The Estimating Tug of War

Often, people in our industry have more than one job title. Smaller shop owners often wear many hats. As businesses grow, one of the most frequent pairings is estimating and project management. 

As an employee, from truck driver to chief estimator, I spent most of my time performing one job. While focusing on one task was easier than multitasking, there were conflicts between the various job titles. Most of the conflicts I saw were between estimating and project management. 

This was a classic conflict. Whenever a problem happened on a job, the project manager blamed it on the estimator, and the estimator blamed the project manager. During my time as a chief estimator, this conflict peaked. The few times the boss called us into his office to discuss an under-performing project, the project manager claimed the estimate was too low, while I was always sure the issue was in the way the job was being managed.

When I moved on to my next employer, I accepted a combination position as an estimator and project manager. I really liked the idea of being responsible for a project from preparing the estimate to final completion. I could only blame myself for complications that happened in my sphere of control. Of course, other entities, such as vendors and subcontractors, could still make my life difficult. Most of the time, I enjoyed not having a separate project manager blaming me for problems. 

The biggest difficulty I had while holding these positions was the tug of war between my estimating and project-management duties. Some people would tell me estimating must go on. Marketing for future projects should not stop just because you have a project to manage. Other people would tell me to forget estimating while managing a project. I eventually learned I had to be somewhere in the middle. 

This is where the “bird in the hand” saying comes in. Let’s say you’ve just landed a project. Much of the project’s potential for success depends on what you do right now. All of your contractual obligations must be handled as required by the specifications and the schedule. You will only have a few weeks after your notice to proceed to turn in submittals. This is your first chance to mess up the entire project, as you will be blamed for delays if you do not get your submittals in on time. After the submittals are finished, any remaining purchases should be arranged as needed to lock in prices and delivery dates. During this period, you cannot be tied up on an estimate. I suppose, depending on the size and complexity of the project or projects you are getting off the ground, you could lend a hand on someone else’s estimate. 

I understand it’s often not so cut and dried. A saying comes to mind about the best-laid plans of mice and men. There is always a project crisis, a budget your good customer demands by tomorrow, a task that your boss lays on you, or even a personal problem. None of that matters when you have signed contracts to manage. You must do whatever is necessary to avoid delaying the project you have. You can take on new estimates once your project startup duties have been met.

Of course, just when you’re in the middle of a new estimate, other things will pop up to compete for your time. The change order is a classic example. Once again, you are on the clock. If you do not submit the change order proposal in a timely fashion, you will be blamed for delaying the project. 

There is a second time a project demands more attention than your estimating duties, and that is near the completion date. Again, any work not completed on time will land the blame for delays squarely on you, even if it is not your fault. As the project manager, it is your responsibility to ensure every installation and correction is made by the required date. Other estimating duties must take a back seat.

My final thought on this subject is about your health. The classic way to deal with too much demand for your time is to work late and on weekends. I understand the need for that kind of commitment to your work. However, too much of that will damage your health and relationships. Learning to delegate simple tasks is a must for your sanity. A good balance between work and life will make your job worthwhile.

About the Author

Stephen Carr

Estimating Columnist

Stephen Carr has been in the electrical construction business since 1971. He started Carr Consulting Services—which provides electrical estimating and educational services—in 1994. Contact him at 805.523.1575 or, and...

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