The Art of Solutioning (Estimating for Profit)


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I often am tasked with putting a solution together for services to deploy systems. One thing that you learn by doing this is that many times there are things you can’t foresee. That’s the Art of Solutioning. Putting together the solutions for customers that will make your company money and be competitive.

Tower Safety for all your safety training!Most companies call this estimating. They send in a guy to look at what needs to be done and build a model. Often, it’s built off of models that have already been done. We look at what we have done in the past and then estimate the parts and hours we need.

For the hardware site, it’s generally straightforward, or so we think. You have the basic system and all the interconnections to put them together. From a high level, it looks easy. Let’s look at a cell site.

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  • BBU/controller
  • Power
  • Backhaul
  • Fiber jumpers
  • Antennas
  • Power supply or rectifiers
  • Hybrid cable

Wait, how do we mount the crap?

  • Tower mount
  • Snap-ins for the hybrid cable, if it’s a tower, a channel for the

    cable if it’s a rooftop.

  • Outdoor cabinet or a rack for a shelter, room.
  • Clamps for antenna
  • Junction boxes where needed
  • Conduits where needed

Great, we have a high-level solution, what does it take to get this mounted? The services?

  • Site Acquisition to align the lease and structural with the equipment.
  • Site walk team
  • Tower crew for tower or rooftop.
  • Ground crew for cabinet installation.
  • Civils if we need to add a concrete pad at the site.
  • Electrician if we need to add power, breakers, or additional power runs.
  • Commissioning engineers to get the equipment up and running.
  • Drive teams to optimize and test the site.
  • RF teams to align RF design with actual coverage.
  • Remote networking team to integrate and bring site live into the core.
  • Network teams to add or upgrade routers.
  • Fiber providers if we need to add or upgrade fiber backhaul.
  • Microwave team if we’re adding a wireless microwave backhaul.
  • Closeout package
  • Project Management

Then we have all the incidentals that could be used up along the way.

  • Zip ties
  • Weather seal
  • Electrical tape
  • Fuel to drive to the site
  • Meals, hotels, per diem

It all adds up and it all takes a savvy and creative team not only to put it together but to come up with ways to do it better. Often, if we look for efficiencies we can find them, or at least the team in the field can help. If they follow the MOP, (Method of Process) that the carrier provides, it’s hard for them to do one thing out-of-order. While the carriers don’t want to miss anything, they build a system that is not always efficient.SOW Training Cover

For example, years ago I would go with a team and install all the hardware at a site, power it up, and commission it, integrate it, and with one cell tech, we could have the system live and on the air with one crew, a tech, and an electrician. Those days are gone, sites are more complicated, but the real reason we see the inefficiencies is because of how the quoting is done now.

Years ago, you could have a tower crew that had a sound network engineer on it and a good RF engineer on it, I know. I was on one of those teams. The carriers decided to break down each task to save money, so they did. The tower crew does the tower work. The commissioning engineer does the commissioning work. The IT engineer does the router. The backhaul team does the backhaul. Now they know what each task costs and how long it takes to do it. What they didn’t figure in is how long it takes to get 5 different people/teams to the site, travel time, per diem, scheduling, and so on. Now, is that cheaper and more efficient? But hey, who am I to judge. AT&T really built a new system around the turf management system that would break down each task and put it out to bid. They got around as much overhead as they could by hiring a team of project managers to handle the excessive workload.

Oh, the best thing we have now is the project management teams. I rely on them more than anyone. Why? Because they see the big picture. If I were to ask the tower crew, they would only know what they do at the site with an idea of what the others do. Same with the commissioning engineer, the site acquisition team, and so on. The PM usually knows what everyone does at the site, how long it really takes at the site, and what change orders had to be processed to get the site done. If they managed the project, they would also see the site acquisition, site walk, closeout, and everything in between. I rely on them heavily when putting the offer together.

We have to do the best we can to put together the best offer we can with what we know to be true at the time. This brings me to a great quote. Think about this quote by Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Often, we think we know everything that is going on at a job, but when we talk to the people doing it, we see new problems and issue we never knew about before. It’s a learning process. We think we know what’s going to happen at the site, good or bad, at cost are at no cost, and we are wrong!

It’s like this for so many things, product management, estimating, construction, and more.

I once supported a product development team for small cells. I did hundreds of estimations for deployment, but this story is about product design that hurt the deployment process. I pulled this story from my upcoming 5G report/book I plan to release in January along with a membership site.

Side story. A carrier wanted to design their own indoor small cell. It was interesting because they went beyond just telling the OEM what features they wanted, but they wanted a hand in the complete design. They said they would commit to over 1,000 units, but they were sure that sales would be 20 times that number. So, they started outlining what they wanted.

Typically, we would have a model and add the features a carrier wanted but in this case, they knew everything and would only commit to it if they could get what they wanted, not the model or features the OEM would recommend because they felt the OEM only wanted to sell an expensive product and did not have the carrier’s best interest in mind. Talk about paranoid, or maybe just cheap.

The cost was a factor, so, to save money they said they didn’t want PoE, (Power over Ethernet) because they wanted to cut costs on the device, (among other things but let’s go with this since it plays into my story). From that perspective, they saved a little money. Unfortunately, the carrier didn’t think beyond the device cost. Once it came to installation, they had to get power to every location that the small cell would be mounted in the office space. This was a small unit with no PoE, meaning they either had to run power cords along with CAT 5 to every location or they had to install outlets at every mounting location in the ceiling. See the problem? Think about mounting a small device in a ceiling and having to run power to every device! It cost a fortune to run electric outlets everywhere, and extension cords are ugly, and there are regulations with running AC power in a ceiling. In a ceiling, AC lines must be fire rated or in conduit or maybe both. Think about it, if someone cuts a ceiling tile and there is AC extension cord laying on it, ZAP! We have a problem. These problems happened because a carrier’s team thought they would save a few dollars on hardware, they failed to see the big picture. Sure, we tried to tell them, but they just stood firm, convinced we wanted more money out of them. Everyone’s investment money wasted! The small cell model was scrapped after about a year, and the OEM was lucky that the carrier accepted delivery on a few hundred, they didn’t honor the full commitment.

Above is an excellent example of the wrong solution, decisions based on product cost and nothing else. Real world experience matters for more than just the real world, products need to be developed for the real world, or the cost of installation will kill the product before it’s ever mass deployed. That was the case here.

Whether you’re estimating, developing a product, or providing a real-world deployment price, building the right solution matters.

Tell me, have you ever had a job go bad? I have, it happens, and we learn from it.

Have you ever had a job go tremendous and make a lot more money? I’ve had that happen too. We learn from that too.

I’ll tell you more in the future. One thing that really helps, feedback from teams and planning. When I say feedback, I mean from anyone. It could be from the installers, the engineer, the project manager, or even the closeout team.

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Be smart, be safe, and pay attention!

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