in July 2004
By Mario J. Maltese, CTS-D,
Process involves coordination across all skill sets.
ago I had the unique opportunity to do a temporary installation
for a finishing school graduation in Connecticut. That doesn’t
seem like much of a statement, except for the fact that
I was practically the only one from my company (then about
40 employees) involved due to a busy period. I surveyed
the site, designed a solution, sold it, collected a deposit,
procured the equipment, fabricated and tested the rack,
installed the system, operated the system during the ceremony,
packed and returned the equipment and the rental truck,
even prepared the invoice and handled the paperwork.
The customer praised the system’s
performance as well as my services. It was a rewarding as
well as a learning experience: As a one-man-show, it was
easy to maintain quality. I possessed all the skills and
equipment necessary to do the job. Whatever mistakes materialized
were corrected quickly.
Most companies don’t
work as one-person operations, however. The reality is that
one person couldn’t do that many jobs per year with
anywhere near the same efficiency as creating separate departments
of specialized effort, which also lowers the requisite skill-sets
required for each team member. But as a company grows, so
does the size and number of departments.
At some point, lack of communication between departments
starts to take its toll. Information has to flow as well
as it would have if only one person were providing the system.
Yet, some impediments to information flow hamper the progress
of the work: lack of clearly defined processes, confusion
over who is accountable for what, delicate egos, no “vehicles
of information” and documentation, and inadequate
training, instruments and equipment to name a few.
As the company grows, so to
does the need for more effective leadership and communications,
and on a geometric scale. Lack of communication results
in poor quality and waste, and typically profits as much
as 30% of gross sales are lost. My previous articles in
Sound & Communications have addressed this
And yet it can work, and it
can work well. When departments work together, the whole
company feels the herd on the move. The culture,
chemistry between departments and information flow, all
are conducive to speed, quality and profits.
Think in Terms of the Process
Technical skills are indeed
important. Yet, quality and profits depend at least, if
not more, on the processes people use as compared to the
technical abilities of the people on the team. All companies
have their processes, some well defined and written down,
others not so defined. There are processes for operational
issues such as purchasing, fabrication and installation.
And there are processes for getting technical training,
payroll, etc. A company then has a system of processes,
with the goal of not only staying in business but also assuring
consistent quality. This system is defined as a
Quality Management System (QMS).
Our industry is comprised
primarily of small regional companies that know their market
and work it regularly. Even the larger organizations are
an aggregate of a number of smaller, regional organizations
that share some infrastructure. Everyone in the company
depends heavily on other employees to do their jobs well
in order for the organization to succeed. For example, you
can take a systems integrator who carefully sold a job,
reviewed the design, made a submission that was an unambiguous
paper model of what is to be built, staged the system carefully
and accurately emulated what it would have at the installation
site, properly prepare the site for the installation of
the system, coordinating with the trades and the design
team and pack the system securely on the truck.
But, the driver has been out
all night and decides he can’t make the last delivery
that day, causing the electrical contractor to have a half-dozen
angry workers waiting at a freight elevator, but no truck.
The results are immediate and devastating because the owner
promises to back-charge the company for the additional expenses.
The company gets a bad name and the electrical contractor
vows never to work with that company again.
One team member can make an
otherwise excellent organization lose quality, customers
But wait! It gets worse!
What Do You Do For a Living?
Being in AV for more than
a third of a century, I long for the day that the general
public can identify readily what someone in this industry
actually does for a living, without necessitating
a long explanation complete with several examples, metaphors,
diagrams and photographs. Alas, I remind myself how young
the industry is, heave a sigh, and I am again patient.
But, doesn’t success
in sales, quality and customer satisfaction demand that
what we do be defined crystalline clear? Further,
our role may change from time to time, depending on whether
a job is a “design-build” project, or an “AV
Designer and AV Contractor” project. Depending on
the skill-sets of an organization, the opportunity to cross
the line from one role to another may come upon you. Corporate
leadership may need to make some decisions as to what is
best for the company.
Manufacturers aside, AV integration
involves several types of entities with their own specialization
of effort as a company. The literature, it would appear,
has no shortage of articles from designers and consultants
giving the benefits and disadvantages to each option. Yet
many articles indicate that things are more black and white
than what they really are.
The answer to the “what’s
best?” question may necessitate another question to
be answered first: “for whom?” Clearly, there
are advantages and disadvantages, conditions and considerations.
And with that, the need for leadership and communications
is exacerbated when two or more companies have to work together
as a team toward a common goal, just as different departments
within a company need to.
The role of the “AV
consultant” is relatively new, dating back only to
the late 60s. In the earlier stages of the industry, a builder
would query the regional design-build company of a manufacturer.
Manufacturers would distribute to preferred regional contractors,
who were required to maintain the skills and equipment necessary
to apply their products correctly.
Some early AV consultants were a class act. They added value.
Selling to the interior designers, they convinced owners
that the AV project had to be broken out from the electrical
contract, educated owners and guided them into properly
funding the project with down payments for the expensive
equipment, and actually assured that the contractor put
sufficient profit into a job to assure quality and avoid
“nickel and diming.”
Further, they were accountable
for their designs. If an error was found or an improvement
required, they would go to the owner and explain that additional
funding would be necessary and that it is in the owner’s
best interest to do so. The smart ones recruited their technical
talent from the best of the design-builders to quickly acquire
the operational art, and service the customer well.
Many contractors lament the
fact that working with an AV consultant isn’t profitable.
That may be, but I would urge those contractors to first
pay close attention to the math. Whereas I would agree that,
during dry periods, pricing on competitive bids falls abysmally
low, the net profit should include an allowance for the
fact that a qualified buyer of AV systems, who already approved
a budget for what he is purchasing, sent you a request for
a proposal without the need for the contractor to hire,
train, equip, commission and finance a salesperson. In fact,
working with an “enlightened” consultant who
assures your profit, is accountable for his designs and
who doesn’t have an ego problem when a correction
or improvement must be made is, in fact, the most profitable
course a contractor can take.
With the proliferation of
AV consultants who entered the market during the past 20
years, there have, indeed, been some who fall out of the
“enlightened” category. If a correction is needed,
some strong-arm the contractor into absorbing the additional
costs, and forbid direct communication with the owner. I
know of one consultant who browbeats the contractor by telling
him that he is his “real customer” even though
no contractual ties exist between consultant and the contractor!
I’m especially amused
by the AV consultant who touts that he is an “independent”
consultant, implying that he has no ties to any manufacturer,
and is somehow free to choose any manufacturer that fits
the application best. With all the shmoozing that goes on
at the trade shows, this is laughable at best.
Manufacturers and AV consultants
are unabashed with their ties, however informal they may
be. The fact is that an application often demands a particular
product because it is more suitable than another. No design-builder
or AV contractor offers every line there is, but the product
is always available somehow. Whether there is a dealership
agreement in place or not, the more suitable product will
be installed by the designer or design-builder who’s
worth his salt.
Given that engineered AV is by its nature very complex,
and its path is riddled with pitfalls, it may help if we
look at things from the customer’s perspective.
Start with ‘The Goal’
The Goal for the AV integration
effort, then, is to provide the customer with what he
expects, when he expects it and in a manner that meets the
most stringent standard of the design team’s QMSes,
the industry’s and all applicable jurisdictions.
Now let’s look into the major milestones in providing
the AV system.
For quality to be maintained,
a cross-functional review must take place at each major
milestone: Needs Analysis, System Designed, System Engineered
(submissions and drawings issued for fabrication and installation),
System Staged, System Commissioned.
At each of these milestones, the project is reviewed, and
if it develops in such a way as to become clear that the
final system will not meet the Goal as originally designed,
changes will have to be made. This may or may not become
more difficult to do for “AV designer and AV contractor”
projects, depending on the relationship between the consultant
and the contractor. If the consultant takes the empirical
approach, stays focused on The Goal without letting his
ego get in the way, and the contractor can correct the problem
while remaining within budget, and without fanfare, everyone
comes out a winner.
The Graphic on page 72 depicts
the interrelationships of the AV designer, AV contractor
and AV design-builder:
• The designer-builder
requires the skills for both the AV consultant and the AV
contractor combined in order to sufficiently integrate a
system, and has the advantage of making corrections in the
original design in order to maintain The Goal without having
to negotiate with a third party.
• On AV consultant-AV
contractor jobs, each company performs separately and with
a different contractual commitment to different customers.
BUT, if the chemistry, communications and skill-sets are
in place, they perform as one team and this is not an issue.
We’re All in This Together
But it goes beyond that. All
the companies are, in some part, equally dependent on each
other as well, much the same way as departments within a
company. And when the chemistry is dysfunctional, profits
• On an AV consultant-AV
contractor job, the owner awards an AV contract with a complex
audio system to a company that lacks the necessary skills.
The system is furnished late, and the contractor has no
one on staff familiar with, or who even understands, the
audio system. The architect puts pressure on the AV consultant
to “fix the problem.” If the consultant has
someone on staff with the skills, he only loses some time
and profits; it is even worse if he does not.
• The AV contractor
is asked to furnish a system that cannot work due to a poor
design. No amount of tweaking or adjusting can get a sound
system to perform when it has a microphone placed five feet
from a column loudspeaker intended to “throw”
85 feet. Days are lost in the field, profits leak and both
reputations are lost. (This brings out the fact that the
AV contractor must review the design before building the
system. He cannot relinquish accountability completely because
the AV contractor is the one with a contractual commitment
to complete The Goal.)
• The AV consultant
prepares a fine set of system drawings that the architect
summarily disregards, and the tin knocker installs duct
right where the ceiling loudspeakers are intended to go,
over the ears of the boardroom members. The mix-minus system
performs marginally, if at all, and many more hours than
estimated are expended trying to get the most out of the
• The union electrical
contractor on the job has two low-voltage “expert
installers” who take two hours to terminate five BNCs
on a computer video cable, and the AV contractor keeps his
field supervisors in the field for several man-weeks more
than originally estimated.
You can say that there is a need for an external QMS that
straddles all the companies that work on a project.
As mentioned before, when
it works well, everyone’s rewards are multiplied to
a greater extent. Consider a certain AV consultant who is
constantly making improvements to his designs, and is often
sought after by interior designers with the same commitment
to excellence. When the time comes for the AV contract to
be let out, the consultant wishing to work with a particular
contractor to assure a consistent quality negotiates the
contract to assure the amount of the contract to be within
the budgeted amount, which allows a 40% gross profit for
the contractor. The contractor, already familiar with working
with the consultant, automatically corrects minor errors
in the design. The job is completed on time and within budget.
The contractor learns of a new design solution that he may
not have acquired otherwise.
• The job you do is
important, but it matters more how you do your
job, than the job you actually do. Quality and profits come
to those who focus on The Goal, and do it well. Whatever
line of work you’re in, you must have the requisite
skill-sets and equipment to perform the work with a consistent
quality. Always define, scrutinize and improve your processes
as well as your technical skills.
• Your profits are dependent
not only on your internal quality management system, but
on the quality management systems of the other companies
on the Design Team, as well as how the Design Team members
interacts with one another.
• If everyone profits
well when the total “human system” works well,
consider applying the same process improvement methods you
use within your company and extend them to other members
of the Design Team. Use post-project interviews, questionnaires,
after-action improvement meetings. Over-communicate if necessary
to assure overlap between people operating independently.
• Address all
the costs in a project. If profits do not improve within
a certain Design Team, reconsider future work with those
team members. Some AV consultants have “Approved Bidders”
lists of contractors they know can do the job. AV contractors
are best advised to create and maintain “Approved
Consultants” in the same way.
At every Systems Design class
at the ICIA Academy, I ask the question if any people do
not particularly like the job they do. The response is always
a resounding one for the opposite. All are enthusiastic
about working in this field. I’m sure there are many
reasons for this, but I believe that one reason is that
our work is indeed meaningful. We use our knowledge,
experience and our tools to come up with solutions that
help groups of people to communicate with each
other. This is rewarding because it is by its very nature
meaningful work; it has an innate significance
in the overall scheme of things. With that in mind, it’s
important to stay focused on The Goal in whatever role we
“He profits most who
serves best.” - Arthur Frederick Sheldon
A 33-year industry veteran, mostly
as a design-builder, Mario Maltese is CEO of Audio Visual
Resources, Inc., Williston Park NY. He is one of the few
people who hold both CTS-D and CTS-I advanced certifications
from the ICIA. His partner and son, James, also holds both
certifications. A regular contributor to Sound & Communications,
Mario Maltese was named the ICIA’s 2004 Educator of