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Slow-stimating

March 26, 2013

One of my main concerns in most organizations I get to visit is the concept that people are being rushed into producing bad quality products, which can be fixed later. This is compounded by the constant complaint that “we don’t have enough resources”. My glib answer to that complaint is usually to state that “you have enough resources, the problem is that you have too much work”. This is not just a glib comment, it really is based in the concept that there comes a time when you need to be able to say “no” to your customers. A hotel has to stop renting out rooms when all the rooms are gone, a restaurant has to turn away customers when all the tables are taken, a baker has to stop selling when all the bread is gone, yet engineering and service organizations continue to seek to sell more time, when all the work-hours are already taken.

The consequences of the current pressure put on organizations and workers are first of all that people do not have the time to do work correctly. We live in a society where fast and cheap have replaced the notion of quality. We believe that it is a good thing to be able to throw away and buy a new product when something breaks rather than going through the trouble of repairing it; it can be very difficult for most people to find someone who can repair a clock today. For larger engineering work, management appears to never be able to free up people to do the work correctly, but is always able to find them when the customer complains about the bad quality. This is a self-defeating approach to engineering, which increases costs, time to market, stress while reducing customer satisfaction and job satisfaction.

Some of the reasons for this approach to business is the lack of management of the estimating and planning activities. It all starts when a potential customer requests a quote for a job: we have four weeks to respond, no rush, the request remains lying in the wrong person’s in-box for three weeks, then is rushed through without having time to make a proper estimate of the real work required. If the people doing the work have the opportunity and time to make a valid, detailed estimate of the amount of effort required and the probable duration of the project, management will frequently feel entitled to cut the estimate by 10% in order to ensure that the contract is signed, sales will feel they need to cut another 20% because “engineers always over-estimate everything”.

When the work is finally attributed, team members are required to work on three, four, five or more different projects at the same time, based on the understanding that if you start early, you will finish earlier. However, the legend of multitasking is a long living fallacy. If you want to multitask, you need to take on tasks that occupy completely different sections of your mind, like listening to music while you work, or chewing gum while walking. The evidence is there to prove that if you do four similar (intellectual) tasks – like project management – one after the other, you will finish all four in less time than if you try to do them at the same time, continuously jumping from one to the other.

Naturally, telling people that they should take all the time they need to do a good job can lead to a whole new set of commercial issues — but, that is the solution we need to consider if we want to solve a whole series of quality related issues. This is not a fact just in your industry, it is the foundation of a growing movement in all areas to redefine the quality as a key component in our lives and our happiness, while speed only leads to stress and all kinds of new issues (look up the “Slow Movement”).

One of the key solutions in solving this conundrum is found in the estimating and planning activities, activities which are often downgraded in favour of more “productive” activities. If you want to reach your destination at the right time and you don’t want the stress of rushing to get there, you need to leave on time, with a good understanding of how long it will take to get there. The same is true for any work: if you understand where you are going, what you need to do in order to get there and start on time, you will reach it successfully.

And so, we encourage “slow-stimating”, or taking the time to estimate and plan correctly before doing the work. There is no real success coming out of rushing the estimating and planning activity, there is no improvement when the estimates are cut down to make them unrealistic.

You need to encourage the people who are doing the work to estimate what needs to be done, how the tasks are inter-related and what is the effort required before trying to put together a plan. Then, I encourage management to challenge these estimates, not so as to increase pressure and reduce delays, but quite the contrary: challenge them to identify what they have missed, what are the risks, the dependencies, what could possibly go wrong… What you really want to identify at the start of a task is how long this might take (the upper limit) rather than trying to identify how long this could take (the lower limit). Once that has been identified, we can then start implementing a strategy to see how the amount of work can be organized to see what can be done in parallel, how we can start mitigating the risks from the beginning, whether we can perform more efficiently with an original investment in training, tooling, process improvement…

Check the estimates:

  • Did they build a reasonably detailed work breakdown structure (WBS) in which the tasks are identified with an appropriate amount of detail, including the necessary preparation, planning, verification and validation, corrective actions, etc?
  • Are the estimates based on wishful thinking or can you identify and approve the data, the measurements, the experience which proves that they are realistic? Many project managers believe at the start that “this time things will work correctly” even though experience proves it never goes as smoothly as you plan…
  • Has an appropriate effort been focused on identifying, analysing, understanding and planning for risks? Things will go wrong, usually someone already knows what will/might go wrong and you need to make sure that people have been consulted.
  • Have the staffing and skills been considered in a realistic manner? Do you truly believe that you are likely to have those people available as and when they are needed or are they going to be busy on other projects? I am frequently astonished at organizations who bid or start work without considering that their staff will not be available over various festive and holiday seasons…

In conclusion, I would like to see projects started up on a realistic basis, with an understanding of what is likely to happen. Pressuring people to do more work faster, does not help quality or productivity. The only ones who benefit from the classical approach of selling more for less are the salespeople who are being rewarded based on signatures brought in and not on products delivered (and stress counselors).

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4 comments

  1. I have a hard time understanding the software industry and especially a hard time understanding the causes of it’s problems.

    From what I’ve seen Slow-stimating, means eliminating a set of potential customers from the start (usually some small ones). In the end this could prove to be a good idea, but but I’ve yet to see a company willing to do this. Sales will push for a quick and low effort estimate so they can have a shot at the project, if they don’t have enough budget (even if they do they will). The problem? Generally the sales department is only accountable for the volume of sales not the profitability of the sales. And how could they, be accountable for profitability, they are not responsible for the actual implementation, architecture and management of the project, right? I mean with a little effort projects could easily be implemented even in half the time, just find that magic, framework library, reusable component, similar project, of the shelf solution, that solves 50% of your project needs. It’s the failure of the engineers, if they don’t find it, being smart guys as they are they should with a little push right, we trust them that they can, but we don’t trust them to estimate …

    Why are the so many clueless people working in our industry, especially in management? Is this a stigma, a curse? Are we doomed to always me misunderstood and the effort of our work undervalued and underestimated?
    Is there a recipe for gracefully solving conflicting goals and finding a middle ground?


    • Interesting comments and questions. First, let me assure you that this is not a software-industry problem. Some twenty years ago, the Greek government “massaged” their national data in order to appear to pass the criteria for joining the Euro; most people in Europe knew this, but the politicians, in a desperate attempt to show that the Euro was a good idea and needing a vast market for it, pretended “not to notice”. They then borrowed, with the blessing of all concerned, more money than they could afford to repay in order to maintain the illusion that the country was rich enough to be in the Euro-zone. The consequences today are well known. The attraction of an apparent short-term gain is always enormous, we continue to press for taking stupid risks, trusting that our children will pay our debts. This is the same approach as we see in the engineering industry when we consider that signing a contract is good for this year’s financial results (shareholders, management) and not worrying that we are only pushing the problem into the future. I do the same thing when I hit the “snooze” button on my clock in the morning.

      On another point you make, I am a big fan of structured re-use within the software industry (and within other industries: why does Peugeot have to design a different speed-o-meter for every model?). But again, the pressure for the short-term gain pushes us into the impossible situation of knowing the solution but not being allowed to implement it: everyone wants access to a library of reusable components, no one has the time to develop them.

      This can be solved, as you point out, by making sales responsible for the delivery rather than the signature on the contract. I have no problems with sales getting a bonus payment for every contract, but that bonus should be made dependent on the payment by the customer and the final profitability of the sale – and the profitability needs to take into account the real cost, including the over-time spent on the project.

      Over time, we will notice that organizations delivering quality rather than cheap rubbish survive and grow. However, in most multinational organizations, we find that senior management only stays in place for an average of eighteen months, this means that in a very short period of time, they want to make a difference, show that they are in charge, mark their territory. Leaders, the ones who actually make a difference, and appear to be more focused on the business, the organization and the future, on average stay in the same role 30 to 36 months. This is an interesting challenge for everyone in the industry: do you want to stay in the same job another two years, or would you like a promotion (more money) now?

      I still believe that quality will win in the long term. Japan realized it (40 years ago the words “made in Japan” meant it would break within a week, today Toyota is the largest car manufacturer in the world), Europe and North America need to come around before China does.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my blog.


  2. […] Slow-stimating (peterleeson.wordpress.com) […]


  3. […] recently posted an item on estimating (“slow-stimating“) in which I mention that I would expect any estimate to be systematically challenged by […]



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