I can understand if your eyes start to roll when you hear the term “lean” thrown at yet another field. There’s an overabundance of consultants, books, and programs out there capitalizing on the buzzword, trying to get a piece of the action.
There’s some mysticism just to drive consultancy fees, but there’s real good stuff too. Common sense applied to business processes.
Whether you’re a believer or not, the origin and goals of lean are pretty much inarguable. We all want to minimize waste, improve quality, and speed up processes.
Those goals apply to people-driven creative workspaces like e-commerce photography just as much as they do to an auto factory.
In this post we identify the root causes of common pain points, what you can steal from lean, and provide example solutions.
Before we dive in, please realize: there is no silver bullet! There are tools like Creative Force that can help, but you cannot buy a system that will “fix” your workflow. You will have to change processes.
But once you do, you’ll never stop improving.
The Process is the Problem
A bad process will beat a good person every time. - W. Edwards Deming
It’s funny how aptly a quote by a WWII era godfather of quality control like Dr. Deming applies to modern photo studios.
The man helped rebuild Japan, but he might as well have been speaking at the 2019 Creative Operations Exchange event in New York. (What a keynote that would be!)
One of Deming’s points of emphasis was that a person’s performance is largely determined by their environment (he was very much opposed to any sort of performance ranking system for employees).
So it’s important to emphasize that there’s real talent in your photo studios. That means the problem isn’t always obvious, because people are still doing great work.
But they can do better. And they can do more, if we can keep them from drowning in processes.
There’s no reason for teams to be spending the bulk of their time on secondary tasks: handling samples, updating spreadsheets, generating lists, sending status updates, renaming files, moving files, performing check after check to be sure no shots are missed or images are lost along the way. Syncing systems.
And it’s only going to get worse as content needs continue to grow.
What really matters?
Styling. Capture. Post-production.
That’s pretty much it. So why the bloat?
Let’s look at the root causes.
Problem 1: Too many interfaces
How many different programs does your workflow use?
ERP, PIM, CRM, DAM, Capture One, Photoshop, DropBox, Excel, email, printouts, maybe more?
It’s Frankenstein’s monster.
There’s no reason your photographer should be in Excel.
Most photography workflows are lengthy and complex because they manage data, logistics, styling, capture, feedback and approval, retouching, asset delivery, and more.
There are really strong software solutions for discrete steps of that process. For example, Capture One is fantastic at professional image capture, and Photoshop is synonymous with retouching.
But they don’t do squat to help you find a sample, pair an outfit, get art director approval, update status, or upload to the website.
That means jumping in and out of different programs. And focus switching breaks concentration, creates more points of failure (“Cool, 10 different applications can break and take our whole department offline”), is error prone, and just generally stressful for an individual.
Not only that, but because your applications don’t speak to each other, you have to manually track the process and do status checks.
“Was that outfit really not shot, or did Amy just forget to update the spreadsheet?”
“No, wait, is that it in the ‘Final - Final’ folder but named ‘1643a23’ instead of ‘1642a23’?”
It’s pretty ridiculous, and there are a million studies around multi-tasking reducing productivity.
The classic example:
- Take a sheet of paper and write 1-10 in numerals, then a-f in letters, and then i - x in roman numerals.
- Next, write it out like “1, a, i” “2, b, ii” etc.
Time yourself doing it both ways. The second way is usually 50% longer—that’s the cost of mental switching.
Problem 2: Exception handling
When it’s happening all the time, it’s not really an exception.
And that leads to a true productivity sin: baking errors into the process.
For example, take file naming. When it’s a highly manual process, you’re going to have regular errors. Incredibly mundane things like bad copy/paste, typos, or the wrong fields being checked in a batch processor.
A lot of times, that leads to adding an additional check to the workflow. A review before moving on to the next step.
So now your process is longer, more complex, and therefore slower.
AND you’ve simply accepted that the previous step doesn’t really work!
Problem 3: Stakeholder communication
“Where’s X final image?”
“What’s the status on Y—has it been shot? I need the sample for a buyer meeting.”
“Has Z been reshot as a laydown yet?”
Stop interrupting your studio team!
Information on your photography is incredibly valuable and absolutely needs to be accessible.
There are lots of stakeholders who genuinely need to know the status of samples, images, and bookings.
But there needs to be a better way than sending “Status?” emails, texts, or walking into the studio to ask. It diverts the studio team from their current task, and since tracking is done manually it likely sends a team member to a spreadsheet to check—and then to somewhere/someone else to verify the spreadsheet is up to date.
And maybe the spreadsheet’s not up to date and status couldn’t be verified, so incorrect info is shared and status updates become considered unreliable. Which creates a negative feedback loop, resulting in even more status checks.
It’s also not that easy to communicate about the product itself. It’s often difficult and annoying to provide context on something visual — maybe you need to draw on an image to indicate a styling mistake, a sample change, or a preferred way to fold a laydown.
Maybe you have to Photoshop it a bit to get your point across.
You might have to give multiple examples of “good” and “bad.” And create different PDFs for a stylist, a photographer, and a hair and makeup artist.
That’s a lot of work!
Wouldn’t it be better if that information was all in one central, auto-updating, visual system?
Solving Problems with Three Simple Lean Principles
There’s an overwhelming amount of information on Lean out there, often bundled with worksheets, achievement systems, and making use of alphabet soup processes.
We’re not going to get into that. The following are three simple principles that anyone can apply, with examples of implementation.
We’re going to show some Creative Force examples, because we designed it to enable Lean photo studios, but you don’t have to use it to apply these principles.
And again, a system’s not a magic bullet. You will have to change your processes.
Principle 1: Address the root, not the symptom
This is common sense but easy to blow over when you’re busy and just want quick fixes.
Don’t treat the symptoms. Dig in and address the root problem in order to get rid of the symptoms.
For example, if your problem is that too many quality control gates are slowing down your process, you don’t bundle them all into some master QC step at the end—you fix whatever’s causing the errors in the first place.
You take a “countermeasure.” Countermeasures prevent error, rather than allowing and then correcting it.
Safety features make for some dramatic examples of this. Take for example a push lawn mower. You HAVE to be holding the bar, the “dead man switch,” in order for it to be powered on. You can’t release it and walk away, leaving the mower to roll along its merry way cutting everything in its path. If you slip and fall, the engine’s going to cut off and dramatically lower your odds of being mowed to death.
The bar is a countermeasure against dangerous user behavior.
Let’s go back to our earlier QC example. Let’s say you were frequently seeing that a photographer would occasionally forget to take a photo from one particular perspective.
You could introduce a countermeasure in the form of capture software that required a photo from each required angle be dropped into place before it could proceed to the next item.
That’s what we’ve done with our “Creative Force Capture” software.
Creative Force Capture’s “Style Guide” provides information on how shots should be framed and styled, but it does more. It also requires selected images to be dropped on the right example before you can move on to the next product. (Which also automates file naming, updates status, and requests art director approval—but more on that later.)
An image isn’t missing or “wrong” until you move on. It’s much easier and more cost-effective to reshoot in the moment.
Principle 2: Map your process with the whole team
The idea is to “Do less, better.”
And then do more of it!
But before you can do less, you need to know what you’re already doing. You need to draw out, on one page if possible, every single action taken in the product photography process.
From start to finish: usually that means from sample intake to upload on the website.
Only once you actually know every step can you identify where you’re adding value and where you can improve.
So how do you map out the process?
You might be tempted to just ask the studio manager. You definitely should involve them, but don’t end there. From on high it’s easy to miss crucial details, and managers are often looking through rose colored glasses.
Basically, what the manager thinks is happening is probably not what’s actually happening.
It’s crucial to include the entire team in an exercise to map your processes. Get the warty truth. Find out how the world works as-is.
Then, host a “Blue Sky” event. Forget the world as-is, and ask team members to visualize their ideal world.
IMPORTANT: You’re not going to be able to build that world! Probably not even close.
But you can keep working towards it.
After you’ve discovered the as-is world and envisioned the dream world, it’s time to build your world.
Your world is just an agreed upon way of working. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be settled on after lengthy communal debate. You just need adherence.
Consistency is incredibly important so you can figure out cause and effect. Once you have a stable line, it’s easy to identify spikes (good or bad).
So while your way may not necessarily be the best way, because it’s consistent it’s a way that you can intelligently change.
That means you’re ready to run improvement activities!
Provided you have data.
Principle 3: Get accurate performance data
This is where systems can be a huge help. Accurate data is crucial, and it’s really hard to get it manually. Even if you were that one unicorn team that dutifully recorded every action, the simple act of recording would slow you down significantly.
You need data so that you can actually figure out what’s working and what isn’t. Otherwise, you don’t really know why you had a good week or bad week. It just kind of happens.
Data and process should go hand in hand. The idea is to go from your current, variable state (the as-is world) to an interim stable state (your world) to an ideal state of continuous improvement.
And you can’t tell if “improvements” are what they say they are unless you can measure the results of change.
That’s another reason why the Frankenstein’s Monster of too many interfaces is so scary. Because actions are happening all over the place, you can’t track them and get meaningful data.
Creative Force is an end-to-end solution that integrates with the essential purpose-built tools (Capture One extension, Photoshop extension, ERP or PIM integration, etc.) and replaces manual tools like Excel and Dropbox that were never meant to be used in a photo studio.
Implementing Lean Principles
Identifying waste leads to quick wins
We all want quick wins, right?
But they’re especially important when you need to gain traction with the team. Show them benefits, fast, and they’re going to be more engaged.
First, let’s talk waste.
“Waste” is any step that isn’t value-add or necessary work. “Necessary work” is a little bit fungible, so we’ll put that aside for now. It’s too easy to mentally start classifying actions that are actually waste as necessary work.
In the photography workflow, the processes that are actually value-add are usually very few: styling outfits, capture, and post-production.
Most of that other stuff? The spreadsheet updating, file renaming, application syncing, email battles?
It doesn’t add any value to the customer. It doesn’t help them view the product more accurately, more desirably, or more quickly. The photo quality doesn’t change in any way because of all that process.
So eliminate it wherever you can, starting with a rapid improvement event.
But first, an aside on necessary work:
Necessary work needs to be kept to a minimum, or else it can turn into waste. Don’t repeat it.
For example, setting up studio lights is necessary work. Once. But if you have to keep changing them because you have varied (poor) product flow, that’s waste.
Or if you’re sent the wrong size sample and have to spend a long time clipping and pinning it, that’s waste. Studio downtime. Your final output will still look good, but time was wasted and you’re outputting less.
Rapid improvement event
A rapid improvement event is when you bring key team members together for a set amount of time (say no more than 5 days) to focus on a specific opportunity you already have approval to change. You make the change during the event.
For example, lets say you’re a retailer with a mixed flow of product and you know you’re losing a lot of time on set changeovers. The powers that be authorize an RIE on it. You, the photographer, and the assistant are the team members involved.
You decide to film a standard day’s production, then spaghetti map the photographer and assistant’s walking routes.
You might discover you’re using more space for your set than you need, which presents two improvement opportunities:
- Making your primary set smaller so the photographer and assistant spend less time walking around and adjusting lights
- Building an additional tabletop and overhead set in the freed space so you can move from set to set for different product
Now you’ve made a small investment in equipment, but didn’t have to grow the team or invest in more space in order to increase your shot count. All just by eliminating waste.
Sound far-fetched? It’s not. That’s a real world example from our own James Lewis when he was consulting for one of the largest retailers in the UK.
Now for a quick word on words, human nature, and culture.
Be careful when introducing lean principles to the workspace. Don’t come in and start shouting about eliminating waste, waste, WASTE!
Lean is a methodology developed by statisticians and economists that first grew to prominence in a disciplined country that had been devastated by war and was desperate to rebuild.
Its terminology is efficient and accurate. Excellent mechanics.
But people are emotional.
And calling a process someone has been performing for years “waste” can feel like an attack to that person, even though it’s anything but.
So take care in your framing. Make sure your teammates understand that you’re not here to turn them into robots or eliminate jobs. You’re here to empower them to improve their own worklife.
A key principle of Lean is that those closest to the work understand it best and therefore have the greatest opportunity to improve it.
That’s why the improvement process needs to be team-led, not management directed. The structure you put in place—the data collection, the standardized process, the meetings and improvement methods—is all so individuals and teams can make their own work better. More useful. More meaningful.
No one ever says “This is a waste of time!” in a happy tone. It’s an angry, frustrated shout.
So telling people their time is valuable and giving them the opportunity to spend it in ways they think are better is a powerful thing.
Pointing at them and calling them time wasters is too. But in a very bad way.
Accountability and improvement
So how do you stay in sync and keep improving?
We’ll assume you’ve got a system in place that gives you the necessary data, and that your process is consistent enough for that data to be meaningful.
Now you’ve got to hold regular meetings.
You don’t need to go full Scrum with daily standups, but regular meetings to address issues and then a bi-weekly improvement meeting is important.
Alright, we get it. You hate meetings, because so many of them are a waste of time. How do you make yours meaningful?
First, set KPIs and investigate under-performance. Don’t drown in the data, either.
It’s easy to get excited and start wanting to measure and make change everywhere, but you need to narrow it down to a handful of North Stars. Otherwise you’ll just create distractions.
For example: image throughput, down time, lead time, and number of reshoots are probably good high level KPIs. Something like “styling time” probably isn’t.
If your image output drops, your studio has more downtime than normal, it’s taking you longer to get photos to the web, or there’s a spike in photos you have to reshoot, that’s a serious alert. You’re going to see bottom line impact.
At that point you might start looking at styling time and other lower level indicators to see if they’re contributing factors, but an increase in styling time itself probably isn’t worth alerting on if your throughput and other KPIs are unchanged.
Next, look at down time logs. What’s keeping those lights from flashing? You’re not Big Brother looking for slackers—you want to know what issues are inhibiting production. If you’re seeing the workflow regularly pausing at a certain point, you need to know why. So ask!
Don’t take the first response as a final answer. Remember, you want to fix the root and not the symptom. This is where techniques like “The 5 Whys” originate. Really dig in on cause and effect analysis.
Throughput on tabletops is down. Why? It took longer to style the laydowns. Why? The shirts all needed extra steaming. Why? The samples just arrived yesterday and were deeply creased from shipping. Why? Production just finished on them, these are fresh from the factory. Why? Shirts were the last category produced this season.
Maybe you can’t do anything about it right now. Maybe you can. But when you really dig in, you get a deeper understanding of the process and have more opportunity to solve root problems. Buying another steamer and hiring another stylist will address the symptoms today, but changing your shoot schedule to align better with manufacturing may prevent the problem from recurring in the future.
Prioritize and the 80/20 rule
Prioritize the issues you’ve identified from steps 1, 2, and 3. Actually follow those priorities, even if you’ve got quick fixes for trivial things near the bottom of the list. The Pareto Principle is pretty well established: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
That 80/20 rule is applied all over the place and generally true. 80% of sales come from 20% of customers, 80% of a software’s benefits come from 20% of features, etc. Well, it’s true here too. Addressing the highest priority issues will have the most benefits for your team. So don’t skip them just because they seem hard.
Design countermeasures. Eradicate the issue, instead of creating additional work to catch errors and manage the symptoms. We’ve covered this pretty thoroughly already.
Escalation and Accountability
Issues that can’t be fixed within the team are escalated and addressed, and management is accountable to the team.
If the photographer tells you the biggest bottleneck is how frequently products arrive unassembled—and the photoshoot screeches to a halt while 3 team members are on their hands and knees reading instructions and turning allen wrenches—it’s on you to fix that.
You’ve got to prove that you care, that you can take data upstream and make changes too.
Free Your Creatives
Whew, that was a long one! I hope we managed to give you actionable points without too much mind-numbing jargon.
The really important thing is to recognize that you can understand, control, and improve your studio—at multiple levels. Running a lean photo studio doesn’t mean eliminating creativity. It means discovering better ways to work, eliminating boring repetitive tasks, and freeing your creatives to actually BE creative.
Because photographers should be behind the camera, not buried in a spreadsheet.
Would you like to learn more about how Creative Force can help you run a lean studio?