By now, most broadcast engineering departments have accepted the influx of IT and the dependence on computers as a fact of life in the digital age. With this increased system complexity, the cross functional, interdepartmental teams that are required to design, install, commission and maintain the digital infrastructure are having to adapt. Given the fact that system complexity and technical expertise is beyond the ability for a single person to master, a new emphasis on teamwork and process efficiency has emerged.
Many broadcast engineers have made valiant efforts to gain expertise in IT and computer science. Conversely, those in the IT domain, called to work with broadcast systems, have had to learn the ways of broadcast engineering. But as Gavin Schultz said during his tenure as president of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), at the 2004 Pasadena Engineering Conference, neither broadcast engineering nor IT are absorbing the other; in reality, a new engineering discipline is being born.
Engineering process maturity
One way to gauge organizational technological proficiency is to use the Capability Maturity Model (CMM). This organizational technology competency analysis tool was developed by the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in the mid-1980s. It was used by the military when evaluating the probability of success on a software project by responders to RFPs.
The technique defines five levels of organizational competence (capability) ranging from the "wild west" to progressive and forward looking.
Level 1, the "Initial" level, is characterized by an ad-hoc approach to tasks or projects. Many broadcast engineering and support departments tend to fall into this category because of the necessity to stay on the air at all costs. A single engineer, or a very small group, generally does system design and commissioning; therefore, formal processes do not exist and information tends to be siloed.
At Level 2, "Repeatable" processes are followed throughout the life of a project. Some form of formal project management is installed. This often includes developing scheduling and budget management tools. Projects are planned and an attempt is made to adhere to the development process. This may include brainstorming sessions, design reviews and improved documentation, and the communication of milestone accomplishments to management.
Following "Defined" processes for all projects characterizes Level 3. Processes are developed and applied on an organizational scope, not just within a single department. A Project Management Office (PMO) may have been established to develop and manage standardized processes. These processes are then adapted dependent on project scope and needs. A large project may require the full suite of PMO services, while a small task can cut the process steps to the bare minimum required to get the job done.
Level 4 organizations gather quantifiable data about their project processes that enables them to "Manage" the processes based on hard data. Quantitative goals are set for processes. This works well for a repeatable process where attributes such as the number of defects or how long a process takes can be measured.
Adopting a proactive, analysis and improvement culture is a requirement for an organization to attain Level 5 "Optimization." The effects of process improvement are measured and compared to objectives. Process variation is eliminated. Even if this level is not formally attained via progression through the previous four levels, much can be gained by doing post-mortem analysis on projects, with the goal of improving the efficiency of engineering and implementation processes.
After gauging organizational technological efficiency, the processes can then be improved.
Introduced in 1986 by Bill Smith, a senior engineer and scientist at Motorola, Six Sigma (SS) is a process improvement discipline that can be used to maximize efficiency and reduce defects in a process. The term is derived from statistical analysis where Sigma denotes a standard deviation; therefore, reducing variation is the goal of Six Sigma
As exemplified in a normal bell-shaped distribution curve, when a process varies by +/- one standard deviation, 68 percent of the values lie within one standard deviation (Sigma) from the mean. Ninety-five percent of the values lie between +/- two Sigma, while at +/- three standard deviations, 99.73 percent of products produced (or process metrics) fall within acceptable tolerances.
Not only is Six Sigma a process improvement technique, it is a corporate culture.
The structure of an internal Six Sigma Organization includes Champions, Master Black Belts, Black Belts, Green Belts and the regular workforce. It is the job of the Champions and Master Black Belts to identify projects that Six Sigma can benefit.
Not all projects lend themselves to Six Sigma techniques, because it focuses on defining measurable process performance metrics. If a process can't be quantified, improvement can't be measured.
Once a project has been tagged for improvement, the Six Sigma steps are applied to the project:
- Define the project, goals and deliverables to customers; quantify defects and expected improvement.
- Measure current process performance; set baselines and validate data.
- Analyze and determine the root cause(s) of defects or inefficiencies; narrow the causal factors to the vital few.
- Improve the process by doing what is necessary to eliminate defects; optimize the vital few.
- Control process performance; maintain the gains and improvements.
As previously mentioned, the ability to measure the current and improved state of a process is an integral component to the Six Sigma technique. The impact of process improvement measures cannot be fully understood without the ability to quantify performance parameters.
Dashboard metrics are a method of communicating project and process performance through a graphical presentation of metrics. Simple visual pie charts, Pareto graphs and schedules communicate a project's status with a single glance.
Metrics, like all statistics, must be carefully analyzed. For example, dashboard metrics may indicate that a project is 95 percent complete, on schedule and under budget, but we've all heard the adage that 95 percent of the effort goes into the last 5 percent of a project.
Applying CMM & SS to broadcast engineering
CMM techniques can be applied to the overall design and implementation cycle. All engineering departments can benefit from design reviews, peer input and customer review. Candidates for process formalization include:
- Problem resolution: establishing a defined procedure of notification, escalation, resolution and documentation;
- Interdepartmental projects: establishing how to gather user requirements, develop system documentation, peer design review and customer approval.
Applying Six Sigma to production processes is challenging, but there are a few potential areas where efficiency can be improved:
- Graphics: Can the design approval process be shortened? Can GFX be repurposed easily for different delivery channels?
- Editing: How long does it take for content to get from the field onto an editing system? Can search time for a clip be reduced?
Each broadcast organization is unique and does things in its own way, but workflows and engineering processes have to transition to digital alongside infrastructure technology.
Don't lose sight of the fact that this is about technology, not blind management of the process. An experienced engineer will understand the reasons behind CMM and SS, while an engineering "outsider" will see only the process.
There are always opportunities to improve operations in a broadcast center. The engineering of integrated technology media systems provides the opportunity to correct the mistakes and bad habits of the past. Regardless of whether it is via CMM or Six Sigma, reliable 24/7 on-air integrity is one of the most important aspects of broadcasting.