Recollections of BBC engineering from 1922 to 1997
The British Broadcasting Corporation
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Designs Department - Management Information System


Engineers created the broadcast systems that enabled the BBC to come into existence and engineers were responsible for the considerable increase in licence fee revenue brought about by new services such as colour television and increases in population coverage.  All this expansion resulted in significant expenditure on broadcast engineering systems, but engineers were always aware that this was to no avail unless good programmes were made - and that needed as much of the licence income as possible.  Consequently the need to save money on broadcast engineering systems was one of the fundamental objectives of BBC engineers and it became second nature through training, peer pressure, management influence and the general working environment.

Engineers just wanted to get on with the job of improving the BBC as economically as possible, and this included careful decision making based on a good understanding of the issues and resources involved.  However this was not enough because pressure from the authorities meant that it was necessary to spend time and money proving that time and money was being well spent. 

Enter - the management consultants. 

The dreaded words!

Read on to find out why.

This extract from an contribution written by Gordon Parker (ex-Head of Designs Department) takes up the tale......

"In the early 1960's the work of Designs was dominated by colour [television] but much other work particularly on the automation of transmitters and the design of small transmitters was being carried out in the drive to reduce overall staff costs and improve coverage. As occurred so often there was Government pressure to reduce BBC costs and question the licence fee. This resulted in the BBC being turned over by the management consultants McKinsey. Their brief was to reduce costs and they questioned the need for the BBC to undertake various activities rather than have the work done outside. Designs seemed to be an enigma and they felt it should be either merged with Research Dept or abolished as they believed that the work could and should be done by industry. After several months of deliberation the dept was reprieved but a complex paperwork system was introduced. This required all work to be approved by the appropriate Chief Engineer before work could begin. This resulted in a flood of paperwork and staff to process it. Requests for every piece of work, no matter how small, were made to the Chief Engineers, who soon saw the madness of the proposal. However, a modified system survived which satisfied the management so real work could be done..........."

Turning now to the mechanics of the "modified system", it was simple yet effective, using just three forms:

  • Each engineer and technician completed a "DD1" every Friday to record how much time they had spent on each project, as well as on overheads such as training.

  • Each project had a "DD2" that was used to seek approval for the job and it showed the objectives, together with estimated man-days, duration and cost.  (The main product of Designs Department was manufacturing information which, in itself, was an expense that had to be minimised.  Benefit to the BBC came through the use of new engineering systems built to the designs.  This benefit was quantified and assessed through a rigorous financial approval process led by the Director of Engineering.)

  • Every month the Services section used the DD1 and DD2 information to compile a "DD3" for every project, showing actual resources used to date compared with the estimate.  Section heads and engineers then completed DD3s by adding a brief description of progress, problems encountered etc., and if necessary a new forecast of required resources.  The DD3s were then reviewed by the Group Heads and Head of Department who took any action required to ensure successful completion of the projects.  In practice they had their finger sufficiently on the pulse that they knew about the state most projects in any case, but the system helped to concentrate the mind, provide quantified information and ensure that problems didn't go unnoticed.

Once the original system proposed by the consultants had been refined to the one outlined above, it worked very well.  It was not 'rocket science' and paled into insignificance compared with the department's engineering achievements, but it was important and it was adhered to rigorously.  As a consequence the weekly collection of DD1s invoked a certain amount of fear and dread, hence the cartoon above drawn in about 1980 by Lily Banin (now Lily Box).