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.

Conclusion
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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2020

Elementary, Mr. Watson: Overcoming PCB Designs Pitfalls

09-10-2020

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. John Watson explains how that is when the real problems begin.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: How to Ruin Your PCB Design in 4 Easy Steps

08-06-2020

John Watson has seen firsthand how quickly PCB designs can “go off the rails” by not following a few simple principles. In this column, he looks at four practices that can easily ruin your PCB design.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: PCB Components Naming Conventions

07-09-2020

How you accurately analyze and identify certain information has a direct connection to the overall success of your PCB designs. In this column, John Watson focuses on the conventional naming scheme for the schematic symbol and footprint to prevent headaches and ulcers later.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Collaboration in the PCB Design Process

06-11-2020

The past few months have been trying for everyone, with many of us working from home. However, there are still the underlining principles of collaboration to step into a role to finish the necessary tasks to keep a project moving forward. John Watson, CID, explains.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Reinventing Yourself

05-28-2020

When COVID-19 first hit, many businesses were forced to close, and we immediately saw its impact on the service industry. Whatever challenge you’re facing, John Watson emphasizes that it’s time to hit the switch on reinventing.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: The Positive Side of COVID-19

04-16-2020

With the recent COVID-19 outbreak worldwide, most of us have been forced to reshuffle how we work, live, and play. Something like this has never happened before in our lifetimes, and it is scary and challenging, but difficult times develop resilient people. John Watson shares some of the positive things he has already noticed come out of this situation.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Are We There Yet?

03-12-2020

Anyone who has taken a road trip with children knows the question, “Are we there yet?” very well. This question also applies to PCB design. If you are not careful, your PCB project could easily go off track and you could lose sight of what you are doing (objective), why (motivation), how (process), and when (schedule). John Watson emphasizes the importance of these fundamental questions.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Eating the Elephants of Your PCB Design

02-13-2020

After being in the PCB industry for 20 years, John Watson, CID, has had the opportunity to work with some of the best PCB designers and engineers in the field. He shares some of the traits PCB designers need, and how you can implement them into your design process to become a great designer.

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

01-15-2020

When you look at the long list of steps involved in designing a PCB, it can be somewhat overwhelming and sometimes pretty easy to miss something. Be assured when things go wrong, they go very wrong. In his debut column, John Watson shares some tips for rebuilding trust when things go wrong.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: What You Need to Know About a PCB Design Career

01-02-2020

Never stop learning. Why? Because the industry never stops changing. Those that continuously stay in that state of learning are the ones who succeed. The old saying “Knowledge is power,” often attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, has never been truer. Fortunately, there is never a lack of things to learn. Don’t ever become apathetic about learning. Make a point of keeping a running list of ideas or subjects that you want to research, and then purposely set aside time in your week strictly to study and learn about these things anywhere you can.

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