Planning ahead can save time in the long run.


The Project Management Institute teaches an hour of advanced planning saves many hours of project time in the field. In electrical work, much of that planning takes the form of working drawings. Despite the importance of planning these drawings, today's architects and engineers typically cut corners in this stage, forcing their consulting team to cut fees paid to each team member. One of those corners is the set of drawings that allow the electrical engineers to design and the skilled trades to build. As a result, projects incur unforeseen costs that could have been prevented by good working drawings. Here are some typical scenarios:

  • An electrical engineer receives a CAD drawing that is off-grid, with lines that aren't snapped end-to-end. This makes it impossible to specify equipment locations or even to do CAD work accurately. A drawing that would have taken an hour to produce now takes 8 hr.

  • An engineer receives a CAD drawing that doesn't include the locations of the phone closet, HVAC room, hot water heaters, vent motors, windows, or other key items. No one can properly plan the wireways without this information. After hours of phoning and faxing, the engineer makes a “best guess” that turns out to be wrong.

  • A lead electrician receives a print showing conduit running directly through structural members not shown on the print. Now someone must design the wireway layout and conduct the voltage drop calculations in the field — and perhaps do extensive field bending to make “saddles” and other means of routing around obstructions while under a tight deadline.

  • Electricians are working with a drawing the customer provided, but it doesn't use conventional electrical symbols, callout equipment information, or conform to the NEC. How do they wire the job? Typically, they stop work until they reach an agreement with the customer to correct the drawings.

You no doubt have your own horror stories. The question you need answered is, What can I do about this? You can't hold the customer's feet to the fire or control the general contractor. Let's compare two projects to illustrate how you can get around that issue — at least when it comes to drawings.

In the mid-'80s, an Ohio engineering company — let's call it ACME — undertook a project that resulted in a $350,000 loss, the largest in its history. In the early '90s, ACME agreed to a similar project with the same customer that turned a $400,000 profit and became its most profitable job ever. Both projects had late performance penalties and required the customer to provide drawings at different stages, based on work the ACME people did. These were iterative projects, in which ACME engineers had to wait for the customer to do X before they could do Y. This is the worst kind of project to undertake when you have time-based performance penalties, which is why the first project had such devastating results. What accounts for the difference between the jobs' margins?

Project one.

The Gantt Chart showed three weeks of ACME work, followed by two weeks of customer review and new drawing generation, then three weeks of ACME work, and so on. There were no penalties for the customer coming in late with drawings that weren't right. The ACME team was taking on all of the risk. So the customer would come in late with drawings that weren't right. By mid-project, ACME's three-week cycle of design time was reduced to only two days. By the end, the firm was starting its three-week cycle two months behind the finish date. Throughout the project, ACME engineers scrambled to catch up — and did so by working with the drawings they had. This meant the skilled trades were building systems with flawed designs, and then reworking them repeatedly as revised drawings came out after the fact.

Project two.

The team for this project used a similar Gantt Chart, but they made their start dates always contingent upon customer drawing completion. They defined a completed drawing as one that passed a two-day review by ACME engineers per documented standards. When the first customer drawings arrived, the ACME engineers sent them back with a 10-page punchlist of errors and questions, commenting that more review time would be necessary. The project manager followed up with a letter and phone call to drive home to the customer that, per the contract, ACME's start date on the Gantt Chart was now delayed by whatever time the customer took to provide the completed drawings. This meant the end date would move by that amount of time, unless the customer provided shorter review cycles.

As the second project progressed, the customer's review cycles got shorter and better. ACME engineers managed to cut a day here and there in their cycles as well. As a result, the project went into construction a week early.

The principles.

The core tool for realizing productivity gains from good working drawings is the drawing standards document (DSD). However, this document is useful only when implemented. How can you make that happen? Let's look at the principles involved, so you can apply them.

Define the criteria clearly

Any vagueness in a contract takes power away from the drafter. Think through your DSD to make sure the information leaves little or no room for doubt (Sidebar below). Avoid legalese. Your goal is to make this standard easy for the reader to understand and implement. When developing the DSD, don't forget the high cost of redrawing an off-grid mechanical or architectural drawing you need as the basis for electrical planning.

Manage expectations up-front

Rather than get stuck with bad drawings, get an agreement to follow the DSD as early in negotiations as possible. Do this whether you're the sole contractor, subcontractor, or customer. It takes a huge effort to correct bad drawings, but it takes almost no extra effort to do them right the first time.

Use a big carrot and a small stick

Unless the other party faces financial penalties for supplying bad drawings, you have little leverage. Just as the net 30-day stipulation (X% interest per month thereafter) encourages timely payment, so will a price differential for on-time drawings that meet the specifications of your drawing standards. You aren't likely to get the other party to agree to a penalty that completely covers your cost of bad drawings; getting them to agree to a discount for good work should be easy.

Get it in writing

People tend to forget good intentions. If the other party signs an agreement to deliver standards-compliant drawings on schedule, you can use that document as the basis for getting them to make good on their promises before problems occur. You would simply be doing your part in trying to help them mitigate their financial loss — per the contract — when problems start. If they gave you just a verbal agreement, they may say, “My hands are tied” — rather than what they agreed to — because you're dealing from a position of weakness rather than strength.

Monitor for compliance

Establish a review process that flows. Don't wait until all the drawings are delivered as a package. Drawing development tends to be hierarchical and follows a predictable completion path. You need a checklist for reviewing drawings at each stage of development — you can easily create such checklists by putting checkboxes in the line items of your DSD.

While most players in this industry have been losing the battle against poor working drawings, some have succeeded by being proactive. It's hard to get anyone to absorb the cost of correcting bad drawings once they're finished. But managing the process with well-communicated standards — and financial benefits of compliance — can ensure a win-win situation for everyone.




Sidebar: Drawing Standards Document Tips

  1. Keep it short. Rather than frustrate the other party by addressing every possibility, focus on problems that have the greatest financial impact. Let the rest go.

  2. Write tight. Keep sentences short and to the point.

  3. Be specific. Say “snap to grid,” rather than “drawn correctly.”

  4. Define your terms. Include a page that defines terms that might be confusing.

  5. Show what you mean. Provide a sample of a correct drawing, with key features highlighted and explained.