The Van Halen brown M&M anecdote wasn’t the only interesting piece in the March issue of Fast Company. I also found a good example of "optimization for innovation”, which I first wrote about on the Business Ecology Initiative blog. The article, entitled Partners in Time, describes how Partners & Napier, a Rochester, NY based creative agency, streamlined its processes at the request of Kodak, resulting in increased productivity, billings and creative time for the agency, as well as cost savings for its clients.
How did they do this? By mapping out processes, to identify and remove wasteful steps and interactions. According to the article, Partners went “all in, applying for and earning certification in ISO 9000, a quality-management system akin to Six Sigma that’s normally used by manufacturing companies.”
Initially, the idea of applying process rigor to a creative business was met with skepticism:
"A creative embracing quality management may be unusual, but it also may be the model for how to handle clients’ increasingly stringent ROI demands. When Kodak first asked us to do this, people worried that no one understood how long it takes to get to a great idea," concedes Partners’ CEO Sharon Napier. Chief creative officer Jeff Gabel says the opposite has happened. More often than not, Gabel says, creative work resembles a "giant hair ball." And that’s fine with him. "You don’t want to straighten it out," he says. "It’s nonlinear, illogical, and often occurs at unpredictable hours." But, he says, if the time allotted to a project could be rejiggered so more time went to creating great ideas — and less against the job’s ancillary grunt work — then he was game to try.”
The certification process and initial results:
“The certification process took six months and required each step of an assignment, from developing a brief to reviewing final work with the client, to be documented. It cost roughly $20,000 out of Partners’ pocket, but it revealed some surprising inefficiencies, including a lot of time wasted in back-and-forths for approvals of briefs, concepts, ideas, and directors. Partners was able to trim the time on a job from eight weeks to three, save the client approximately 40%, and boost productivity by 3.5%.”
The on-going impact:
“…its creative output seems to have blossomed as a result, as the agency is increasingly turning out higher-quality work, it says, in significantly less time.”
“Partners has been so happy with the results that it now uses the same approach with other clients. It’s winning more business because it can jump on opportunities once dismissed due to time constraints. Its billings have grown 300% in the past five years.
Still, the process is not without its flaws. All that hyper-efficiency can be exhausting, Gabel admits: "You’ve removed your slop factor."”
As you consider optimization opportunities in your organization, don’t limit yourself to traditional operational areas and boundaries. Nor, fall victim to the “optimization = automation trap”. Think about your creative types, strategists, and knowledge workers. How can their work time be “rejiggered” to focus on value creation activities?