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How Digital Lean Production Empowers Workers


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Being "lean" is about more than standardization and automation: to truly be lean, whether in manufacturing or a digital industry, you must empower workers.

In part one of this two-part post, we discussed the technical processes that make S.A.W.™ (our digital lean production system) function. If you read it, you should understand how our Photoshop assembly line works: we break image editing down into component steps and route it between specialist editors.

The technology is new and exciting, but it can't fulfill its potential without staff buying in. Workers who can take responsibility without asking for permission drive continuous improvement.

In this post, we’ll continue using the famous 14 principles of The Toyota Way to illustrate how digital lean production is built on the same foundation as lean manufacturing. We'll do so using examples of our own company practices, because that's what we know best.

Developing Leaders

“Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.” - The Toyota Way

From September of 2015. Huong is now Country Manager for Vietnam, managing over 600 staff.

Thoroughly Understand the Work

Our founders are Danish, but Pixelz is very much an international company. You can find Pixelz offices in over a dozen countries on four continents, and in each of those are leaders with deep e-commerce knowledge. For example:

Huong portrait

Nguyen Huong
Country Manager for Vietnam

The very first Pixelz employee back in 2010, Huong now manages a staff of 600+ in Vietnam and recently earned her M.B.A. from Solvay Brussels School. She has visited client photo studios throughout Europe and the USA to fully understand how Pixelz fits into client workflows.

Brian Guidry portrait

Brian Guidry
CRO

Six years as Global Sourcing Director at Mango means Brian is intimately familiar with strategic sourcing decisions for apparel brands. A habitual entrepreneur and self-confessed systems nerd, Brian is passionate about building scalable solutions.

Matthias Farenholtz portrait

Matthias Farenholtz
Product Manager, PRO Studio

Matthias spent seven years in the photo studios of OTTO GmbH & Co KG, Germany’s largest e-commerce retailer. Optimizing photography and post-production in high volume studios is his specialty.

Live the Philosophy

Pixelz has three core values that everyone from Production to Sales to Development is expected to take to heart:

Let Data Decide

Be passionate, but be objective. Make evidence based decisions.

Build Genuine Relationships

We’re in it for the long-term. Treat colleagues and customers openly and honestly.

Uphold a Nordic Mindset

Our goal is excellence: in design, in business processes, in time management, in employee quality of life.

Embracing our core values should lead to rational, transparent actions that are focused on improving the company's performance and personal fulfillment. We know there's a lot more to creating a culture than spouting off a few high-minded ideals, but having stated values gives us a simple test to run when making important decisions: is doing X consistent with our core values?

Pixelz staff illustrate core values at offices in Hanoi.

Teach it to Others

“Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company's philosophy.” - The Toyota Way

S.A.W.™ doesn’t work without dedicated specialists, team leaders, trainers, onboarders, developers, and management. To cultivate and reward the desire to excel, we provide opportunity for upward mobility. For our production team, the Next Step program defines pathways that combine classroom training and on-the-job mentorship for employees to move up to the next level.

No matter what position an employee currently holds, there’s an opportunity to enact change.

Mask layer Kaizen Group

GUI Kaizen group that iterates the production user interface.

For example, we have structured Kaizen groups at all levels of our organization. The GUI group recently redesigned a step in the production user interface. In one week using the new interface, the amount of time it takes to prepare an image (just one of many steps) dropped by 26%.

If you apply that to 40,000 images a day, that improvement of roughly 8 seconds per image results in savings of 120 man hours per day, the equivalent of 20 full-time employees!

That doesn’t happen without professional pride.

Developing Partners

“Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them improve.” - The Toyota Way

Mask layer Kaizen Group

Nhan Do, a graduate of REACH and image editor at Pixelz.

Impact Sourcing Respects Talent

In order to provide post-production at scale for some of the largest brands and retailers in the world, like BESTSELLER and their dozen brands, we need a lot of talent. S.A.W.™ enables us to rapidly train specialists, but we still have to source that talent in the first place.

We are deep believers in impact sourcing, an inclusive hiring practice that focuses on lasting relationships and positive long-term impact. As part of this approach, we’ve partnered with NGOs like Digital Divide Data (DDD) and REACH who provide opportunity to disadvantaged youth. We supply training staff who teach valuable digital skills, and we hire many graduates of their programs.

Hang Nguyen Ngoc is the Business-to-Youth Coordinator at REACH. She is responsible for connecting REACH students to businesses, career opportunities, and improving REACH training with the support of local businesses.

“When our relationship with Pixelz started,” explains Nguyen, “Pixelz was just an employer and REACH was just a trainer. Over the last 3 years, Pixelz and REACH have grown together in various areas. Pixelz has helped improve REACH’s training curriculum, their trainers guest lecture at REACH, and they help provide our students with valuable industry insight.

Pixelz and REACH share a belief in the young talent in Vietnam. We work together with the vision that training and education can change people’s lives, and the dedication of staff from both parties makes the relationship effective.”

Embedding at Jack&Jones to Develop Standards

Jack&Jones is part of the Bestseller Group and one of Europe’s leading menswear producers, with more than 1000 stores in 38 countries. Their challenge was getting consistent imagery to match their brand’s identity: a natural, rustic look that keeps small folds and creases.

To solve a problem, you need to understand it. What better way than to see it in person?

Mahmoud Hamad

Mahmoud Hamad
Onboarding Specialist

Mahmoud Hamad, an onboarding specialist, embedded with Jack&Jones for six months in 2014. Initially, for two days a week Mahmoud worked in person at Jack&Jones headquarters and was briefed each morning as part of the product photography and post-production team.

The result was a detailed style guide that visually defines Jack&Jones product imagery.

Having comprehensive documentation obviously helps Pixelz meet retouching needs, but it also helps earlier in the workflow during photography. “Shoot for the edit” is a phrase typically used in video, but it applies here: the most efficient workflows all align towards the same end goal.

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Product image style guide example (Note: demo only, not customer guide).

It’s easier for photographers and stylists to hit their shot count when they can look at a printout and see how cuffs should be folded, where shoulders should align, all the little details that eat up time and can lead to inconsistency. Maintaining a living document keeps everyone on the same page.

Learning from and challenging each other to improve helps both Pixelz and our clients.

The Importance of Face-to-Face Time

“Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation.” - The Toyota Way

Tung and Duc Anh visit iHeart commercial photo studio

Tung (Integration Manager) and Duc Anh (Head of QA) visit a commercial photo studio in the UK during a tour of European clients.

Visiting Client Studios

As described in Mahmoud’s embed with Jack&Jones, spending time in a client’s photo studio and visiting with the team is enormously beneficial. If at all possible, we like to visit and see where and how Pixelz will fit into the workflow for PRO Studio clients.

We’re not talking about a wine-and-dine sales exercise. We’ve seen measurable improvements in efficiency resulting from bringing team leaders face-to-face with photography and retouching managers at their studios. Understanding where you fit into a broader workflow clarifies instructions and enables leaders to consider means of improvement.

Amassing International Frequent Flier Miles

By the same token, we try to bring members of our international family together at each others’ workplace. Production and development managers routinely visit offices in our European and American headquarters. Members of the Danish team work out of our American offices throughout the year, sometimes for months at a time (San Diego winters beat Danish winters pretty handily).

Mathias, PRO Studio Manager and Toan of the DEV team

Matthias Farenholtz, PRO Studio Product Manager, and Toan of the Dev Team.

And, of course, almost everyone spends time at our production facilities in Vietnam. Jakob Østerby, Executive VP of Operations, relocated to Hanoi to support the rollout of S.A.W.™ in 2016. How has that affected his relationships with other team members?

Jakob says, “It means a lot to me to be able to be here and develop relationships with the guys. Before, when I would visit for two weeks or so, those were really intense weeks, so I only had a chance to work with the management group. Now I have a chance to work with more people on a daily basis; the more time that we have to work together, the better we understand each other and work more efficiently as a team.“

Jakob Osterby at a Pixelz anniversary event in Hanoi, 2016

Jakob Østerby at a Pixelz anniversary event in Hanoi, 2016.

Seeing another’s day-to-day operations helps to understand their challenges and motivations, and greatly facilitates teamwork. That keeps everyone pulling together, allowing for intelligent operational decisions to be made with broad consensus and enacted quickly.

Our onboarding specialists, customer success reps, and production team work together every day. It just makes sense to visit each other, put faces to names, and experience how we each work and live.

Operational Excellence

“Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.” - The Toyota Way

photographer on computer

Lean methodology can help photo studios continuously improve.

Our challenge for the last several years has been scaling to handle incredible growth. That’s a good problem to have—bring on your millions of images!—and it has led to the implementation of S.A.W.™.

With that massive step forward complete, our current focus is operational excellence: studying our pocesses to strengthen the foundations of our business, like on-time delivery, consistent quality, and open communication.

To steadily improve requires more than a willingness to change; it requires desire. You are usually the person best able to see areas for improvement in your daily work. You are the one getting annoyed waiting for samples, manually aggregating numbers to prove value, filing TPS reports, and/or seeing correctable mistakes happen repeatedly upstream.

Taking responsibility changes your work from manual to mental, because your ideas can add value.

If you’re going through the motions because you feel like a powerless cog in a faceless machine, you don’t care about waste. You’ll ignore it because you’re on autopilot just killing time. On the other hand, when you feel empowered to make changes, your eyes are open and alert. Taking responsibility changes your work from manual to mental, because your ideas can add value.

So don’t get too caught up in Kanban boards and the other overt symbols of lean production. Those are tools, and they’re valuable, but being lean isn’t about following a formula. Whether you’re manufacturing cars in the 80s or operating a Photoshop assembly line, being lean is a mindset.

In our case, to succeed S.A.W.™ can't be just a product we offer to clients; it must itself be a product of our culture.

Did you miss part one of this blog post? Learn about the technology behind our Photoshop assembly line.