Project Management: How to Avoid Mistakes

Illustration provided by Joe Arenella.

Mistakes happen. The unfortunate reality is that learning the hard way what not to do is part of the growing process for a sign company. And sometimes, those mistakes cost more than just money.

I once made a rookie mistake while installing a large channel letter sign on a skyscraper in Austin, Texas. I let down my entire team, and it cost thousands of dollars to fix.

But the worst part was that I lost my client’s trust, and it took a very long time to win it back.

The job was complicated. It took months to obtain permit approvals. In addition to getting structural engineer drawings for fabrication and installation specifications, we had to engage a civic engineer to ensure the old city street would not collapse from the weight of the cranes needed for installation.

After getting thermal imaging of the roof deck to ensure that we wouldn’t drill into any support cables, we hired a roofing company to cut back and seal the roof membrane.

Before the day of installation, we had to set up road barricades for lane closure, hire police to direct traffic, remove low power lines for the cranes to safely pass, and so on.

A week before the install, though, while drilling holes for mounting plates, we ended up hitting a support cable in the concrete roof deck. Thankfully it didn’t snap, but we have to move the mounting supports over a few inches before bolting them into the roof deck safely.

Everything seemed ready to rock and roll!

By six in the morning on install day, the roads were blocked, police were directing traffic, and the cranes had arrived on site, along with a certified hoister to attach the sign to crane straps (it’s a thing). There were orange-vested installers everywhere, and the client had hired a film crew to capture the moment. Every detail was perfect. Lights, camera, action!

The sign was lifted foot by foot fifteen-plus stories up. However when the sign reached the top—the mounting plates didn’t line up with it.

My mistake: I didn’t redo the survey for a new mounting pattern after we shifted the roof deck supports a week earlier. Because of the wind load requirements, the sign mounts couldn’t be adjusted in the field without new structural engineering drawings being resubmitted, so everyone was sent home. It was an awful feeling!

All of this could’ve been avoided if I had obtained a new survey and passed that information on to the project manager and fabrication team.

Now you may not find yourself installing signs on skyscrapers, but the point is that, whether your shop does large electric signs, wraps, banners, or t-shirts, mistakes bring everyone down. And most of them are preventable.

Here are three critical Project Management Pillars to help you avoid them:

Investigation (A Simple Survey)

All projects should start with information gathering. What are your client’s goals for the project?

Interview your client and ask them all the questions that need to be asked.

Once you know what they want, the investigative process can begin.

Research the city code for signage requirements. What are the architectural or engineering requirements? And in the case of a retail tenant, what does landlord criteria allow?

Armed with all of this information, you can then proceed to a physical survey.

What is needed to coordinate a thorough site survey for reach and access? What are the electrical and mounting requirements for the sign? What are the wall colors, the appropriate sizes, and what is the best placement for readability, etc?

Illustration provided by Joe Arenella.
Clear Communication

After collecting the details, you will need to have a system to communicate those details to everyone to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks, especially if you are managing multiple large sign projects at the same time.

A good system tracks every stage of production—tasks that can be assigned to individual team members along with critical milestone completion dates leading up to the final delivery date of the project.

Another important part of communication is to have a place to organize and share all the important project files and notes, a system that is accessible to everyone on the team. Nothing kills a project faster than lost project files.

However even the best tools are ineffective without clear communication.

Regular production meetings to review all jobs in progress are a must. My shop had two production meetings per week—a main weekly meeting and a “stand up meeting.”

Every Monday after lunch, in our main weekly meeting, we would go over the details of every open job and discuss what had to be done to move the project forward. We met again on Thursday morning for the “stand up” meeting. The focus for this meeting was to address any items blocking jobs from moving to the next stage of production.

I’ve talked to shops that meet daily and to some that meet just once per week. Whatever works best for your schedule and shop’s workload is fine, as long as you make a commitment to communicate.

Execution (Project Planning)

Preventing mistakes requires an investment in training and a solid system for managing and executing projects successfully. Find a good system to run your shop, and take the time to learn and implement it.

New habits are hard to implement, but in the long run, your shop will be more profitable. They will also have a positive impact on your team’s morale.

It’s not easy to make changes to processes, but everyone will end up working with less stress when structure is in place to execute projects consistently.

And your customers will be happier too!

—By Joe Arenella

Joe Arenella is the co-founder of SignTracker and founder of the Behind The Signs YouTube channel and Facebook group.