Estimating for Better Understanding.

Over a year ago, my wife and I hired a company to convert our garage into a family room–estimated to be a 4 month project at most. That was 3-4 months faster than I estimated that I could do it myself.
A full year and a month later, the family room project is unfinished, and it appears that it will never be completed if we leave it in the General Contractor’s hands–they have abandoned the project. So this last weekend we had to face the reality that I was might have to clean up the unfinished electrical, plumbing, and wall construction work while contracting out to complete the HVAC.
Cathy and I sat down, and I began listing the work that remained, roughly describing (ranting, if I’m going to be honest) what it would take: “That one’s complicated” or “That’s really big” or “I guess I could knock that one out pretty quickly.”
Cathy started getting impatient with my answers “Does that mean 1 month? 3 months? next Spring?”
Then it hit me, I just need to give her good estimates.  Better yet, I recalled that we have actually been down this path before and have created a really solid estimation unit of measure for repairs around the place. Since the work remaining on the garage conversion/family room was essentially a list of independent work items, we could treat this the same.  If y’all are trying to connect all of this to Agile software development, these work items would be equivalent to “Feature” work–not a whole project, but something of value that improves the overall application.
The Unit of measure we landed on was “A weeknight.” Now, before I get flamed by all the Agilists out there, I’m not advocating for assigning hours of work to estimates.  That, we all know, will simply lead to very precise but incorrect estimation. What I’m saying is that “a weeknight” as a unit of measure,– agreed upon between team and customer,– includes a great deal more than time. The baseline looks like this: 
  • 1 weeknight represents potentially one trip to the hardware store, and a few hours of sleeves-rolled-up, getting work done. Dinner will likely be on-the-fly, and binge watching anything together on netflix is out.
  • Multiple weeknights represent exactly what it sounds like, but also implies no context switching as well as increased complexity. The more weeknights, the more complex, and the higher the likelihood of complications. If the weeknights are not contiguous, we have to re-estimate.
  • Anything over 4 weeknights becomes a “Weekend” but also may involve work that requires continuous uninterrupted flow (think painting or pouring and finishing concrete).

Here’s the completed list of work that we were able to knock out in a very short number of weeks along with their estimates in weeknights.

Work Estimate
Repair garden faucet 1
Barn rain gutter front 3
Prep table for bar-top molding 2
Garden fence base boards 2
Finish wiring chicken pen sides 3
chicken pen patio and fence 1
Clean out area for wood rack 4
Great room ceiling patch 2
Repair push mower 1
Build attic storage rack for brewing equipment 3
Wire chicken roof 5
Bike racks on patio/garage ext 1
Freestanding firewood rack w/roof 4
remove Squirrel nests from barn 1
cut up downed limbs in main yard 1


The estimates  proved to be nearly perfect except for a few that took a little less time. The reason this model was so successful was because “a weeknight” represented something my customer/teammate, Cathy, and I could really apply to the impact it would have on our household. Friends, family, and our social calendar could be seen as market dependencies or business impacts. We were able to pivot around last minute events or invitations very easily by clearly addressing the impact that it would have on whatever was in progress at the time. This unit of measure is also very good for the estimator.” A weeknight” includes complexity, risk, impact to other life events, and uncertainty. The larger the number the higher the uncertainty and corresponding potential for trips to the hardware store.

Having that conversation with my customer/teammate, was an excellent way to level set in all of these areas.

Estimating the time it takes to do something requires that you and your team are really open and honest with your customer. Qualifying those estimations,– i.e. having a conversation with your customer at the start,–ensures clear expectations, and a far better working relationship. 

In our case, I could say that the “Clean out the area for wood rack” was a two weeknight effort, but just as importantly, I could clarify that it had very low risk for a trip to the hardware store.  The same held true for the single weeknight to finish patching the hole in the living room ceiling (caused by a branch punching through the roof during a hurricane). I had all of the materials on-hand. It was simply a matter of saying to ourselves: “This is what is happening in the living room tonight.” Get out the wine, we’re staying home.

The Barn rain gutter, on the other hand was estimated at 3 weeknights, but also carried a good deal of risk because of a number of unknowns involved in the effort. In short, we were prepared for it being completed as early as a week, but we acknowledged that it could spill into the weekend. As it was, we had a couple of last minute dinner invitations. I wasn’t able to even start the work until Friday night, but I was able to knock the rest of it out Saturday morning. 

So, back to the family room. While I was dreading having to finish other people’s work, I’m kind of excited by the prospect of going through the estimation process with Cathy. We will no longer be at someone else’s mercy. We will have a clarified priority so that we can potentially start getting value out of the renovation earlier. Most importantly, we will be able to have a realistic conversation around how long it will be before we can finally see that project completed and start having friends and family over with whom we can enjoy it.

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