Redefine Priorities to Survive Tough Times (CAD Manager Column)

1 Feb, 2009 By: Robert Green

Weather the recession with hard work and sharp skills.

The new year is upon us, and all indications are that it's going to be a tough one. I think it's important to examine CAD management priorities now so you can survive and even thrive during the rough times. In this installment of "CAD Manager," I'll share some insight and recommend some strategies that I've found useful in down economies. No matter which CAD tools you manage or what kind of company you work in, these tips can help you improve your CAD operation and protect your own position through the downturn.

Manage Projects and Deadlines

When your company isn't as busy as management would prefer, you'll want to do an extra good job on the projects you do have, right? Therefore, hitting deadlines or even bringing projects in early becomes critical in a down economy. CAD managers who understand this concept and work diligently to meet deadlines will be valued even more than they are in good times.

Conversely, when your company isn't busy and something in the CAD environment causes a deadline delay, there's almost no forgiveness. It seems that the more I think ahead and head off problems, the easier everything becomes and the more impressed management is. And although senior managers won't fully understand all the technical issues you fix, they will remember that the deadline was met without problems.

Recommendations. Talk with all key project team members to make sure you know their deadlines. Anticipate any potential CAD issues related to project standards, filing, plotting, and so forth that could adversely affect deadlines and work to alleviate those issues before they become problems. Manage your daily task list to ensure that tackling potential problems is at the top, with the most severe issues at the highest level of priority.

Make Production Easy

When budgets are tight, staffing is watched closely and every dollar counts. Management wants to make sure the company is running as lean as possible. Trying to do more with fewer people will magnify any equipment or software problems — especially as deadlines loom. Many of these production kinks aren't really problems per se as much as they are annoyances or inefficiencies. These annoying productivity issues should come next on your list of priorities. In all my years of CAD management, I've never met a CAD user who complained about networks being too fast or plotters being set up too logically, so all efforts to facilitate production do pay off.

Recommendations. Ask your users to suggest small improvements that you could make in their production environment. Ask project managers what they see as obstacles in your current CAD production environment and what they would recommend doing to fix them. Choose which ideas to pursue based on your priorities and available time.

Be Versatile

Obviously, the more you know, the more you can do, and the more valuable you'll be to your company. One of the things you can do to be more versatile is to maintain good CAD production skills so you can hop into project work when you're needed. Even if you're an engineer or architect who hasn't done CAD production work for a while, it still pays to have the skills when budgets are tight. Being able to step in and assist is not a demotion; it's a demonstration of versatility that will be appreciated in a down economy.

I've always found that a willingness to hop into CAD production work in a pinch has endeared me to my users over the years and has kept me on the cutting edge of managing CAD tools for my clients. If senior management sees that you are versatile enough to be a CAD manager along with all your other duties and be able to pinch hit in production, they're more likely to retain you in the event of layoffs.

Recommendations. Talk with all project leaders to get an idea of when CAD production crunches will hit. By forecasting these periods of high CAD demand, you can schedule your own time so you're able to pinch hit on production work. Remember that being able to relieve these temporary production strains will minimize staff overhead and help you meet those crucial deadlines at the same time. As you help with production work, remember to view the experience from a CAD user's perspective and keep a list of things you can do as CAD manager to improve that environment.

Clean House

Sometimes we get so caught up in new projects, new software implementation, and other diversions that we forget that a well-organized CAD library (symbols, standards details, and so forth) contributes greatly to productivity. Organizing CAD libraries might not be a cutting-edge CAD management task, but clean libraries do allow users to find what they need quickly and without tech support. The bottom line is that it's easy to become disorganized over time, and that disorganization will negatively affect the productivity of all your CAD users.

Recommendations. Go through your network drives and identify all the CAD-related blocks, details, and drawings that you believe to be junk. Next, route an e-mail message to all your CAD users to see if anyone objects to deleting all those files. Let all CAD users know that you're cleaning house and that you'll be pestering them until everything is organized. Following the cleanup, you can think about revising your CAD libraries to support any new standards you develop.

Standardize and Train

Light project loads, if and when they occur, present an opportunity to examine and optimize standards and procedures. Because your staff size will probably be at its smallest, you'll have the unique chance to change standards and procedures with as little impact as possible on users, projects, and deadlines. In a very real sense, this downturn will allow you to lay the groundwork for emerging from the recession as a leaner, meaner, standards-driven operation. Don't forget that your CAD users need to be aware of what you're doing and trained to carry out the changes.

Recommendations. Ask yourself which standards questions your users have most often. Think back on the past few years and try to remember where you've seen the most errors in CAD production. Think about how much time these questions and errors cost you and your users in terms of rework and schedule delays. After compiling a list of topics, you should have a good idea which standards need attention first (the ones that generate errors) and which revised standards require training (to alleviate user questions). The hard part of this exercise is finding the time to do it.

Master IT and CAD Programming

The simple truth about CAD managers who can program is that they can customize their CAD tools to achieve higher efficiency. By creating custom AutoLISP, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), or even custom toolbars and menus, they can simplify complex tasks so CAD users can get more done in less time with fewer errors. CAD managers who have a working knowledge of IT topics also can control their users' network environment more easily and quickly than those who must rely on outside IT resources.

I've also found that programming and IT skills have enabled me to work on a wider variety of projects over the years, thus giving me more employment opportunities. Staying employed in a tight economy is all about having as many skills and options as possible.

Recommendations. Read books about programming and IT topics; try to tackle one chapter per week in your off time. Get a cheap, used computer to hook up a basic network at home to learn about network concepts and configuration. Attend an evening IT or programming course at a community college or extension school. Scour the Internet for blogs that teach programming topics that interest you, and you'll be shocked how much information is available. The key to learning these complex topics is to take it slow and not expect to learn everything overnight.

Don't Get Depressed

As someone who's owned a business for 18 years and been an engineer for 25, I can tell you that economic downturns are part of the technical environment. This recession will be the fourth I've experienced in my career, and I feel confident that this one shall pass, as the others have.

I can tell you with certainty that those willing to help their companies weather the down times will emerge battle tested, with an improved skill set and solid resume to support growth when things improve. Do your best to roll with the changes and use my recommendations to be part of your company's solution for surviving tough times. Until next time.

Robert Green performs CAD programming and consulting throughout the United States and Canada. His book, Expert CAD Management: The Complete Guide is now available. Reach him via his web site at


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About the Author: Robert Green

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