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Old-Fashioned Productivity

How many takeoffs do your estimators submit every month?


I know an industry estimator who does between 40 and 50. He generates about $6 million in monthly volume, working quickly and accurately. But, he works largely the old-fashioned way—by hand.

Paper and Colored Pencils

Most of us want to find better ways to work, and our default is to seek new technology to gain this advantage. A gizmo. Apps. Cloud-based software. Anything except paper and pencil.


Yet, my source prefers paper when creating bids. He says it saves time.


“I create one column for 3 and 5 studs, 20 gauge, 16 inches on center, either to the grid or 6 inches above. Another for full height,” he says. “A column for shaft studs. One for drywall. One for 5/8 that gets taped and textured. One that gets fire-taped. Then, a column for doors and corner trim.”


My source uses some technology. He gets drawings off of Web portals or by email. It saves time not having to run to generals’ offices to check out plans.


He uses take-off software, but not to crunch numbers. The software can import drawings into a PDF viewer, and that’s the only function he uses. He likes to display assembly details on a computer while he fills out his worksheets.


He uses highlighters and colored pencils. Yellow is for each 3 and 5 under-grid wall. Red, walls at full-height. Green is for 6 inch that goes to grid. Purple, for full-height.


He trusts his fingers as they fly on the calculator keypad.


“The calculator goes faster, and I feel is more accurate,” he says. “Those on-screen takeoffs are too precise, and you can’t be too precise because you’re going to miss something.”


After tallying the numbers and submitting a bid, my source places a few follow-up phone calls to general contractors. When he can, he visits them in person.


“I’ve found that timing means everything,” my source says. “I might talk my way into getting the job.”


Here, for example, is how one face-to-face visit went:


“I really want to get back in with you guys,” the estimator said.


“We’ll be honest with you,” said the GC. “You’re not low. You’re second.”


“Are we a serious contender?”


“The company that’s low just finished a project for us, and we’re not happy,” the GC said. “They didn’t meet the schedule.”


“What are our chances?” the estimator said.


“We’re going to spend a little more money,” said the GC. “We know your track record. You don’t make excuses like ‘we’re short on people’ or ‘our equipment is down.’”


The visit paid off. My source won the contract.


In science, an object subjected to the extreme gravitational and centrifugal forces of a black hole will stretch and splinter into pieces. The technical term is spaghettification.


Something similar can happen at work. I’m a big proponent of using technology. I buy new stuff and upgrade my equipment regularly. But I’m also starting to see how technology can ply us relentlessly. Too many avenues of tech can strangulate workflow. Job tasking can easily “spaghettify.”


Our industry has a lot of talented people at work getting things done. But, we need to clear out any tech that’s unnecessary. Work is relative. Some love using computers and tablets. Others, like my source, find they can get in the way. So, take a reading of your office. Find out which hardware and software is helping you to work more efficiently, and which is just sucking your time into black holes.


And you GCs — please, if you haven’t already, set up Web portals so that our industry’s estimators can download your plans, submit their bids and check on bid acceptance more easily. And don’t call so much just to ask if we’re working on bids. We’re working on them.


“It would save me 10 percent of my time and allow me to bid more,” the estimator says. “I can’t bid all the jobs. I sit with 10 jobs in front of me, and I’ve got to pick six.”


We can all get more done with the right systems. And, we may get more done by putting some old-fashioned business practices back into play.

Mark L. Johnson is an industry consultant and writer. He tweets at @markjohnsoncomm and connects at

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