practices .  Lots of PM’s “estimate” by collecting subcontractor bids and tallying the total of the lowest bids in each trade.  These PM’s have no idea what things should cost because they’re not actually estimating their projects.  GC estimators looking for an edge against their competitors can set themselves apart from the “bid collectors” by proving they are the firm that knows what a winning number should be.

In tight markets, this knowledge can undermine the hack GC bidders by giving the sub market a way to know when a GC hasn’t shared all the project requirements.  Transparency leads to trust and trust leads to cooperation .  The subcontractor market’s frustration with bidding practices that obscure, delay, and misrepresent what’s really going on shouldn’t be underestimated.  Being timely, honest, and forthright with important information will provide a sustained competitive advantage in most markets.

#5 Improve in-house estimating by hosting “lunch and learn” sessions with a market-leading subcontractor

Good leadership is difficult without good information.  Market-leading subcontractors can be a great source of trade-specific information for a GC estimator.  Understanding what drives the costs in complex system can open up options that would be overlooked.  GC estimators should strive to improve their knowledge by inviting a market-leading sub to a lunch hour session where they can present on some specific area of their trade and answer estimators questions.  These meetings can explore new materials, techniques, and technologies that estimators could potentially use for value engineering exercises.  Don’t forget that subs have extensive market knowledge about Architects, clients and competitors.

Reciprocity is a vital component of fair-dealing so GC estimators should share whatever they can that would help the sub to win more work.  Feedback on how proposals are scoped on bid-day can greatly improve a sub’s understanding of how their bids look through the GC’s eyes.  Poorly written proposals may end up on the “war room” floor when time is short, and the prices are close.   GC’s may lose the bid by these small differences so it’s very important for subs to have well-written proposals.

#6 Provide a team strategy that goes beyond simple pursuit.

The very nature of competitive bidding means that the majority of bidders will lose.  Many professionals assume that bidding is like a lottery, where your odds may improve in proportion to the amount you participate.  Their favorite slogan is “you can’t win if you don’t bid“.  If clients merely picked the winning GC out of a hat, this reasoning would have merit.  The reality is that the market-leading price for the proposed work isn’t generated by random chance.  Market leaders will consistently deliver higher value at lower cost than their competitors.  It therefore follows that any GC capable of attracting the best subs on the market will have a profound advantage in quality, pricing and profitability over their competitors.  When these firms pursue an opportunity, it’s incredibly hard to beat them without an excellent plan

Eagles and moths share the gift of flight, but moths squander their gift by banging against windows.

GC estimators should sincerely develop a strategy that plays to not only the GC’s strengths, but to their best subs’ strengths.  Winning  a bid has more to do with targeting the right opportunity than anything else.  Blindly pursuing every opportunity leads to consistent losing.  This tells market-leading subs that the GC is a participant rather than a contender.  GC’s that can’t attract market-leading subs won’t be competitive on dearly needed projects without sacrificing profitability.  Eventually this spirals to the point where every bid is a last-minute, underfunded, and poorly managed effort to keep the doors open.  The ever-present urgency to pursue every project is the most visible indicator that an estimator is adrift.

Seven new estimating ideas to tryEven the best teams get tired of running around

Estimating is a deadline-driven enterprise, and everyone participating knows this.  Invitations to bid that offer nothing but a strategy of pursuit aren’t capitalizing on the opportunity to communicate a viable strategy to win a profitable job.

ITB’s with statements like ;”we’re really going after this job” are presenting  their enthusiasm for the pursuit as a reason for subs to team up with them.  When these ITB’s are followed up with interns or secretaries nagging subs to bid, the tone shifts from enthusiasm to desperation.  Excellent GC’s don’t nag subs for bids.

GC’s who carefully select project opportunities based on their best allies in the subcontractor market aren’t doing themselves any favors by writing an ITB that implies the GC is desperate for company on their mindless pursuit.    If the GC’s best subs are market leaders, nothing is gained by soliciting every company in the book (or the database).  ITB’s can and should indicate when subs are short-listed for a targeted opportunity.  If it’s a great opportunity because the GC’s got a great team of subs, then the GC should clearly commit to their team. 

It’s worth mentioning that scoundrels who think “blind copy” gives them the power to misrepresent their commitments are mistaken.  Dishonesty is revealed in the supply chain just before the subs bids are due.  This is because the sales reps at distributors who sell to all the subs in a given trade have a vested interest in helping their customers to win.  Since everyone has the same deadline, the vendors can see who’s requested pricing.  Subs may have a lot of opportunities vying for their attention.  Sinking a few weeks of effort into bidding on one project may require turning down a lot of great opportunities.  Competitive bidding operates on principles of good-faith.  Once a sub knows the GC is willing to lie or cheat, there’s no reason to believe in fair competition.  Honest subs will choose to either withdraw from bidding or intentionally lose the bid so they can escape dealing with the dishonest GC.

In the decade that I’ve been an estimator, every profitless, contentious, mismanaged, and unpaid project started with some form of dishonesty.  It’s never the bid you lose that puts your business under, it’s the terrible job you won.

#7 Replace boilerplate bureaucracy with clarity of purpose

Modern construction is very litigious which is why companies call themselves “General Contractors” instead of “Builders”.   This is why GC estimators often think in terms of contractual liability.  Estimating is about controlling risk so it follows that many estimators would seek to reduce their risk by using standardized forms covered in catch-all provisions, clarifications, and exclusions.  This “boilerplate” can get so extensive that very little on the form is actually pertinent to the project at hand.

I’ve encountered proposals that were so riddled with boilerplate that they barely outlined the work to be done for the proposed amount.  Some GC estimators try to circumvent this practice by requiring their subs to use a “bid template” to standardize the format for the bid.  This is predictably unpopular with the subs because the GC’s formatting  limits the risky exclusions, clarifications, and notes.

Both of these examples illustrate how boilerplate bureaucracy swaps risk for cooperation.  The best cooperation is achieved when the risk is assigned to the parties who can best control the factors driving the risk.  Subcontractor proposals with boilerplate meant to replace a contract are false economy.  The GC’s ITB is a solicitation to bid on work under the terms of the GC’s subcontract.  While the GC’s get to set the terms of the contract, the subs are independent firms who must strike a balance between protecting their interests, and offering a useful proposal to the GC.  If the subs knew what the GC’s subcontract would require, they would have less risk to control.

Subs who don’t include the complete scope of work for their trade are generating liabilities for the GC.  The GC’s patience with those liabilities grows in proportion to their ability to find someone else to address them.  The more skilled the trade, the fewer options there will be.  This is why some “concrete” firms can get away with excluding rebar and/or concrete.  In contrast,  Electrical contractors are expected to include all wiring for the building, even when that requires a sub-tier contract for proprietary systems such as Fire Alarm, Communications, Building Management Systems, or Point Of Sale (POS).

Inexperienced GC estimator’s sometimes try to counterbalance their lack of knowledge with additional bureaucracy.  This translates to numerous and tedious bid revisions that steadily move away from a collaborative effort to win a job.  These revisions generate additional risk to the subs because risk-averse GC estimators are prone to losing bids.

Clarity of purpose is what’s needed here.  The GC estimator must understand it’s their purpose to profitably win work by controlling risk.  This is best accomplished by working collaboratively with market-leading subcontractors.  Demanding protection from all risk isn’t estimating, it’s one-sided policy that leads to profitless work.

Seven new estimating ideas to try

“I don’t know… something about light and heat, I handed it off to the estimator…”

In competitive bidding, profit may be considered to be a function of risk versus reward.  Making projects rewarding for subs increases the GC’s ability to attract top talent.  It therefore follows that reducing the risk for bidding subs will correspondingly increase the GC’s profitability.

It’s here that an engaged GC estimator can provide committed leadership to direct the best course of action.  The most common problems will pertain to what gets included, or excluded from the scope of work.  The design teams believes their primary function is to provide design intent, which the General Contractor  uses to develop a cohesive scope of work.  Design teams can successfully argue that even incomplete plans, convey the design intent.  As a result, the GC may find they’re facing a choice between losing the bid by including something or winning the bid by excluding something the design team expects you to have.

Many GC estimators are reluctant to carry subcontractor exclusions into the proposals they send to their clients. This creates a situation where the GC estimator must force their subs to remove the exclusions (pushing the risk onto the subs), or take the risk that they can be negotiated during the contract buyout (pushing the risk onto the build team).  Risk is always expensive, but problems get more difficult when there’s less time to solve them.

When a specific risk is dependent on the actions of the client or their design-team, it’s wise to clarify what’s included in the proposal based on your understanding of the design intent.  Giving the client insight into how you’ve managed the uncertainty clarifies your position in terms they can understand.  On bid day clients may interpret exclusions presented without context as inconsequential.  Yet when these selfsame issues cause a change order later on, they’ll feel cheated.  Empower the client to make informed choices by connecting their choices to project outcomes.

I hope these ideas push estimators to think beyond statistics, measurements and spreadsheets.  It’s easy to become confident in a process that has become complacent through repetition.  Estimators looking for an edge can set themselves apart by exceeding the standards of their competitors.  As Thomas Edison once said ; ” Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work“.

 

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved

 

 


The cost to quality fallacy

The other day I was reading a forum on estimating where the majority of the posts repeated some fundamentally flawed concepts.  The most common are variations of “Low price means bad quality”.  This concept gets applied to everything from material substitutions to subcontractor selection because everyone’s worried about the risk of making the wrong choice.

Photo by Geir Tonnessen

Photo by Geir Tonnessen

A lot of time is spent on minor differences that obscure bigger problems

When all choices are based on risk-aversion, there’s little reason to believe the outcomes will deliver quality, value, strategy or ingenuity.  I think this concept leads to a mindset that perceives any low bid as a veritable trap to the unwary.   If unchecked, the role of an estimator can devolve into little more than subcontractor selection.  On the surface, it may seem like the General Contractor (GC) does little more than hire subcontractors (subs) to actually perform the work.  If this were actually the case, clients would simply hire subs directly and dispense with the cost of hiring a GC altogether.

The GC’s role is to be responsible for the entire project which constitutes a great deal of risk.  GC’s mitigate some of the risk by dividing the project scope among subcontractors.  The remainder of the risk is mitigated by expert leadership, communication, negotiation, scheduling, accounting, and management which all fall under the heading of “Construction Management”.  All of which is to say that successful Construction Management is a whole lot more than just picking the right subs.

The fixation on avoiding low-priced work for fear it’s a trap is deeply ingrained in many construction professionals.   We often hear stories about how a sub bid low to secure the job, then pursued exorbitant change orders to restore their profitability.  The implication is that a sub was able to not only bluff their way into a contract award, but they were able to get paid change order rates for work that should have been in their original bid.

When we ask how it’s possible that a GC would write a subcontract that didn’t include the necessary scope of work for that sub, it becomes obvious that the GC relies on their bidders to define the project scope for them.  Put simply, if the GC isn’t actually estimating the project, they’re not able to tell whether the subs proposals include all that they should.

One obvious sign that this is happening is when a GC estimator demands breakout prices of their bidders so they might “prove” whether the sub knows what they’re doing.  These demands are like asking the sub to furnish the ammunition so their own proposal can be shot down.

Lets imagine we were in a restaurant looking over the menu.  If an item seems under priced, we wouldn’t demand a cost breakdown for all the ingredients of the dish because we have no idea what those breakdowns should be.

Photo by Moyan Brenn

Photo by Moyan Brenn

Demanding breakouts to save money, is like collecting watches to save time.

What we do know is what we’re hoping to get.  That’s why asking about the portion sizes, or the freshness of the ingredients will go much further towards making an informed decision.

GC estimator’s should know the project scope they’re seeking to subcontract before the bid.  Moreover, GC estimator’s should know the going rate for the work they’re intending to subcontract so they have a frame of reference to compare the bids against.  There’s no guarantee that they will receive enough bids to draw statistical certainty of anything on bid day.  Bluffing and bullying are poor substitutes for estimating fundamentals.

The importance of context

Bid day can be very stressful, with little time available to give full consideration to every proposal.  It naturally follows that the estimator must prioritize on those proposals which have the potential to reduce their risk, or increase their odds of winning the contract.

Most GC’s consider proposals from trusted subs to be reduced risk.  In some cases, the GC’s limit their bid lists to only trusted subs which naturally reduces competition.  These GC’s are trading their ability to win contracts, for reduced risk in hiring subs.

The most expensive, and least valuable work occurs wherever competition is discouraged or prevented.   GC estimator’s with bid lists that never change may go their entire career without ever seeing a market-leading subs proposal.  It’s therefore natural that those few who receive a market-leading sub proposal immediately say it’s scary low.

Is it them, or is it me?

Mistakes happen and it’s incumbent on the GC estimator to watch for signs that something’s amiss with a bid.  Once again, best practices in estimating are the ideal means to determine what you’re looking at.  GC estimators should build their estimates so that they can quickly output a checklist of inclusions, alternates, unit prices, etc. to send to a sub for scope review.  If everything checks out but the price is still worryingly low, the GC estimator can share their in-house pricing to see how their estimate compares to the bidder’s.  This alleviates any ethical issues pertaining to comparisons against their competition.  By volunteering the GC estimators understanding of the costs, the sub can show the GC where their estimate differed and why, without feeling as though they will be disqualified.  Presenting a  focus  on retaining a winning edge with a valued colleague is more likely to deliver good information.  .

But what about overpriced change orders?

There is hardly a more contentious issue in construction than the high price of change orders.  While there are a great many factors involved, the cost to quality fallacy plays a huge role in the animosity surrounding them.  Earlier I wrote that the most expensive and least valuable work occurs wherever competition is discouraged or prevented.  Obviously when applied to a project that’s under contract, there’s no competition to keep the price of additional work down.  We might take that to mean that the contractor is overcharging, and in some cases, they are.

We must consider the root of the additional work as well.  Changes to the project scope often come from the design team after the bid.  The terms of contract award are set out in the Request For Proposal (RFP) at the announcement of the bid.  The bidders are expected to include all scope defined in the Construction Documents (CD’s) at the time of the bid deadline.  Design teams can, and do, make significant changes to the CD’s via Addendum, RFI, or Bid directives before the deadline so those items will be competitively priced.  Anything that’s omitted in the design after the deadline, is a liability for the client.

In most cases anything that’s changed or added after the project has started must be accomplished in the remaining time of the original contract.  Changes that require completed work to be removed and replaced may result in a situation where production rates must be doubled, tripled, or quadrupled in order to maintain the completion schedule.  Materials and equipment may require expedited shipping to facilitate the changes within compressed schedules.

Experienced contractors know that pricing requests for change orders often lead to protracted delays while the Owner, Architect, and Contractor (OAC) discuss options, bicker over prices, etc.  I’ve encountered situations where 8 hours worth of change order work became 80+ hours of pricing exercises.  Meanwhile the window of opportunity to efficiently perform the change order work was closing fast.

Photo by simczuk

Photo by simczuk

Artistic rendering of a project with a change order dispute

When a contractor loses a bid, they’re free to pursue other opportunities with no further obligation to the client.  Change order price disputes can become a significant burden for contractors who are unable to efficiently proceed without a decision.

The fixation on the cost to quality fallacy leads many clients and design professionals to overlook the root causes of their situation.   Clients who commit to timely decision-making will reduce the contractors risk.  If the change order is too expensive, clients can request a Value Engineering (VE) solution that meets their budget for the necessary work.

Clients should expect timely and accurate estimates for changes from their owner’s rep to provide meaningful comparison to the contractors prices.  It’s not enough to merely complain about overpriced change orders.  Owner’s representatives should provide a means-tested estimate of the additional scope of work, in order to protect their clients interests.   Sharing this information with the contractors gives them a better understanding of the client’s position, and it provides the target price for change order approval.

The highest art in being the lowest bidder

While we’re on the topic of fallacies relating cost to value, it’s absolutely vital to get some clarity on our purpose as estimators.  Estimators exist to secure profitable work.  We achieve this aim by controlling risk in all its forms.  Pretending that absolutely every estimating risk is a function of forgetting to add something, or hiring the wrong sub is not only wrong, it’s antithetical to our profession.

There are dire consequences for any company that can’t land a contract for profitable work.  The purpose of estimating is not to obviate the need for construction management.  Again, if this were truly possible,  clients wouldn’t hire GC’s at all.

It’s therefore a delicate balancing-act to deliver a market-leading price for work the firm can profitably complete.  The necessary skills, knowledge, relationships, resources, and fortitude to be the lowest bidder can hardly be overstated.   As an industry, we need to move past this fallacy as it reflects poorly on all of us.  As estimators our entire profession exists to harness the competitive market to deliver quality construction projects.

The best deal

Often the best deal has an inverse relationship between cost and quality.  The best deal (for the buyer) is achieved wherever we can get the highest quality at the lowest price.  To the buyer, the value of the money spent, is less than the value of the quality achieved.  They are getting more  value for their money.

I’ve heard a lot of GC estimators making excuses for losing a bid.  One of the most common is to claim they are “best value” because they’re delivering a higher level of quality or performance than their competitors.

It’s entirely possible that one contractor may in fact deliver a more professional project because they  are operating at a higher level than another.  This is especially common in “cattle call” or “open” RFPs which accepts bids from any GC willing to submit a proposal on the job.

The extent to which this happens is directly proportional to how selective the individual GC’s are about the jobs they pursue.  A continuously successful business requires a balance where both sides are getting a good deal.

Contractors that are optimized to perform a specific type of work will find they are market leaders capable of offering higher quality, at higher profitability,  and lower prices than their less-optimal competition.  Aligning the company to the right opportunities is the most important part of winning profitable work.

The high price of a bad deal

Bottom of the market work is always plentiful.  Experienced estimators will see that underfunded clients and unprofessional design teams are constant companions.  Higher risk, lower profitability, and more competition all align to make these jobs a bad deal for the majority of contractors.

There are jobs that are a bad deal at virtually any price because the risks to the contractor are so severe.  Incomplete plans, indecisive clients, difficult phasing requirements,  site logistics, etc. can all hurt productivity.  In some extreme cases, the GC can be penalized for delays they had no way to work around.   When the project presents a bad deal, the cost isn’t driven by the required quality, it’s driven by the risk.

There are incompetent design teams with specifications explicitly written to defend against change orders from their shoddy plans.  These firms find regular employment with the clients most likely to demand a bad deal of their contractors.  The focus on blocking change orders becomes a higher priority  than accurately contracting the complete scope of work.  If greater effort was applied to the latter, the former wouldn’t be an issue.  Lax professional standards generate systemic risk and higher costs for everyone involved.

Attempting to gauge quality by its cost alone will do nothing to reveal the features that matter most.  The cost to quality fallacy has no place in the estimators playbook because it’s only useful for making excuses.

 

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved

 

 


The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

One of the greatest misconceptions about construction estimating is that it’s a solitary profession.  It doesn’t matter if you’re an estimator for a General Contractor (GC) or a subcontractor (sub), there’s always someone calling, emailing, or popping into your office to discuss something.  I’ve written before about reliable estimating practices that improve the coordination, clarity, and timeliness of communication between the GC and the subs.  I focused on practices that reduce the need for estimators to interrupt one another to get or give pertinent information.

I’ve worked in offices where the incessant phone calls consumed far more time than any other aspect of the job.  The constant interruptions dramatically increase the chances of making a quantity take off (QTO) error, or a transcription mistake in your estimate.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

Mistakes are often easier for others to see

It’s been my experience that there are five personality types that tend to work against an estimator who’s trying to work efficiently.  The companies these people represent can be market leaders which means the competitive estimator has to find ways to deal with difficult personalities.  Everyone is coming from somewhere, which is to say that sometimes a difficult personality is a product of their environment.   I strive to be thankful for difficult people, as they remind me of what I don’t want to be.

Obsessive

We’ll start with the most common personality type in estimating, the obsessive.  Estimating offers the detail-oriented person a lot of information to focus on.  Lots of companies focus on best practices  in estimating which are often simplified to only detailed estimates are accurate.  Their intense desire to quantify and categorize every detail is continually thwarted by missing, incomplete, or confusing information inherent to construction documents (CD’s).

If all the needed information was presented in the CD’s, there would be no need for estimators.  Detailed estimates may indeed reduce the uncertainty of an estimate, but it’s entirely possible to have an accurate estimate using other methods.

Obsessive’s are rarely able to cope with uncertainty, to the extent that many of them feel it’s wrong to make any kind of assumption.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

Steve likes to be sure nothing changes

In extreme cases, these folks won’t bid at all if they don’t have an “official” direction in the form of an answered Request For Information (RFI), an addendum,  or a bid directive.

It’s important to understand that a lot of obsessive estimators work for companies that see estimators as cashiers ringing up a long list of very obvious stuff.  Most projects are bid before the building department has completed their review of the CD’s so it’s very common for Architects to add a great deal of information to the construction set.  Many people see a bid-day uncertainty as an obvious decision when they’re holding the Architects revised plan.

This extends to bid results as well.  If the estimator bids a job, they’re expected to get bid results to show their boss how they did.  Bidding the worst-case scenario can lead to losing by large amounts.  The consensus view of competitor bids will be seen as the obvious judgment call.  This fundamental ignorance of the estimators role leads to negative performance reviews.  Estimators in these companies learn to see uncertainty as future punishment.  This is why they’d rather withdraw from competition, than bid on incomplete information.

Advice for GC estimators working with an obsessive sub

GC estimators working with obsessive subs need to understand that the driving issue is one of accountability.  GC estimators cannot expect these subs to exercise good judgment if it means the sub estimator will face accountability for their actions.  The GC estimator must be willing to provide accountable direction to the sub.  I encourage GC estimators to seek these subs insights into the issue because they may be highly skilled and experienced estimators in their field.

Advice for sub estimators working with an obsessive GC.

Obsessive GC’s tend to go looking for any uncertainty in the sub’s proposal.  They’re driven to distraction by exclusions, clarifications, and exceptions.  If they direct the subs to bid a certain way, they will badger anyone who doesn’t conform.  Subs must understand that the obsessive GC is focused on avoiding any potential judgment call.  They want to know that the subs are taking full responsibility for everything whether it’s perfectly clear or not.  Obsessive GC’s are virtually never competitive bidders so unless they’re bidding a negotiated project, subs should expect their bids to be fruitless and time-consuming.  These GC’s rarely attract market-leading subs, even when they have negotiated work out to bid.  Patient subcontractors may find they can win highly profitable work with obsessive GC’s on negotiated projects.

Insecure

The next most common personality type is the insecure estimator.  New and inexperienced estimators fall into this group, however they’re only half the population.  Construction estimating is a unique vocation that relatively few people seek out.  An awful lot of estimators came from the field following a significant injury that would have otherwise ended their careers.  Knowing how things go together is certainly a critical skill set, however estimators draw confident conclusions based on analytical techniques, market observations, computational skills, and management fundamentals.  I started this blog because the majority of construction estimators I encounter lack most of these skills.

Insecure estimators are constantly paralyzed by mundane issues because they don’t understand how estimating fits into the larger picture.  These estimators rarely see a lack of detail as an opportunity to present a uniquely advantageous solution.  To many insecure GC estimators, the bid is simply a process of collecting sub pricing, toting it up, and adding profit.  I call it bid collecting because they’re not actually estimating anything.  This is terrifically common among companies who have their PM’s bidding their own work.

Insecure sub estimators are often convinced that a proposal with several pages of boilerplate exclusions will protect them from the outcome of their mistakes.  Their bids emphatically exclude so much that it’s genuinely difficult to tell what you’d be paying them to do.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

“Dave’s a snappy dresser but nobody’s sure what he does all day”

In many ways, the insecure estimators are the opposite of the obsessive estimators.  Insecure estimators won’t communicate during the bid.  GC estimators who won’t answer their phones or email can’t be expected to draft RFI’s to the design team, or publish bid directives to clarify the intent to the subs.

Everything is reversed on bid-day as these insecure GC estimators often resort to begging subs for last-minute bids.  Conversely, the responsible GC is forced to play phone tag on bid day with the insecure sub in an effort to decipher all the exclusions.

Advice for GC estimators working with an insecure sub

Reliable estimating practices must be built around the value of time spent being inversely proportional to the time remaining.  The shorter version; an early hour is worth less than the last-minute.  With the majority of the sub proposals coming in an hour or two ahead of your deadline, the GC must be able to quickly scope the proposals looking for bids that could make or break the GC’s odds of winning the bid.

Time sunk in a promising proposal that turned out to be a dead-end, might have been invested in more fruitful considerations.  Insecure subs proposals are incredible time-sinks.  Their proposals are riddled with boilerplate exclusions, with the proposed amount inevitably buried in fine print, and there’s typically an innocuous-looking exclusion for some obviously costly and necessary part of the scope.

Rather than play on the insecure sub’s terms, the GC estimator should provide bid clarifications that stipulate the inclusions for all trades.  Requiring that the sub’s acknowledge the bid directives on their proposal allows a useful means to circumvent their chicanery.

Following up all proposals with a bid-checklist forces the subs to agree they’ve included, or modify their proposed amount to include the pertinent scope items.  This frees the estimator to consider the sub proposals in a consistent format designed to facilitate a clear definition of the agreed upon scope.

Advice for sub estimators working with an insecure GC.

Insecure GC’s can’t be counted upon to know what is, and what isn’t in the subs scope of work.  Efforts to request direction will be either ignored, or the GC estimator will demand the sub bid “per the plans and specs”, with the occasional request to “price it both ways”.

Ineffective GC estimators are the leading reason why people don’t follow instructions on bid day.  Giving an inexperienced or irresponsible GC estimator the means to lose the bid works against the entire market’s interests.  Subs working with these GC’s should strive to keep all communications on company email accounts that provide time-stamped evidence of who said (or did) what, and when.

It’s often necessary for subs to gently teach a new GC estimator how things typically work.  Leading the inexperienced  GC estimator to a fruitful and logical conclusion builds trust and rapport for both parties.

There’s less a sub can do with a seasoned, yet insecure GC estimator.  The lack of communication isn’t a bug, it’s a feature intended to maximize plausible deny ability.   Working for these GC’s is often a greater risk than the project itself because there’s nobody protecting the build team’s interest.  These GC estimators are rarely competitive bidders, without exposing their subs to considerable risk.

GC estimators who complain about the scores of “whiny subs” they’re dealing with probably have reason to reevaluate their estimating program to attract (and retain) market-leading subs.

Doubter

One of the most difficult estimating  personalities is the doubter.  These are the estimators who tenaciously ignore the obvious design intent whenever they find a discrepancy.  Efforts to answer their questions will exercise your patience because these folks are always in doubt and never in a hurry.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

Rick’s commitment to interrupting your work is impressive.

Doubter estimators typically come from the field where they had extensive experience in a wider variety of work than their current employer typically builds.  They’re often intelligent people who didn’t fit in with field crews that emphasized production over planning.

Advice for GC estimators working with a doubter sub

GC estimators should look beyond the immediate project and the doubters questions to establish a precedent for future interaction.  Pretending that it’s reasonable to indulge every imagined concern will only encourage them on every subsequent bid.  Approach the situation as a teachable moment to lay down default assumptions you’d like them to work within.  Up to and including how you’d like them to ask questions.  Doubters tend to favor whatever is the least efficient means of resolving a problem.  Tell them that their questions are important to you and that you want to quickly resolve them by using your preferred medium.  Be advised that you’ll almost certainly have to enforce your boundaries.

Advice for sub estimators working with a doubter GC

Subs will know they’re dealing with a doubter GC estimator when they receive an invitation to bid (ITB) that’s absolutely riddled with alternate and breakout pricing requests that work against a cohesive scope of work.  The doubter GC estimator doesn’t understand the project in the client’s terms, so they bombard them with options “just in case” the client would like an a la carte menu of confusing prices.

Subs need to be very careful about what they tell the doubter GC because there’s little assurance that what they’ve asked for, will be presented appropriately to the client.  Doubter GC’s tend to misinform the client which typically leads to scope changes and a pricing revision that turns out differently than the client expected.  Subs should ask the doubter GC to walk them through their proposed breakouts with a special focus on how things might be combined disadvantageously to the subs.  Often the list of what the doubter GC thinks they need, will be shortened when they’re faced with explaining how they will protect their own teams interests.  It’s critical to understand that doubter GC’s love to pretend that their long list of alternates was a client request.  They quickly become sanctimonious about honoring their esteemed clients request if you simply object to the amount of information being requested.  Give your client what they ask for, provided you’ve controlled your risk first.

Hot Air Balloonists

Whenever projects cross over into markets where work is bid informally, there will be estimators involved who will cause delays, confusion, and a whole lot of waiting for them to get back to you.  I call them hot air balloonists (HAB for short) because they’re often unavoidable, slow, and colorful characters that you’ll need to tie down before they drift past your deadline.

Often these estimators are either “mom or pop” at their firm which generally means they’re spending most of their time doing something other than estimating.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

Artistic rendering of whatever Melinda’s doing whenever you call her for a bid…

 These professionals often have a competitive edge on their markets because they maintain a lean operation.  In most cases, these folks view estimating as a necessary evil, rather than a vital phase of the construction project.

Advice for GC estimators working with a HAB sub

HAB subs aren’t going to respond to an ITB that looks like it came from a faceless computer.  These folks get most of their work through personal networking.  They don’t chase every hard-bid opportunity that comes along, and they’re often reserved about bidding to an unfamiliar GC.  It may take several tries to get them on the phone, but making a personal connection with them is vital to getting them to bid on your project.  Since they wear a lot of hats, they don’t have a lot of time to chase jobs that are a poor fit for their company.  GC’s should be prepared to answer a lot of in-depth questions about the project on that initial call.  If the GC doesn’t convince them it’s a standout opportunity, they won’t make it a priority.  It’s a fatal mistake to tell them the answers to their questions are in the files you sent them.  They need to see you’re on top of the information because you’re determined to win.  It’s a good idea to check in with them between your first call and bid day.  Lots of HAB estimators will stall out on a bid when they think they’ve got plenty of time.   Absolutely all communication should reiterate the deadline.

Advice for subs working with a HAB GC

HAB GC’s tend to focus on smaller projects that have little in the way of formal drawings, specifications, or even narratives of what the project is about.  Most of what the subcontractor needs to bid the job will be covered at the job walk.  It’s fairly common for HAB GC’s to walk  a group of subs through a space waving their hands in the air like an orchestra conductor.  Subs need to prepare proposals that carefully itemize the work to be done because HAB GC’s aren’t known for their contractual finesse.  Subs looking for HAB direction, should approach the question by presenting the subs preferred solution.  Chances are excellent the HAB GC won’t answer their phone on bid day, so be sure to put clarifications in bold on your proposal.  Emphasize clarity, by keeping the descriptions in simple terms.  Exclusions are vitally important to protecting your interests.  HAB GC’s love to assume that everything they overlooked was implied at the job walk.

Corrupt

Corruption takes many forms in the construction industry but it’s always found in practices that discourage transparency, accountability, and competition.    Estimators must tread a fine line because they must maintain confidentiality in order to conduct a fair bid.  Providing a bidder with their competitors prices in order to solicit lower prices prior to award is known as bid shopping.  This practice is absolutely unethical, and is in some cases illegal.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

The reciprocal of bid shopping is bid peddling, which is where a bidder offers to submit a lower price than the winning bid to secure the award.

A less extreme version of this practice is for a GC to continually bid a job they’ve already won in an effort to “beat the bushes” for a lower subcontractor bid.  Their original ITB promised to fairly award the contract to the winning bidder on bid day.  Any GC who feels it’s their right or privilege to renege on their promises whenever it’s convenient to them is a cheater.  Be advised that pretending  to be “not sure who won” their original bid is an old scoundrels trick.

There’s no good reason to do business with corrupt people.  Whatever you stand to gain in contract award, you can expect to fight over in unpaid invoices.  Con artists only solicit dupes that they can control and later contain.    I have an entire article on warning signs that will help estimators steer clear of trouble.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved

 

 


Warning Signs

Will Rogers once said “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment”.   While there’s certainly some truth in that statement, an awful lot of suffering can be avoided by recognizing some common warning signs. It’s been my experience that all the truly awful projects had one thing in common; dishonest people. I realize now, that every one of them put off some warning signs right at the beginning. So in hopes of sharing my hard-earned good judgment, I’m going to start with some background on why people disregard warning signs.

Warning signs

“I’ve got three good reasons why we should turn back…”

Judgment isn’t an insult

Right off, we have a popular perception that exercising judgment on the actions of others is an unkind or hurtful act. In simple terms judgment is the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions. We have to exercise judgment to make good decisions. Estimators exist because there is uncertainty. If it were possible to simply add everything up, our job would be done by cashiers or accountants. It naturally follows that estimators must exercise their judgment if they are to do their jobs successfully. Estimators cannot afford to limit their perspective to the documents they’ve been provided. The project will happen in the real world, which means the uncertainty and risk of everything involved in the project should be considered. There are times where the people involved are the greatest risk of the project. Ignoring or underestimating the harm a key player can inflict, is a potentially ruinous mistake. If giving everyone the benefit of the doubt was a universal business practice, contracts wouldn’t lock in the estimated price.

Critical thinking

Getting back to influences that shift perspective, we must move to ethical reasoning. Critical thinking, also known as the Socratic Method is the classical means to grapple with moral dilemmas.   The basis of the approach is a line of inquiry meant to draw out ideas and underlying premises. A series of hypotheses are presented, and each is tested to rule out those that lead to contradiction.

The clean and clinical Socratic Method takes a turn when you’re considering what to do with potentially dishonest people. It’s here that we entertain “devil’s advocate” or “how would you feel” arguments about the merit of your concern. I’ve worked with diplomatic and polite professionals who simply couldn’t bring themselves to see potential malice in others. Naiveté and bad judgment are constant companions. A lot of wrong-headed policy decisions are made by people who want to appear virtuous without doing the work to ensure a moral outcome.

For example: A General Contractor (GC) may become aware that their client isn’t conducting a fair bid. Their competitors are benefiting from additional time or information that’s not shared formally or equitably.   Nevertheless, this GC upholds their “policy” of bidding according to the terms of the Request For Proposal (RFP) simply because they were invited to bid.

 

Virtue-signaling

Virtue-signaling, is more about the appearance of virtue, than acting with moral fortitude.

Warning signs

Sure Al could bike to work and avoid the traffic, but then nobody would see how superior he is.

In my example above, the GC is knowingly consuming their subcontractors (subs) time chasing a bid for an unethical client. Not only are they unlikely to win the job, they’d be contractually bound to a dishonest client if they did. Obviously it’s not the GC’s fault that their client is acting dishonestly. However the GC has options to act with integrity. The GC could contact the client with their concerns and withdraw from bidding if they were well-founded. The GC could also opt to submit a conceptual courtesy bid to give the client, their subs and themselves a face-saving exit from a bad situation.

Hope and second guessing

Entrepreneurs are an optimistic bunch. Seeing an opportunity in every difficulty is a critical component of their success. Estimating is a craft but lots of entrepreneurs start to see bidding strictly in terms of competition. Estimators may take pride in landing a few percentage points apart on bid-day because they’re aware of how hard it is to get to that total. Unfortunately, narrow losses are still losses. Tight markets increase the pressure on estimators to capitalize on every opportunity. Lots of desperate estimators jump at the chance to bid on turkey jobs because they’re hoping more than they’re thinking. Second-guessing your hard-won knowledge is using your best tools to build a trap for yourself.

Warning signs

Legitimacy and reciprocity

Take a moment to consider how construction estimating relates to clients, the market, and to contracts. From the RFP to the contract award there are a chain of events that proceed entirely on good faith. The client expects free bids from the GC’s according to the construction documents (CD’s) by their deadline in exchange for fairly awarding the contract to the winner of the bid.

There’s a lot to unpack in that last statement. The GC’s are committing their resources and the resources of their subs to providing a bid based on the client’s CD’s. Those resources are expensive and they are limited. So what’s in it for estimators facing lots of competition? The client is promising to fairly award the contract to the winning bidder. This obliges the client to prove the bid was fair by providing bid results to everyone. So each estimator is guaranteed to get either win a contract, or information on how to win their next bid. Anything that’s true at the Client-GC level is equally true at the GC-Sub level.

Estimators have an obligation to responsibly invest their company’s time in legitimate pursuits. Therefore the legitimacy of a potential opportunity, is dependent on the client’s reciprocity. Estimators must understand that a foolish investment cannot be recouped. So it is especially important to pay attention to early warning signs.

Warning signs

Warning signs

#1 The CD’s don’t support the clients schedule

For example, a client with a set of 50% complete drawings dated yesterday who claims they’re already in for permit so they can start the day after bid-day.

Unless the job is very small, it’s implausible that the clients design team could finish half their work in the time it would take you to bid the job. Even if that were the case, why pay to submit plans that aren’t likely to pass building department review if the completed drawings were forthcoming? The job is obviously not going to start when the client claims, so what is really going on? Bidding on incomplete drawings means that the estimator will have to creatively “fill in the blanks” of the design. Some clients use this ambiguity to request alternates or Value Engineering ideas for their project. These clients take the best ideas from the “free” bids and direct their design teams to include them in the final plans before putting the whole thing back out to bid. Feigning urgency and in need of assistance is a tactic to attract bidders looking to convert a conceptual estimate into a contract. I’ve seen clients who consumed so much of a GC’s time in estimating that the job was no longer profitable to build. That’s a very expensive way to give your competitor a job!

#2 The plans are ancient

Warning signs

We’re working with a familiar design…”

Most legitimate projects on the hard-bid market will have plans that are dated within a month of the RFP. Design development can be a lengthy process that taxes the clients’ patience to get underway. Most clients are in a tremendous hurry to get their projects out to bid because it’s a major step in getting their project built. CD’s that are several months old could indicate that the project has previously bid. Savvy estimators might figure they must have come in over-budget so they’re re-bidding the job. They might be right, but it’s worth considering that a budget-blowout is cause for design/scope revision.   Revised drawings get new dates, and that didn’t happen. Clients who simply felt they could get a better price by re-bidding are violating the basic reciprocity that makes them a legitimate client. They’re simply beating the bushes looking for someone below market value.

#3 The plans show more scope of work than the RFP requires

They’re called Contract Documents for a reason. The contract requires everything shown on the plans and specifications. Vague and/or informal instructions to “just bid this part” of a larger project creates a situation where the contractor can’t simultaneously follow instructions, and address their contractual risk. Why wouldn’t a legitimate client pay their design team to define the limits of project scope in a contractually enforceable manner? In my experience, these clients are feigning a competitive bid to collect information for later negotiations.

#4 The plans have the wrong address

Believe it or not, this is an incredibly common practice with chain stores and restaurants. Plans for a project in a different state are put out to bid with instructions to bid as though it’s identical to the proposed location. When the client won’t invest enough to revise their drawings for a new location, it’s a warning sign that they’re not sincere about writing a contract with you.

#5 The plans have a different contractors name on them

Its common practice for contractors engaged in design-build projects to have their names and logos put on the plans they develop. So when plans are put out to bid with a different contractors name on them, it’s an indication that a design-build contract fell through. Most contractors make their money on the build portion, so it’s unlikely that they’d happily give up that work. I’ve encountered situations where a competitor was suing the client because they were never paid for their design. It was difficult to imagine a successful project emerging from that debacle.

Warning signs

“Laugh all you want Tim, they’re your client now!”

#6 The client is still looking for money

Charity organizations are often obliged to fund their projects with some combination of pledge drives, donations and loans. There’s nothing wrong with that however an estimator needs to be aware of when a client’s ambition exceeds their finances. I’ve been to job walks for church remodels with a pledge drive “thermometer” showing they’d only raised a fraction of their goal. Those projects never got off the ground despite the client’s optimism.

#7 Unprofessional plans and bad clients

Clients tend to attract design teams with similar priorities. Truly excellent clients are generally willing to pay for the best professionals so their projects are successful. The worst design teams tend to work for clients with risky priorities. Projects that are run by committee like Education, Religious, and smaller Government facilities are bastions of poor decision-making. These groups are often seeking to spend their entire budget so they generally require a multitude of alternates that allow them the means to “upgrade” from their basic project without seeking additional funds. Vague, misleading, and incomplete plans are par for the course because these clients want to spend as little as possible on their design. In many cases, the committee members have no construction experience so decision-making and leadership will be haphazard at best. The design teams focusing on this market are well-versed in the arguments that poor plans create. No matter how incomplete the plans, these design teams will make certain they’ve laid all responsibility on the contractor.

#8 Past as prologue

Chain stores and restaurants have a tendency to use a “universal” design for all their locations. Over time, the company builds new stores and encounters change orders for something that was wrong in the plans. The client directs their design team to change the plans for all future work which generally takes the form of an added note on the plan. Over time this “universal” plan becomes inundated with obscure, trivial, and often pointless notes that solely exist to prevent change orders. The clients desire to avoid change orders creates a situation where the relevant scope is concealed from the bidders. A better plan would require fewer notes and would communicate more effectively, but the client isn’t willing to pay for that.

Similarly, clients with onerous RFP requirements designed to facilitate future arguments speak to the clients history. While it’s understandable that a client would want to avoid past mistakes, it’s worth considering what the client learned from that experience. Dishonest clients are often convinced that everyone is trying to cheat them. These clients tend to believe that cheating is simply a matter of beating the contractor to the punch.

#9 Nobody gets the same story

Clients and/or design teams that only answer questions off the record may pass it off as a means to rapidly respond, or to foster a “friendly” rapport with the GC. The bureaucratic process of writing an RFI, and getting it answered via an addendum is admittedly a lot of impersonal work. The great advantage of the formal process is that it’s the only way a bidder can change the contract documents. Moreover, the formal process also provides a measure of assurance that your competitor is getting the same information. If the client and their design team won’t provide direction formally, there’s a chance it won’t be a fair bid.

#10 The job has bid before         

Reciprocity is tied to legitimacy and that’s especially true when it comes to clients who aren’t willing to award a contract to the low bidder. Lots of clients put their projects out to bid at the Schematic Design, and Design Development, stages to “check” that their design is within budget.

Warning signs

Conceptual bidding: a process of going nowhere until you reach your destination.

Unbridled optimism leads GC’s to think their conceptual estimate will be so good that the client awards the contract before the Construction Document’s are finalized.  This process is known as “client capture” and it’s great when it works out. However unless the client has made promises to that effect, it’s more likely that the client expects this professional courtesy to be free of any reciprocal obligations.

There are some clients who maintain this perspective even on their “final” drawings. They are constantly beating the bushes for better prices by re-bidding the job with different contractors.   Developers are particularly given to this practice. An absolutely staggering amount of market resources are wasted on these pricing exercises.

Clients aren’t the only ones who use this tactic, unethical GC’s who’ve won a bid will solicit new bids in a gambit to find a cheaper subcontractor. The subs who brought the GC their bid-day victory, are rewarded by a craven attempt to gain profitability via their competitors after the fact. Whether the GC is technically engaging in outright bid-shopping or not, it’s absolutely wrong.

You may discover your project was previously bid when vendor quotes are faster than normal and carry the date of the original bid. Distributors will often call subs to ask why something is bidding again. These same people will contact the previous bidders tipping them off that the job is back out to bid. GC’s who suddenly receive an early proposal from an uninvited sub may have good reason to suspect they’re not the first to bid the job.

As warning signs go, learning that a job has bid before should be cause for serious concern. There are very few legitimate reasons why a client would be forced to re-bid a job. Clients with contractors or financiers backing out of the deal would be a legitimate reason, however this is extremely rare. Subcontractors should be especially concerned about any GC who’s trying to get a sub proposal after the GC won a bid. The best case scenario is the GC had a sub back out on them. Any GC who’d accept proposals from hack bidders to win a contract isn’t willing to control the project’s risk. Why sign up to work with a rogues gallery of misfits who will drive the project into failure? It’s far more likely that the GC is trying to undercut the subs who helped them win in the first place. These GC’s won’t become more honest after contract award.

A note for the cynical

Oscar Wilde once said; “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Estimators spend a lot of time figuring out what things should cost. It can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture where estimating translates to controlling risk. Every enterprise will rely on people acting in their interests, in accordance with their nature. My answer to the cynics is to pay attention to people’s nature. Most of the problems we seek to guard against fall into patterns of behavior that are more complex than avarice. From the estimators point of view, there may be more risk in working for the indecisive, or ignorant than the greedy.

Many estimators fail to grasp the significance of picking good opportunities to pursue. Successful estimating starts with culling the lost causes, and the wastes of time. Impressing a client who won’t hire you isn’t worth much when your company needs work. It’s very important to understand that our industries malefactors are perfectly aware of how hopelessly optimistic contractors can be in hard times. Feigning legitimacy is their stock-in-trade so hard-times call for serious consideration of who you’re dealing with. Estimators working in a down market must recognize these warning signs as a basic survival skill. Working for a bad client in hard times has put many companies in dire straits. It doesn’t take much for a single bad job to pull an entire operation down. Estimators have a duty to protect their firms by heeding warning signs and steering a better course.

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved


Why people won’t follow instructions

If you work long enough, you’ll eventually have a moment where you’re stuck wondering why someone didn’t follow your instructions. Estimators, especially estimators working for a General Contractor (GC) struggle to get their subcontractors (subs) to follow instructions all the time. It would be easy to suppose that typical explanations such as inattention, or laziness explain this behavior but there are overlooked reasons that could be playing a role here.

Why people won't follow instructions

“Wait,  I can explain…”

 

A reflection on risk

Let’s start by considering something that all estimators have in common; risk. Risk is the uncertainty of a return and/or the potential for a financial loss. If we really think about it, controlling risk is more important than simply winning work. For example; winning a risky job is worse than losing a profitable opportunity.

The GC’s contract exchanges the liability of the entire project scope for their bid amount. The GC controls the risk by contracting portions of the project scope out to subcontractors. Once the project scope is divided and attributed to the subs, the GC’s remaining risk is greatly reduced because they have the contractual means to enforce performance.

This means that the GC estimator is primarily concerned with “complete” sub proposals. Exclusions, clarifications, or limitations that leave uncertainty for the GC estimator are considered potential “holes” in their plan. It’s understandable that subs not following instructions is a common frustration for GC estimators.

Perspective on the plans

The sub estimator has a profoundly different perspective because there is very little contractual latitude when it comes to accepting liability for their scope of work. Sub estimators are keenly aware that they must bear responsibility for misunderstanding, overlooking, or underestimating the scope of work shown in the Contract Documents (CD’s).

It’s incredibly rare for design teams to accept financial responsibility for misleading, incomplete, contradictory, or incorrect information on their designs. Specifications often stipulate that any design errors or omissions must be brought to the design teams attention BEFORE the bid via a Request For Information (RFI). Many projects obligate the bidders to walk the job. Some specifications even require bidders to verify hidden conditions during the walk regardless of how impractical or impossible that really is.

Why people won't follow instructions

“We’re all along for the ride, but Engineer’s hate field trips…”

Essentially the design team expects the CD’s to be vetted and reviewed for constructability before the bid deadline, free of charge, and they believe this is grounds to dismiss change order claims based on the inadequacy of their design at bid time.

A competent GC estimator understands that they are empowered to write RFI’s, and bid directives to communicate the questions and answers necessary to work around issues with the CD’s. Sadly, many GC estimators assume a passive role when it comes to inadequate CD’s because timelines are tight, Architects might get cranky, and it’s a lot of extra work. Some GC’s won’t write an RFI unless there’s a subcontractor “revolt” where all the subs of a given trade refuse to bid unless an issue is resolved. This attitude starves the subs of any recourse to address uncertainty in the plans, so they resort to exclusions, clarifications, limitations, or outright declining to bid.

Last minute bidding and why we’re all in a hurry

Lots of GC estimators maintain a rigorous bid schedule. There’s lots to do, and little time to get it done. Subs rarely have the luxury of working for a single GC, so they deal with exponentially more projects than the average GC. Their scope is limited, however they’re liable for every single component which makes it very stressful to keep up.

As I mentioned earlier, RFI’s are part of the bid process which inevitably leads to changes in the CD’s or scope of work. Design teams love to answer all questions a day or so before the deadline. Maybe this is because they’re hopelessly optimistic that they’ve resolved every possible issue for the bidders. In truth, it’s very common for addenda answers to actually create more problems than they solve.

Why is it so hard to know what changed?

Every year, fewer and fewer design teams bother with addendum change narratives which itemize the changes made to the CD’s. The assumption is that the Architectural standard practice of “clouding” or “bubbling” changes to the CD’s makes it clear what they’ve done. In reality, there are often changes made that aren’t bubbled. Presumably the assumption is that everyone is using digital take-off systems that can do overlays to reveal the hidden changes.

Overlays can take a lot of time to do. Minor changes shown on an overlay can induce eye-strain, making the addenda a literal headache! Often it’s less work for the Architect to simply revise the entire drawing set and transmit it digitally. This can mean overlays of pages without any changes at all. Larger projects may have several such Addenda, which can quickly overwhelm a subcontractor.

For the sub who’s always several bids deep, the most efficient way to handle this deluge of information is to do their quantity take off (QTO) at the last moment. Bidding off the final addenda set avoids all the misery of earlier overlays, but it leaves them with little time to complete their estimate.

GC estimators looking for less drama on bid-day should itemize the changes made in each addenda according to their bidders scopes. Maintaining a running list of changes and supplementing with instruction/ direction where necessary limits the amount of scrambling a bidder has to do to deliver a complete proposal.   GC estimators who strive to lower their subs risk get better pricing. The GC with the best sub-pricing can be simultaneously cheaper, AND more profitable than their competition. I know of a few GC estimators who’ve rejected an Architects addendum until they provided a change narrative and bubbled drawings. Setting a precedent with the design team at the start of the project kept the addenda from becoming unmanageable.

Email mountain

The ease with which information can be transmitted via email can lead to inboxes that are inundated with messages. Bid letting software allows an estimator to mass-communicate with all the invited subs to share every document, file, and change. Many bid-letting programs automatically send out reminders to bid, often to multiple contacts at each subcontractor. On the receiving end this can mean upwards of a half-dozen emails per project, per client, and per contact. Projects with short deadlines can go from invitation to bid, to addenda, to bid day reminder within 24 hours. Many of these systems don’t communicate the basics about the project in any of the emails. Subs have to log in and navigate to files they must download in order to find out what they’re being asked to do.

Sure, the information is available, but it’s parceled out into several “Go find what I sent you” exercises that waste the subs time. If GC’s want their instructions followed, they should put themselves on the receiving end of their systems to see what’s going out to their bidders.

Why people won't follow instructions

“Our servers improve your fitness by exercising your patience”

Cloud based file sharing has become incredibly popular because all the documents are constantly available to everyone. Some teams are careful to separate different editions of the CD’s to maintain documentation of the changes. Other teams make no real effort to retain older CD’s which means the documents can and do change between the invitation to bid and the deadline. This can create a real hazard to the bidders who may not receive any notification of the changes. I’ve worked for unscrupulous GC’s who replaced the CD’s after the contract was written in an attempt to avoid paying for change orders. All the supposed benefits of shared files pale in comparison to the risk of being unable to prove what was and wasn’t on the CD’s at bid time.

I encourage every estimator to download and save the most current CD’s on bid-day into a time-stamped file.   Keep that file for your records, because it may not be there later on.

Smarter than you think

So far, I’ve focused on information and risk management reasons why a bidder won’t follow instructions. The GC estimator should provide leadership to clarify, consolidate, and communicate what needs to be done. There is a lot of trade-specific knowledge required to understand and bid the scope of the skilled trades. A lot of GC estimators aren’t sure what to do when they’re presented with a complex issue, so many default to asking for alternate or breakout pricing. Alternates can double or triple the amount of work to bid a project. Not only is it more work, alternates might be misunderstood, misapplied, or used against the bidders interest. Arming the client with information that leads to wrong decisions is bad business.

If the GC estimator don’t understand the issue, it’s unlikely that they will clearly communicate the alternates to their client. Some GC estimators in this position will simply add up all the alternates just to “be sure” they’re covered. Subs see these GC estimators losing bids because they don’t exercise good judgment with the information presented. In some cases the sub is truly trying to help the rookie or fraidy-cat GC estimator win, by ignoring their alternate request.

Don’t kick the hornets’ nest

Material specifications don’t happen by accident. Design teams are paid to select, define, and enforce the material specifications for their projects. This becomes a very contentious issue when a specified material is overpriced. Corruption thrives wherever transparency, competition, and accountability are lacking. Some material vendors and distributors have extensive relationships with design teams who protect them from competition by sole specifying their product. Lots of GC’s will request alternates for Value Engineering or Alternate equal pricing to replace overpriced material. If the difference is significant, they present it to the client.

Subs may refuse to provide this pricing for several reasons. First off, the design team has a vested interest in their specified vendor. It’s therefore unlikely that they will happily accept an alternate product that would expose their budgetary irresponsibility.   Second, the more extensive the corruption, the more control the malefactors have in the system. Releasing material pricing just before the deadline is a favored tactic because it precludes bidders from seeking another option before the deadline. The subs may simply not have time to find an alternate solution. Finally, the sub understands that solving the GC’s budget issue isn’t a guarantee that the sub will be awarded a contract. Many GC estimators see no problem using one sub’s alternate in conjunction with another subs proposal. They figure their low sub will be able to find the same deal on the alternate material later on. So the sub who kicked the hornets’ nest gets noncompetitive pricing on all their material bids, while their competitor lands a contract.

Why people won't follow instructions

 Chris has plenty of time to consider how his hard work left him in the cold.

A lot less than nothing

It bears mentioning that lots of GC estimators entertain endless post-bid client requests to value engineer the job. Some clients instruct their design team to incorporate all the best ideas, then put the job back out to bid. I call it “Design by bid” and it’s an incredibly expensive way to give your competition a job.

GC estimators looking for a solution here should consider writing RFI’s requesting alternate specifications for sole-specified overpriced materials. In some cases, it’s smarter to ask for performance specifications because it’s difficult for a design team to go on the record refusing to accept an equally performing product.

Most design teams stipulate that alternate materials must be submitted for approval before the bid. Since it’s virtually impossible to know precisely how overpriced the material will be before the deadline, it’s hard to tell when this will be worth doing. Experience in a given market will expose the relationships underpinning the corruption, so long as you’re paying attention.

Defensible decisions beats conditional clarifications

Contradictory, misleading, and confusing requirements are part of an estimators life. Controlling risk often comes down to judgment calls on the information you’ve got at hand. It’s a weird quirk of estimating that people tend to overlook justifiable confusion during the bid because they’re sitting on the post-bid answers. “Of course they wanted X instead of Y, here’s all the supporting reasons that make it obvious…” Nobody cares that there may be just as many compelling reasons to support a preference for Y, because now the client’s telling you what they want.

This mindset carries into reading proposals at every level. The presumption is that your proposal is presenting a complete scope of work for a bid amount. Clarifications, especially complex conditional clarifications are seen as fine print or worse; weasel wording. Anything that savors of sneaky dealing works against the estimator. From a practical standpoint, it’s better to articulate your scope of work in terms of defensible decisions. The more simple and defensible your decision-making is, the more your client trusts your motivations.

Let’s say there’s an obvious conflict in a design that could potentially go three different ways. If a sub sent over a base bid with two alternates to cover all the options, they’re taking a risk that the GC won’t know how to scope their bid against their competitors who didn’t price any alternates on their proposals. These alternates make the GC estimator responsible for the outcome of their decision-making. Lacking knowledge, experience, integrity, or time, the GC estimator may make the wrong decision. These moments can have real costs in terms of bids, relationships, and reputations.

The imaginary alternate

Some projects have a long list of alternates that are scarcely defined in the CD’s. I’ve seen projects that had four elevation drawings of a single occupant restroom, yet an alternate for an additional building was defined entirely by three sentences in the specifications! I call these “imaginary alternates” because they exist only in the client/architects imagination. Experienced estimators know that any price you provide can be used against you. Imaginary alternates offer no tangible defense for decision-making. The only defensible decision, is to not price them. Estimators should respond to imaginary alternates with “To Be Determined”, or “Price Pending Design”.

The bid template

Just about every rookie GC estimator who has scoped a stack of sub proposals gets tired of how difficult it is to simply compare one against the other. The myriad ways that bidders word their way around promising to “have everything” can be very frustrating. Their grand solution is a bid template which not only orders the information, but neatly prevents the subs from excluding anything inconvenient to the GC. The GC estimators plight is understandable, but misguided because they’re ignoring the autonomy of the subs. It’s the subs autonomy that makes them an effective risk diversification strategy for the GC. Attracting market-leading subs not only lowers the GC’s prices, and raises their potential profit, but it also reduces the risk of subcontractor failure. GC’s with a myopic focus on bid templates convey higher risk to the subs. We’re estimators because there is uncertainty. If we can’t address the uncertainty via clarifications or exclusions, the risk becomes unmanageable without raising the price. Bid templates are an excellent way to efficiently lose bids and repel market leaders.

Why people won't follow instructions

A better alternative

A bid checklist is a subcontractor level list of applicable scope items with columns to confirm, add, or subtract funds to correspond with the GC estimators plan. Not only does the form automatically tabulate the “apples to apples” amount between bidders, it provides all the bidders with the same criteria, and equal time to respond. Getting the subs “on the record” in terms of unclear scope inclusions is invaluable for when Project Managers are writing contracts. Perhaps best of all, the checklist allows the subs to protect their interests and control their risk by supplementing rather than replacing their proposals. If done correctly, it’s possible to use the GC estimators actual estimate to output bid checklist forms, thereby saving considerable time for everyone. It’s easy to overlook just how much time a GC estimator spends trying to call the subs individually. Bid checklists can be mass-emailed to all bidders. The answers return in black-and-white terms that simplify decision-making.

Clear, well-reasoned instructions backed by good faith efforts to make the project successful make all the difference.  Bidders want to be on the winning team, and will happily do their part to the extent they believe it will benefit them.  This means that ignored instructions communicate something counter-productive to the bidders.  Estimators who build on this feedback may find ways to re-focus their efforts and get the results that matter.  If our purpose as estimators is to win profitable work, we should evaluate our processes with clarity of purpose and keep only what works.

 

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved