TIPniques: Unifying Your Directory Structure

It never fails. 

As I scroll through a project directory, I will inevitably stumble upon a “BXT_Working” folder.  Or I will find an errant “Mike’s LISP Routines” folder.  Or even a dreaded “Backup_071513” zip file in the middle of my deliverable .dwg’s.  Or, worst of all, I won’t find the critical file I am looking for, as it will only exist within a mythic “My Documents” directory on some unknown CAD machine. 

It is painfully obvious that none of these miscreant folders and files are stored correctly.  This problem exasperates itself when compounded by the multi-office, multi-discipline, and multi-company storage practices commonly found within the Structural Design Industry. 

Unsurprisingly, each of these groups have their own ‘right’ way of file storage.  We experience horrendous issues when the team utilizes a blended directory structure.   Prolonged learning curves, lost files, inconsistent reference locations, and the inability to accurately archive the data at the end of the project are but a few of the more obvious examples of a poorly conceived, communicated, or enforced directory structure.

But wait!  There IS a solution!  By allowing yourself to be a little proactive and assertive, you can squash these problems before they spiral out of control.

Start With A Plan.
If you don't have a directory structure, I recommend coordinating with your project manager and team members.  Gain some input on the likely processes and file types your typical project requires.  Personally, I prefer a Project -> Discipline -> Task tree to sort, organize, and easily cross-reference your files.  However, you should utilize a system that complements your particular project and organization.

Odds are your company or client already possesses a set standard for a typical project directory structure.  The easiest move is to adapt this structure to your project.  The familiarity that the majority of your team has with this directory structure will enable them to quickly and efficiently work within your project.  Another advantage to adapting an existing directory structure is the availability of instructions, training, and guides relating to this system.  There is no sense in re-inventing the wheel, but we may need to re-align it so it runs a bit smoother.

Please keep these tips in mind when planning out your directory structure:

  • Make sure your directory is accessible to the team.  If they can’t write to it, they can’t use it.
  • Don’t make your paths too long.  Some programs don’t function properly when confronted with a super long directory path. 
  • Consider using underscores “_” or hyphens “-“ instead of spaces on your primary directory path. (The top three or four tiers)  It makes hyper-linking easier.
  • Ensure your system is not overcomplicated.  If you make it too complicated, people will simultaneously reject your directory structure and question your sanity.
  • Include a few storage locations for your subconsultants files and external office communications.  They are part of the team too!
  • Avoid Redundancy.  Avoid Redundancy.  Avoid Redundancy.
  • Be sure your system will be able to fully archive your project quickly and easily.

Communicate, Educate, and Rationalize.
Once you have an ideal directory structure created and approved, it is time to begin the communication process.  The best opportunity for this is to host a project kickoff meeting for the CAD staff assigned to the project.  Create and provide handouts that demonstrate where files will be stored.  Answer their questions.  And be flexible.  One of my favorite instructors at AU once said “Standards apply to 90% of the situations, 90% of the time”.  By allowing that 10% to sneak in here or there, you provide your team with a feeling of involvement and appreciation.  Making your training and communication methods too rigid or inserting an ultimatum of “use this system, or else….” will be counterproductive.  Utilizing a softer touch may allow your team to adapt more amiably.

When you map all of this information out, you may still have a few people who are reluctant to jump on board.  For them, you will need to provide the rationalization as to why they will need to use your system.  Rarely do I receive more than terse resistance to jumping on board with a directory structure.  However, should you encounter forceful resistance; you may need to walk them through the benefits of a unified system as opposed to a blended system.  If that fails, you may need to dictate your standards and involve the Project Quality Assurance Manager or relevant ‘higher-up’ to back you up.  And/or drop it if the ROI impact is too low.  These confrontational options are not ideal, but they can end up saving your company quite a bit time on a project. 

After the initial training/project kickoff meeting has concluded, conduct a few more at-the-desk or brownbag trainings.  Make some phone calls to your external workshare offices.  Contact the CAD manager for your subconsultant and start a good working relationship.  I’m not saying you will need to spend a week on the phone.  However, if you dedicate half of a day once a month to ‘keeping in touch,' you will save time by preventing misunderstandings during the life-cycle of your project.

Enforce Early.
Surf through your project directory structure a few times a week during the early stages of your project.  If you find someone incorrectly storing a file, communicate with them.  You’ll either direct them to use good habits, or you'll find a hole in your directory structure that needs a patch.  Either way, this communication is vital for evolving your directory structure into an efficient and effective tool.

Consolidate and Archive.
As your project hits critical submittal milestones, consolidate and archive the various aspects of your file system. Compress all your .dwg’s, 3D models, and submittal PDF’s into a submittal or milestone directory. Run through your directory structure post-milestone and clean up any worthless files. Ensure you are receiving the relevant design data from your external subconsultants and design teams. Finally, at the end of the job, you should be able to quickly archive your entire project as all relevant files will exist within your active directory structure.

When a multi-discipline, multi-office project starts up, one needs to set the ground rules for how the data within the project will be saved, referenced, and archived. You will need to consider the project timeline, client processes, subconsultant behavior, company standards, and your available network infrastructure. You will have to educate your team, adapt to the unforeseen, and enforce your rules. Fortunately, as the life-cycle of your project wears down, you will reflect on fewer file storage and referencing errors, a shortened learning curve for new team members, and a comprehensive, easily indexed and archived directory structure. In all the commotion of implementing this unified directory structure, you will find yourself playing the role of constable, educator, brute, mentor, politician, and leader. I hope you feel as I do: playing these roles is one of side benefits of being a good CAD Manager.

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