Cutting corners, cutting profits

We seem to have become a nation of corner cutters. From the people who think the best way to drive around a corner is to drive across it, to the students who happily, and stupidly, lift the materials for their reports — or their college entry essays — directly from other people's efforts. For some reason, cutting corners has also replaced the very different task of cutting expenses in many areas of business, including broadcasting.

There have been some really dangerous examples of that over the years. If a roofing contractor quotes a job using one type of material, then cheats you by actually doing the work with something inferior, the worst scenario is probably that the life of the roof will be shortened. If a tower manufacturer does the same thing the results can be catastrophic, as I have seen happen in places like Nigeria, Iran, Libya and Burundi.

The consequences of improperly bypassing interlocks can also be fatal. There are some things that you have to do when building and installing transmitter equipment that the operator should not have to do during regular maintenance. But thinking you know what you are doing should lead you to be extra careful, so that you think through all the possibilities. For instance, I remember a capable engineer being tossed across a transmitter hall after assuming that an output tuning capacitor had been discharged — because it should have been. It hadn't — that was the problem. Or an occasion in Saudi Arabia where a high-power vapor-cooled SW transmitter had a leak somewhere above the final and, with all the interlocks disabled and the doors opened, a technician turned his back on the transmitter, forgot where he was and stepped back. An arc was drawn from the plate supply through him to the holding tank. Both people were burned, but lived. Another man didn't when he was phasing up two 250kW generators together and closed an oil circuit breaker at the wrong moment.

Another example is the audience bleachers in a studio in Chicago, where a section had not been bolted up properly. A pile of children ended up in a collapsed pile of materials. Putting yourself in danger by cutting corners is one thing, but putting a lot of kids in such danger would personally keep me awake at night.

And despite training and retraining, how many times has a mobile news unit raised its antenna pole into power lines because they were cutting corners by not going through a checklist? Would you remain a passenger on an airplane if you knew the pilots hadn't gone through their checklist?

We also see corners cut in equipment: obvious features left off that should have been offered, the use of components outside the data sheet specification ranges, the use of a component that exhibits an unspecified characteristic (very popular) or the use of inferior components when the supply chain is challenged by high demand. And the quality of equipment can differ from one piece to another. It used to be said that you should not buy a vehicle that came off the production line on a Monday morning or a Friday afternoon. I've never seen a broadcast equipment manufacturer with that problem, but in the very nature of business in the United States, there can be definite quality issues with equipment that is pushed through assembly to meet the numbers at the close of a month, a quarter, or a fiscal year. When that happens and the product becomes a warranty (and reputation) issue, cutting corners becomes a profit-eating problem.

While we are all still in resolution-making mode, let's resolve to solve fewer of our perceived problems by cutting corners, and to keep a sharp eye out for suppliers or colleagues that do.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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