Proper Documentation at the Start of the Project Makes All the Difference

May 29, 2013

Anthony Grimani (agrimani@pmiltd.com) is president of Performance Media Industries, with offices in Novato and San Anselmo, CA.
I am standing in my backyard in disbelief, looking at the partially complete fence that I asked a contractor to build to keep the ravenous Northern California deer from eating my priceless heirloom tomatoes. These deer are gymnasts. They can jump over a 6-foot fence from a standing position all day long, especially if a salad buffet is open on the other side.

My disbelief comes from the fact that the fence ended up being different from what we agreed upon. The contractor had showed me a picture on his iPhone that was exactly what I wanted: a nice, simple fence. What he built was totally different…time to disassemble and start over.

What went wrong here? It wasn’t communication. We were clear about what was to be built, and he even proposed the design! The problem was documentation. In my haste to get back to the office to continue designing the world’s top home cinemas, I failed to draw the agreed-upon fence design. I should know better. If you don’t document what is supposed to get built, someone will find a way to mess it all up, then blame you for not making up your mind in time.

If building a simple fence can go this far wrong without documentation, how can you expect a sophisticated, world-class integration project to go right without documentation? You can’t. Yet, I see project after project where the wiring documentation is non-existent, the automation specifications are nowhere to be found, the grounding and power systems have no forethought, and the ventilation and cooling schemes are Rube Goldberg crossed with the board game Mousetrap. As a result, clients are always complaining that their systems don’t turn on when they want, fail all the time, latch up randomly, don’t sound good, or don’t look sharp.

Don’t Force the Field Techs to Wing It

 
If building a simple fence installation can go wrong without documentation, how can you expect a sophisticated, world-class integration project to go right without documentation?
It often comes down to the basics: insufficient preparation, engineering, and documentation. The techs in the field have to figure it out on the fly, often basing what they do on the last project they did like this one, but not knowing that this one is, in fact, totally different. What the sales person promised was different. The products and switching are different. The power and grounding are different. The price points, the schedules, and the deliverables are different. The automation functions are different… Then the techs have to take twice the time to redo the wiring looms until it all works right. All the while, the principals of the company have to pay for the re-work. Sound familiar?

We all know that integrating and automating a system with 10 sources, 12 zones, and multiple displays all running HDMI is really complicated if you want all the sophistication and reliability that our clients have come to expect from their luxury goods. So how do you go about delivering on the expectations without going broke re-working every project? Simple: Invest in planning and documentation at the start of the project. Then make sure that everyone follows the documents and specifications. That should make a huge difference. All the successful companies in our business discovered this long ago. All commercial projects require this. Do our clients deserve anything less?

I have, at times, done the forensics to figure out where system failures originate. The results can be amazing. Sometimes, because of insufficient information, an automation programmer spends time writing code that doesn’t account for all the conditions of use. It then needs Band-Aid upon Band-Aid to make it work right, but the code isn’t fully tested so it latches up. It’s not fully tested because the programmer, going above and beyond the call of duty, spun wheels trying to get non-existent documentation or circuit diagrams and couldn’t figure out what was tied together in the system. Then everyone is sore because the project isn’t successful, it’s over budget, the client is calling all the time threatening to sue you and the automation equipment company, and everyone is wasting valuable energy and time. Once in a while, it’s all because the power sources are inconsistent, with unreliable ground conditions, and data gets dropped because of bad hum.

You can avoid all this by hiring a company that does nothing but design and documentation work. There are quite a few around in the CEDIA space. Look at the professional resources section listings in the CEDIA directory for more info. Some of these specialize in electrical system design, others in automation design and documentation, and still others in cinema design and acoustics. Pick the right ones to partner with and watch your overhead in non-billable re-work go right down. Plus you can bill the design work at a profit. Imagine that!

Chase Walton contributed to this column.

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