The structural engineering business I’m consulting with right now has a lot of work coming in. The business owner is having to work outside normal business hours to get the work done and projects are falling behind with deadlines.

He’s a super nice guy (we’ll call him John) and the issue is just that: he’s super nice. He wants to get all the projects done for his customers in a short amount of time, it just doesn’t work that way.

The structural engineering business fits into the process of real estate development after someone has hired an architect to build, or remodel, their home. The architect makes everything look good, and flow properly in the home. The structural engineer makes sure the walls and roof of the home won’t fall down.

While having one of our weekly meetings, I asked John “How do you estimate a project?”. He said he “just knows how long a project takes and has been doing that way for a long time”. Coincidentally, that’s been the same number of years he’s had to work evenings and weekends.

His current estimation process goes like this “Oh, it takes around 12-hours for a residential 1-story new construction home plan and 2-story remodel plans will take around 22-hours”.

My next question was, “Do you ever open a new project when it comes in and estimate it based off what you see?”.

Johns reply, “Not as much as I used to”.

John uses a spreadsheet that he’s been using for the past 10+ years that he records the project code-number and the dollar amount he estimated for the project. When looking at a recent $4,000 project that had come in we applied a fictitious “average hourly rate” of $100/hour so we could quickly figure out that he was charging the customer 40 hours of work to complete this project.

I asked him to take a piece of paper out and spend 15 minutes estimating how long he thinks this project would take. Literally write out line by line approximate hours to do certain work because of how big or small the plans were. After a few minutes of doing that, he let me know that he was definitely under-estimating the workload.

John has at least 10 projects in a week. He’s usually estimating almost a whole week’s worth of work incorrectly and that puts him a week behind quickly. You can see how fast this becomes a problem when you estimate incorrectly.

The next piece of estimating is figuring out how much time in the week you can realistically devote to getting focused-work done on those projects.

Currently, there are 2 structural engineers getting the actual work done.

We know that for one of them 40 hours of billable work a week is “do-able”.

We know that John can realistically get 25 hours of billable work done since there are other things needing his attention like, proposals, sales, site-visits, random calls and emails.

That brings the total amount of hours-that-can-be-done-per-week to 65 hours of billable (This will probably change, but for now, we have to put a stake-in-the-ground).

Our experiment for the next week or so is to estimate projects as soon as they come in by actually looking at the files that are received from the architects. Once 65-hours of work has been estimated and assigned for the week any projects that come in after that will need to be scheduled at the start of the following week.

This should make setting expectations for customers a lot easier. This will also show how much work is in overflow and will give a clearer picture if John needs to bring someone extra on right now.