Building Your Workplace Action Plan (CAD Manager Column)

1 Mar, 2007 By: Robert Green

Improve productivity and decrease frustration by analyzing—and fixing—problems.

CAD managers spend a lot of time putting out tech-nical fires, supporting users and simply reacting to the production needs of the day. This reactive mode of operation often leads to spending months or even years without a tangible plan for making things better.

In this month's installment of "CAD Manager," I'll give you a method for creating an action plan that can get you out of your rut and moving toward a more productive, less frustrating CAD environment.

Step One: Brainstorm and Capture

If you're like most CAD managers, you've already got a pretty good idea of where your problems lie. The first step in the brainstorming process is to capture all these frustrations and problems in a list form.

The key during the brainstorming phase is to capture a raw list of problems in freeform format. Think of every conceivable problem you've experienced and get them into a master list that you can use for the sorting and analysis you'll perform later. Next, I put all the problems into a spreadsheet-based list (see "Brainstorming and Action" sidebar).

Figure 1. This sample spreadsheet shows a brainstorming list with analyses and action items inserted. Because all input is in spreadsheet form, it becomes easy to sort fields or even add other metrics such as time logging or cost savings.
Figure 1. This sample spreadsheet shows a brainstorming list with analyses and action items inserted. Because all input is in spreadsheet form, it becomes easy to sort fields or even add other metrics such as time logging or cost savings.

Step Two: Sort by Time

Now that you have your brainstorming list in spreadsheet format, add another column that estimates the amount of time you waste each month on each item. This time estimate should be based on a combination of your best guess, data from old timesheets and e-mail history. It is critically important to think through this step in detail; sometimes the frustrations on which we fixate don't really cost us much time, but the things we accept blindly can rob us of hours.

After you've assigned a time-loss value to the items on your list, sort the list based on time loss (from high to low). This sorting should place the most egregious wastes of time right at the top. By knowing where the most time is wasted, you'll know which items to attack first in your action plan.

Step Three: Analyze

With your brainstorming list sorted by time loss, you now know what items you need to place highest on your action plan. Start to analyze the items on your list and formulate a list of action items that will become the basis for your action plan. In this phase, you'll confront your frustrations and determine the root cause of those problems so you can create an action plan that addresses the problems. There are a limited number of actual causes for most problems, and I'll list them here for your reference: financially based, standards or procedure based and user based. To illustrate my point, let me take you through a couple of example cases.

Example One

Problem. CAD users placing drawings, parts and assembly files in incorrect directories.

Analysis. At first glimpse, this problem seems to be a user-based problem, but only if your standards and procedures exist and are well written. After all, users can't follow your standards or procedures if they don't exist, right? Upon further examination, you find that some of your standards and procedures are ambiguous and cause user confusion. Furthermore, you determine that your CAD standards aren't addressing some customer-requested directory structures with which your CAD users must work. What started out looking like user problem is a more complex issue that will require reworking some standards and training users to follow the new standards.

Action Items. Redraft standards and operating procedures to address the weaknesses found in your analysis. Schedule a brief meeting or lunch-and-learn session during which you explain the problems you're experiencing with incorrectly filed CAD work and the key standards/procedures that users must follow.

As this example illustrates, what may seem like a simple user problem actually has deeper causes that must be addressed. As long as you simply keep fixing the problem without analyzing its cause, it'll never be corrected.

Example Two

Problem. Mechanical renderings and analysis jobs have to be restarted or reworked frequently because of machine crashes, which cause user frustration, locked files and a host of annoying minor support issues.

Analysis. A detailed examination of this problem reveals that the problem is really the result of expecting two-year-old, single-core computers to run intensive processing on increasingly large files. The problem here isn't technical; it's money-based because newer multicore machines could run circles around the old hardware and not crash.

Action Items. Prepare a ROI (return on investment) worksheet that shows how much time is being lost because of rework and machine crashes. Use this ROI worksheet to sell your management on purchasing new hardware for users who suffer from frequent crashes. Push for immediate purchase because savings can be attained the moment the new hardware is in place.

This example points out a case of false economy; that is, that not buying new machines saves the company money. Note that I've invoked ROI methods in the action item here because you won't be able to convince your management to part with substantial sums of money without them.

The Fog Starts to Lift

The great thing about building your action plan using the methodology I've outlined is that it forces you to really think about the problems you're having, both from a time-conservation and task perspective.

As you force yourself through the thinking, prioritizing and analysis, you'll come to understand that every problem you have has a root cause that can be eliminated or managed. Your mental process becomes one of knowing why the problem exists, taking corrective action and moving on to the next problem. This knowledge-based approach to resolving your problems tends to lower your stress level (because you know why you're stressed), gives you a sense of relief (because you can fix the problem) and makes you look like a great manager for identifying all the kinks in your company's processes.

Constantly Adjust

Business conditions change, new projects are undertaken, new staff members are hired or some unforeseen circumstance will change your operating environment occasionally. When these changes occur, so must your action plan. But be forewarned that you can't simply add new items onto your action plan—you must take any new frustrations and work through the same analysis process you did in the first place. The only thing that will change over time is that you'll spend far less time brainstorming and more time analyzing new frustrations.

I also recommend a quarterly, systematic review of your existing action plan. I've found that when I analyze an action plan several times my thinking becomes clearer and I understand things better each time. It's important to realize that your action plan is a living, breathing document that's never really done.

Taking Action

After you've planned your work, it's time to start working your plan. Make a promise to yourself that you'll dedicate some time each week to work on tasks from your action plan. As you complete a task, take satisfaction in crossing it off the list and then move on to the next one. By working through your action plan list, you'll systematically eliminate —or at least minimize—the hassles of your day-to-day environment, which will give you more time to gain efficiency. Like pushing a stalled car, the hard part is getting started. Once the car gets rolling, the amount of energy you'll expend goes down.

Robert Green performs CAD programming and consulting throughout the United States and Canada. Reach him at

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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