Original Post Date: Monday, April 26, 2010 

With so many acquisition programs over budget and behind schedule, the term “Cost Realism” is suddenly very popular. In my experience as an estimator on many major acquisition programs, two things have remained certain over years (besides death and taxes). First, the probability of the program ever achieving the original cost estimate is exactly zero and second, the more information that is known about a program, the more it will exceed its original cost estimate.   

With that said, the move to Cost Realism is so important because it recognizes these two fundamental facts. Much of the interest in Cost Realism is driven by the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009. According to US Senator Carl Levin “Report after report has indicated that the key to successful acquisition programs is getting things right from the start with sound systems engineering, cost estimating, and developmental testing early in the program cycle. The WSARA also calls for a “Director of Independent Cost Assessment to ensure that cost estimates for major defense acquisition programs are fair, reliable, and unbiased.”

If we go a bit further and look at definition of Cost Realism in the Parametric Cost Estimating Handbook we find that “no one expects a cost estimate to precisely predict what a hardware or software project costs or a time and material service will cost. So, cost realism is not about the exact cost estimate. It's about the system of logic, the assumptions about the future, and the reasonableness of the historical basis of the estimate. That is, it's about the things that make up the foundation of the estimate.”

So while we recognize that at its core cost estimating can never be exact, cost realism seeks to ensure estimates are closely tied to the fundamental realities of the program as we know them at the time, without regard to politics or undue optimism.   As I finish this blog, I’m struck by the line in a Few Good Men “You can’t handle the truth!” As estimators, we need to always reflect the truth, and that is what cost realism is all about.

Zach Jasnoff
Solutions Architect, PRICE Systems