Elementary, Mr. Watson: Overcoming PCB Designs Pitfalls

Back in the early 1980s, Activision released a video game for the Atari called “Pitfall!” In this game, the player would control Pitfall Harry, and his task was to collect all the treasures in a jungle within 20 minutes while avoiding obstacles and hazards. I can tell you from personal experience that this was a challenging and frustrating game. As you are running through the jungle, the ground would suddenly open up and swallow you whole. Something like that completely ruins your day.

In last month’s column titled “How to Ruin Your PCB Design in 4 Easy Steps,” I looked at how to ensure design integrity with the use of the design rules. When starting every PCB design, the hope is that we can navigate through any pitfalls that arrive. Unfortunately, many times, issues happen that you do not handle correctly; they fall through the cracks and end up in your PCB design. That is when the real problems begin. Such mistakes go on public display for all to see. The question on everyone’s mind is, “What happened?” That is when you feel like a piñata, and everyone has a stick.

Rebuild Trust as Quickly as Possible
I guess it is human nature, but some gravitate automatically to the negative; as a matter of fact, for some, that’s all they know. They only want to focus on things that either went wrong or could go wrong, which makes things difficult. You can have a perfect record, and once you make a single mistake, that is what’s remembered.

You cannot start to rebuild trust while living in that mentality. It’s easy to get swept up with a defeatist mentality. However, half the battle is mental, and it takes discipline to focus on the solution rather than the problem. Critics are a dime a dozen, but problem solvers are worth their weight in gold.

To give you an example, I recently volunteered to help Habitat for Humanity to refurbish a home. I was put on the demolition team. I ended up there mostly because it didn’t take any real talent or skill to take a sledgehammer and go at it. It was great fun. However, once we had torn down the old kitchen, that is when the people skilled in carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work came in and did their thing. My point is that it takes no real skill to be critical and tear something down, but to build up something is a different story; that’s where the real talent is. Have an attitude of building up people rather than tearing them down.

Distrust causes even more distrust. It is one of the most toxic and contagious things in any company. If left unchecked, it develops into a massive problem with a downward spiral. However, on the positive side, although it is never easy to go through, I believe that it’s during times when things don’t quite go as planned that brings out the real character of someone. Moreover, it is especially when we truly learn about the process, the weak areas in our workflows, and how best to fix things.

Good PCB designers become great by working through the problems that arise and learning how to handle them quickly. Much of what I am about to share is directly from my personal experience.

Be Prepared
There’s a saying that goes, “Hope for the best but be prepared for the worst.” Fortunately for PCB designers, we have more than just hope. We have a particular set of tools, processes, and checks that can be put into place to verify things as we go.

The word that best describes my point here is you need to be vigilant, which means “always being careful to notice things, especially possible danger or problems.” There are two sides to this coin: where you look for problems under every rock or become very lackadaisical. You are looking for something in the middle; be prepared and watchful for any possible problems.

Quickly Identify the Root Cause and Put a Solution in Place
It is not enough to identify the obvious problem; what you see is only the result of the cause. You need to dig deeper and determine the root cause. You can quickly identify the root cause of an issue by using the “five whys.” That is a technique that digs deep into a problem by asking the question, “Why?” You must do that at least five times to get to the root cause of an issue.

For example, if I come out to my car and find that I have a dead car battery, this is what using the “five whys” method could look like:

  1. I have a dead battery. Why?
  2. The alternator is not charging the battery. Why?
  3. The alternator belt is loose and frayed. Why?
  4. The belt is beyond its normal life. Why?
  5. I did not replace the belt during the required maintenance. This is the root cause.

If you did not go through this process, you might be quick to replace the dead battery and never fix the real issue and cause of the problem. You might be shocked that what was identified as a problem was not even close to the root cause. It’s essential to find that root. Otherwise, you are only looking at the effects and the causes. Ultimately, nothing gets solved. Once you identify the root cause, put into place the solutions for the problem by starting at the root cause.

Communicate Changes
Communication is vital to rebuilding trust. It is not a good idea to stay silent. I have found that when someone does not fill in the gaps, especially on something public and concerning the team, people tend to jump to a conclusion and fill in the gaps on their own. Many times, the assumptions are the worst than the original problems.

Send emails, make calls, and conduct meetings. Communicate the findings on the root cause and the specific solutions that are put in place to ensure that you identified the problem and the solution.

Do not merely assume that people know the changes. I make a point of the document the required changes either in an official company memo, or, making it even better, update the SOPs that cover that process.

My final thought is to give this process time. The problems and issues become less frequent when you handle them efficiently and quickly. I started all this by discussing the pitfalls that are waiting for you, which is terrible when they hit your PCB design. But on the other side of the coin is how good it feels when things go correctly.

That is why we do what we do as PCB designers—to have a completed PCB design sitting on our desk that was just colored lines on a computer only days earlier. You sit there, stare at it for a moment, and think, “I did that.” There is no better feeling in the world.

John Watson, CID, is a customer success manager at Altium.



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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Rebuilding Trust When Things Go Wrong


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