Managing the integration project timeline

[Editor's note: Cynthia Freschi, a veteran of deploying large scale security systems, and president of integration firm North American Video, will be a regular contributor to on topics of integration business management and technical security solutions. This is her first column.]

I was recently out for a business dinner at a very chic restaurant and, while the food was excellent, the service that evening was not on an equal par. For whatever reasons, they could not manage to serve our meal in a timely manner. The soup was served along with the salad and then we had to wait, for what seemed forever, for our main course to be served. Needless to say we were reluctant to order dessert and coffee for fear we would get one and not the other.

The incident made me think of the situation faced by systems integrators and how challenging it can be to manage a project timeline on a design/install assignment and the consequences of not doing so. In today's competitive environment, the ability to juggle several projects simultaneously, and keep them on track, is a fundamental perquisite if one is to, first of all, stay in business and, secondly, to grow the business.

My experience over the years has taught me three key lessons in running a systems integration business and in particular for managing the projects we secure. They are as follows: good communication; adequate numbers of talented staff and, maintaining high standards. While other habits and skill sets may be useful and/or important, I've found that when these three criteria have been met, the project almost always is smoother and more efficiently accomplished.

I rank good communication first because it plays such a critical role throughout the entire process. From the outset, it can make or break a job. A minor misunderstanding can end up being costly to both parties whereas a simple request for clarification, a few more questions asked or a reiteration summary can help to avoid a most unpleasant situation. As well, in the new environment of unified functions, more and more people are affected when a new or upgraded security system is proposed and they too must be kept in the loop.

For instance, a state of the art video surveillance system may be integrated with other security applications such as access control or visitor management systems. It may also be designed to incorporate business applications such as POS (point of sale) systems or data from human resources. Most importantly though, the systems are moving to the network and this demands the involvement of, and communication with, the IT department.

Added to this scenario are the exchanges and interaction between the integrator and the equipment supplier regarding timely product deliveries. Or between the integrator and the architect or consultant when unforeseen challenges arise, as well as the daily conversations between the project manager and the crew. It's easy to see why good communication is essential to effectively managing a project.

Lesson number two is also important because projects, and ultimately the systems integrator's business, can easily be put in jeopardy by not having enough staff or the right staff to carry out the job. Some of the problems which might arise from not addressing this aspect might include increased costs due to unbudgeted overtime or paying penalties for not completing the job on time; having to re-do work because it was done incorrectly the first time by inexperienced staff; or, too many or too few or the wrong mix of people at the wrong time.

There are several ways to resolve staffing issues and one of the most common and effective is that of a flexible team. This approach starts off with a small core group of individuals, each of whom is responsible for a specific function from start to finish on the project. As the implementation progresses, crew can be added or eliminated and the mix of staff changed to suit the progress, but always with the core team in place. With good communication and proper planning, staffing issues can be eliminated – or at least kept to a minimum.

Finally, maintaining high standards can never be wrong. Whether it's in the quality of the work performed, the design of the system or the after-installation training and follow up service, adhering to an ethical code or set of principles broadcasts who you are. In other words, this is the company's reputation and it can be made or broken depending on the standards set.

One way to ensure high standards and help protect a company's reputation is to assemble and test or program, as required, all equipment prior to the installation. By following this procedure, surprises during an installation can be eliminated because the working order of the equipment has been verified and all problems resolved prior to going on-site. It may seem like an inconvenience to do the job twice, so to speak, but the clients tend to be much happier when they perceive that everything works fine first time out.

This process also helps to familiarize the integrator's staff with the system so that they are better informed and prepared to do on-site training and any follow up service that may be required. Again, high standards can help fashion a reputation so it makes sense to set the bar high.

With these three principles anchoring a project, it becomes easier to accomplish the task and further to simultaneously work on two or more projects.

About the author: Cynthia Freschi is President of North American Video, one of the security industry’s leading systems integration companies providing best-in-breed solutions for a wide range of clients around the world. Since founded in 1995, Ms. Freschi has expanded the range of markets serviced by North American Video to include gaming, education, and government, military, financial, retail and corporate/industrial. North American Video employs over 150 employees in offices located in New Jersey, Las Vegas, Mississippi, New York, Washington and Macau.