Purchasing, shipping, receiving, unpacking, testing, repacking, organizing. Dozens of spreadsheets. Hundreds of phone numbers and email addresses. Up the ladder. Down the ladder. Heavy lifting. Forklifts, hoists, lifters. Insurance, union labor contracts, inspections, permits. These are just a few of the things that project management companies specializing in digital signage and kiosk installations have to think about every day. Even established logistics firms and large retailers who typically handle big projects internally are starting to find out that a digital signage or kiosk install can combine some of the nastiest problems of typical IT, telephony, AV and construction/renovation jobs together. This creates a uniquely complex and challenging situation that requires interdisciplinary cooperation and an awful lot of patience. Since we've worked on such projects for a while now, doing everything from simply selling software licenses to helping manage the whole affair, I've gained a newfound appreciation for those select few individuals and teams that are capable of pulling off a clean installation. In today's article, I thought it might be useful to go through some of the critically important items that are often overlooked by the host venue, advertisers, content managers and so on, but will be at the top of the list for any good system integrator.
Do you really know what you need to keep in inventory?
I'm always amazed by those companies who will send somebody over to mainland China for a week to procure a large order of generic plasma or LCD screens, only to purchase the exact number that they need for their initial rollout. Apparently, they've never heard of terms like DOA, replacement parts or even long-term test equipment. So they decide to "save" money upfront, only to find out later that they have to mix-and-match screens to fix the broken ones, or simply to procure equipment for ongoing experimentation and testing at corporate HQ. Equally amazing are those folks who will commit to a big contract for identical screens and revision-controlled media players, and then buy different lengths and brands of cables, routers, and switches to save a few dollars or meet short-term inventory needs. I'm not exaggerating -- this sort of thing happens all the time.
That's why one of the first things a good integrator will do for you is set up a complete inventory list and recommend multiple sources for some harder-to-find parts. Everything from the $5,000 screen to the $0.05 cable ties will be included, giving you the ability to generate a full Bill of Materials (BOM) for every site that you plan to deploy. Likewise, the integrator will help you budget for items to keep in reserve in the event that something needs to be replaced in a hurry. In some cases they may even offer to maintain the inventory for you (a useful service if you're not in the habit of warehousing supplies already).
Is your deployment timeline realistic?
Another issue that we frequently hear about is the impossible deadline. We've all had customers come up with sudden and seemingly arbitrary "drop dead" dates that must be met so as not to imperil the entire project. While setting goals is certainly an important part of any project, many network managers (especially those who have never deployed a kiosk or digital signage system before) may feel compelled to push their schedules as fast as they can -- simply because they don't realize the range of problems that might pop up come deployment time. I've seen cases where lightning has destroyed all of the electronics inside a store, or severe flooding has kept install crews away for days. I once even had a customer recount how, during an install, one retailer's overzealous restocking crew drove a forklift through a freshly-hung plasma screen. Of course, these are the kinds of delays that we can't predict. We just have to accept that they're going to happen some percentage of the time.
Training, on the other hand, is an issue that we can do something about. But it's overlooked so often that I actually forgot about it while writing the first draft of this blog article. Thankfully (and somewhat ironically), Bob Baerg from Rollouts mentioned training in an email a few days ago, and it certainly bears repeating. He gives an example of optimizing a deployment schedule based on the number of crews you plan to have working simultaneously. Fewer crews means there's less training to do, and less hand-holding during early installs. A team of two guys slated to do 100 installs will probably be experts after the fifth or sixth install, which means that you (as the project manager) will only have to provide heavy assistance on five or six total installs. Four teams of two guys, on the other hand, would require a total of 20 - 24 total installs before reaching a similar level of proficiency, meaning that you're on the hook for a lot more support during the early days of your deployment. However, more crews on the job also mean that your deployment will get finished quicker, which could translate to increased sales or the accomplishment of other business goals.
Who's running the show?
A lot of integrators pride themselves on being full-service, soup-to-nuts, one-stop shops, which might seem great if you don't have any in-house project management capabilities. However, it also means that your integrator is probably going to be talking a lot more to your venues/customers than you are during the planning and installation phases of your project, which is not so great. Also, while I only have anecdotal evidence of this, it's my observation that companies that are heavily reliant on an integration service for complete project management services have more trouble communicating effectively, which can cause lots of added delays and unexpected costs down the line. If I had to guess, I'd say it's because these firms (erroneously) believe their new partner will be able to handle everything, so they don't have to pay attention to anything. Needless to say, this is not only wrong, but it's a dangerous way to start a big, expensive project.
My advice: if you're the one responsible for getting the network installed in the first place (whether you're a retailer, a CPG maker, a network management company or whatever), have a full-time project manager on staff who will be the official point of contact for every installation-related issue. Make sure he's copied on every email, aware of every phone call (good CRM can be had for cheap now, using products like Salesforce.com or NetSuite), and can get in front of the customer at the first sign of a problem or delay. Ignorance is never a good excuse, and "I didn't know..." still comes up far too often in many of today's installations. It's certainly OK to let your integrator drive the project -- he's the expert, after all. But make sure you're in the passenger's seat, not the back seat (or worse yet, the trunk) during the journey.
Although we've only scratched the tip of the project management/ systems integration/ logistics management iceberg, it should already be quite apparent that a simple-looking kiosk or digital signage installation can quickly grow into something much more complex. I've been doing these projects for a long time now, and there are still plenty of occasions where I find myself thinking "this should be so easy." It never is, of course. But as we talked about in the most recent update to our digital signage budgeting guidelines, good help is getting a little less hard to find. More companies are fielding digital signage networks, living to tell the tale, and then deciding that they'd like to do it again -- this time armed with the wisdom that comes from having done one already. Whether they're AV and networking enthusiasts or just gluttons for punishment, good project managers and systems integrators can help you navigate the tricky terrain of kiosk and digital signage deployment. And for network owners that want to get their screens up and working and then get on with their business lives, that can be a very valuable thing.