Death by a Thousand Tiny Cuts

Vince Bailey / February 2021

Like everyone, I’m trying to look at this new year with some guarded optimism. 2021 can only be an improvement over 2020 for a lot of us, but I don’t expect the afflictions common to estimating to abate in any meaningful way. They are the pestilences of our bean-counting lives and, unfortunately, I cannot imagine that they will not continue in their virulence. Deadline anxiety, ambiguous bid docs, compressed estimating durations, fear of inaccuracy and sales slumps are just a few of the major pitfalls that regularly plague us.
In most cases, I considered each of these hazards to have a singular significance deserving of an entire column. And while I think my treatment of these topics was thorough enough, a certain nagging deficiency prevented any sort of “mission accomplished” feeling. That’s because I overlooked the lesser field-specific pinpricks that nevertheless afflict the vast majority of bidmeisters on a daily basis. As trivial as these annoyances may seem, their effect can be as debilitating as any of the above-cited maladies—the death by a thousand tiny cuts syndrome, if you will. In reply to this deficiency, I cite these examples:
Specialty vendors. Whenever I am required by the bid docs to include some specialty item, I begin to shudder. That’s because specialty sales people generally seem to be a bit laid-back—maybe indifferent would be a better term for it. After the obligatory two-day delay in returning my phone calls and emails, a typical specialty supplier predictably quotes me the wrong item, fails to include shipping, confuses the color, requires prepayment, understates the lead time, inflates the minimum order and neglects to mention the trifling detail that my product has been discontinued by the manufacturer. I even had one specialty manufacturer/supplier tell me that his entire operation was shutting down for a month for hunting season! Must be nice to live in a world with no competition. Little wonder that I try my best to exclude specialty items.
Addendum-ed to death! OK, I understand the need sometimes arises to clarify some items on a bid set of plans—I welcome that. I can even tolerate multiple addenda that sneak into the bid folder under the dark of night and don’t extend the bid date. But there comes a point when the project becomes a moving target, and when addendum number six, a change-riddled 30-pager, comes rolling in the day before bid day, it makes me grind my teeth. Why don’t the designers wait until the plans are actually complete before they issue them for bid? How many addenda does it take until they see that too many addenda have emerged? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. Meanwhile, we get addendum-ed to death.
Please, just answer the question! This one drives me over the edge. Whenever I write a request for information, I make certain that I am clear and concise. Nevertheless, I invariably receive a response from the architect that does not even remotely relate to the original question. It’s as if it’s more important to make it appear as though the information was already there than it is to just clear up the ambiguity. Recently I was confronted with a conflict regarding a furring wall. The wall type showed Z-furring with no rigid insulation, but the wall sections clearly depicted stud framing with batt insulation. I floated the question, citing the critical difference in succinct terms. Predictably, the response directed me to the light-gauge framing spec, which of course cited both assemblies but stated nothing about which applied where. As usual, by the time I got my non-response, the RFI period had expired and I was subjected to the “more stringent of the two” clause. Chalk up a loss.
Can you remember … ? Sometimes, these zingers come from our own team. In-house interrogations can be maddening. Your own PM appears at your door while you have your head wrapped around an upcoming bid and asks a scope question involving a job you bid and were awarded three months ago. “Do you remember,” he asks good-naturedly, “why you did not include impact board in your estimate, when the plans clearly call for it in all corridors?” You are stunned. Did you miss something major? You abandon your current project and look for answers. In the job folder you find a scope checklist item that had directed you to delete the impact board as a value engineering item that was accepted in the contract. You point out to your PM that the information was available to him with some due diligence. He cheerfully informs you that he was just checking your memory as a shortcut. How nice to be needed.
There—I’ve purged myself of some of the poison that’s accumulated over the past several months and threatens to extend through perpetuity. That, and I believe I’ve touched on some all-too-familiar gripes of estimators everywhere and, in the telling, offered some well-earned commiseration—a small relief for tiny torments. And so all of you beleaguered quantifiers can take some encouragement in knowing that there is a sympathetic soul out here. I feel your pain.

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.