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'Flow' into the future: How to drastically cut studio lead times and increase throughput


Stylized hand drawn illustration of fashion photo studio

Two of the most important KPIs for every photo studio are throughput and lead time. How many photos are you producing, and how quickly?

This blog post is all about how you can dramatically reduce your lead time while simultaneously increasing your throughput.

That means getting to market faster for more products and driving more revenue than ever before.

It’s not theoretical. In a closed beta with several high volume studios running Flow, the participants not only improved throughput and lead time—they reduced costs and improved quality as well.

Several are going from shot-to-site in the same day not as an exception, but as the rule.

We even hosted an event in NYC in March to talk about it, Flow 2020.

So how did they do it?

And what is “Flow,” anyway?

Flow is the actualization of a Lean photo studio

Digital kanban board for lean photo studio operations

“Flow is a new way of running a photo studio, without batching,” says Pixelz Co-Founder and CTO Janus Matthesen. “Today there’s a lot of processes in a photo studio that are done in batches, which creates bottlenecks. Flow is about removing all those bottlenecks.”

A studio running Flow is a Lean studio.

I’m not going to dive deep into Lean here. You’re probably already familiar with Lean or one of its offshoots, like Kaizen, Sig Sigma, and many other methodologies. If you’d like more background on Lean, you can refer to this Lean photo studio guide.

But I will use some Lean terminology in this post, because it’s generally self-explanatory and Flow is fundamentally Lean.

That means it’s all about eliminating waste, improving quality, and speeding up production.

“Waste” is anything that doesn’t add value, and it’s most often found in processes.

Which leads to this important point.

Completed work has value, work in progress does not

Dashboard view of photo studio KPIs

“Reducing ‘work in progress’ is the very core of flow,” says Thomas Kragelund, Co-Founder of both Pixelz and Creative Force. “The most obvious benefit of reducing work in progress is extremely fast turnaround, but efficiency will also get a huge boost because complexity is removed.”

Until your photos are up on your website, they can’t contribute value.

Every day your photos aren’t online, neither is your listing. That means you’re later to the market, spend less time at full price, and drive less revenue.

So you want your work to spend as little time “in progress” as possible.

That means reducing complexity so there’s less time spent on process. Less time sorting samples, flipping through style guides, renaming files, and so on.

And it means a faster turnaround by eliminating bottlenecks—any point in time where your workflow stops.

Those two steps are complementary and create a virtuous cycle: reducing complexity makes it easier to find and address bottlenecks, which again reduces complexity, and so on.

What might cause a bottleneck?

Why do we think virtually every studio has them, waiting to be found and opened up to flow?

Because there’s a habit studios have, something so ingrained into studio workflows that most don’t realize it’s a bottleneck: batching.

Batching == Bottlenecks.

And you don’t need to batch anymore.

Studios bottleneck because humans batch

Photographer at standup computer desk in studio

You probably think of your photo studio as high-tech: tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cameras and lighting equipment, all wirelessly connected and humming along as you fire away using tethered computers, shared drives, and a PIM and DAM system.

But for all that technology, most photo studios have a decidedly manual workflow in place. Photographers shoot, digitechs make obvious culls and apply naming conventions, art directors make selects and request reshoots, asset managers move files around between folders and do more renaming, then produced images are transferred to post-production in one big batch at the end of the day.

And all of it is tracked by updating spreadsheets by hand.

That’s a lot of tasks which—when done manually—require context and focus. So you probably do them in batches in order to “get in the zone,” because there’s a cost to mental switching.

What do I mean by mental switching?

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.

What this means is lots of batching. And batching is sneakily expensive.

Why?

Batching is archaic

Creative Force software to automate photo studio file management, screenshot

Because batching is building in delays to compensate for limitations that don’t apply anymore. It is a self-inflicted bottleneck.

It is creating more work-in-progress instead of finishing work.

For example, “daily batching” of post-production is extremely common.

That means waiting until the very end of the day to send all produced images in bulk to your retouchers, whether in-house or outsourced.

That means even in an ideal daily batching scenario, a retoucher might not see an image until a full work day after it’s been produced!

And when the retouching team does get the photos, they get them all at once and have a massive backlog to work through.

Daily batching is daily delaying.

Technology has eliminated the need to batch

Bar coded product photo studio workflow software

Flow is continuous work without delay.

Flow uses technology to break through barriers like mental switching, traffic control, and communication to make batching a relic of the past.

Many of the places we see studios batch—renaming files, moving files, updating spreadsheets, transferring to retouching—are around repetitive processes that can be automated or eliminated entirely.

Most of the rest have clear solutions once you have the right tools.

One such tool is Creative Force.

Creative Force is an end-to-end solution for high volume e-commerce content creation. We've partnered with them in several instances in order to bring Flow to studios, including in the case study available at the end of this post.

You don’t have to use Creative Force to operate Flow. But you do have to examine your workflow, and look for ways to reduce complexity.

Let’s take a closer look at photo studio workflows and improvement opportunities.

How complex is your photography workflow, and what steps actually add value?

SIPOC for photo studio
“A bad process will beat a good person every time”
- W. Edwards Deming

How many steps does your workflow have? How many different tools and people are involved?

Are members of your team spending the bulk of their day basically tabbing between applications and making sure things are in sync? Updating spreadsheets, emailing status updates, verifying style guides, naming and moving files, communicating with vendors, and performing check after check to make sure nothing’s been forgotten?

None of that actually adds value to the end product. No one will see a photo and think, “Wow, this dress looks great, such beautiful spreadsheets!”

What really matters?

Styling. Capture. Post-production.

That’s what the customer sees. That’s what influences a buying decision. That’s what adds value.

So what is everything else?

Process.

Some amount of process is necessary, of course, but it doesn’t have intrinsic value. Moving a file to a “Final” folder doesn’t make a photo any better or worse.

Most systems we’ve seen in place are birds’ nests. Each part was dropped in to satisfy an immediate need, they’re all twisted up together, and if you start pulling on any one piece the rest comes with it.

Over time, the system has become so complex that everyone’s afraid to change anything for risk it all falls apart.

When there’s a problem, a new step gets added to fix it. Error is accepted and built into the process, and the nest just keeps getting bigger.

A workflow that Flows: fewer interfaces, more countermeasures, and Kanban overviews

Creative Force asset review

To prevent mental switching, keep each team member in the application that matters for them. Then take it even further and and serve relevant information at the most relevant time, within or alongside the application.

There are really strong tools for individual steps of the process. Capture One is a wonderful program. So is Photoshop.

But there’s no reason your photographer should be in Excel.

Spreadsheets are fantastic for many things, but using them for manual progress reporting is definitely not one of them. Ditto for shot lists.

Stay in the application that matters for you

Creative Force final selection screenshot

Let’s take style guides as an example.

In many studios we still see photographers using printouts pinned up on a wall or collecting dust in a corner. Others use a shared document, like a Google Docs file that one or more art directors are responsible for keeping up to date.

In practice, photographers often use their own personal knowledge of prior shoots, or look at examples on the website or in shared drives of current in-progress work.

Even a diligent photographer may miss when direction is changed without notification, or simply forget.

That type of semi-controlled chaos leads to inconsistency, missing shots, and reshoots.

A studio operating Flow would use a system like Creative Force and their Digital Style Guides.

With Creative Force, art directors create style guides for each product category. The guide contains details on specific required shots: angles, outfit pairings, detail shots, etc. Examples are provided. The art director can easily update the style guide at any time.

That information is associated with the product, which has its own unique barcode applied during sample intake.

When the barcode is scanned prior to shooting, the style guide appears alongside Capture One and looks like part of the program. The photographer is getting up-to-date information exactly in the moment they need it, without interface switching and without hunting for it.

Countermeasures, not corrections

Quality control of photos using Creative Force

Further, the style guide serves to enforce art direction and facilitate automation.

Placeholders appear for each required photo. After the product is shot, the photographer or digitech drags the matching photo onto its placeholder.

This is what Lean refers to as a “countermeasure.” Rather than baking in checks for missing photos later in the process, you prevent them from occurring.

After the required photo slots are filled, Creative Force automatically applies your naming scheme, adds metadata, and uploads photos as you move on to shooting your next product.

Automating repetitive work like file naming and transfer reduces errors, saves time, and prevents batching.

Operational visibility through real-time tracking

Creative Force view photo studio processes real-time status

By reducing complexity and unifying your workflow with software like Creative Force, you’re able to achieve operational visibility.

Instead of firing off “Status?” emails or checking a spreadsheet you don’t have confidence in—or going down to the studio and tapping someone on the shoulder, or hunting through racks for a sample—you can simply check a Kanban board.

Because barcodes are scanned throughout the process, status is updated in real-time for all physical and digital steps. That means you have an overview of your entire studio AND you can drill down on any job.

Status updates are awesome—and can be automatically shared with stakeholders—but the impact of workflow visualization goes well beyond checking on an individual product’s state.

“Kanban boards are brilliant for identifying bottlenecks as they are happening,” says Kragelund. “And then you have an improvement opportunity.”

For example, if there’s a backlog building up on set, at an approval step, or in retouching, you’ll see the cards building up in your studio overview. That gives you a chance to observe, test, and solve—both in the moment, and for the long-term.

You can use Creative Force’s Kanban boards and reports, export to CSV, or use a Looker integration.

Flow keeps work in progress moving until completed

Creative Force Photoshop integration

Batching is start-stop. Flow is continuous. This is especially apparent when it comes to post-production.

Remember our discussion on the evils of daily batching?

Flow doesn’t batch post-production at all.

Using Creative Force, for example, photographers don’t delay picking selects. It happens as a product is shot and images are matched to the shot list.

Then as the photographer moves on to the next product, the just captured images are automatically sent to post-production. Or if you require art director approval, there’s an automated process for that which sends images on approval.

That way retouching can begin right away, as you’re shooting the next product. Creative Force integrates with in-house teams and external post-production vendors, and provides context-specific retouching notes that display directly in Photoshop.

Pixelz will retouch Flow production images in 3 hours or less

Creative Force flow image uploads to post-production during shoot

If you’re working with Pixelz and using Flow production, we promise a three hour or less turnaround time. That means you can have the majority of your photos retouched the same day they’re shot.

And not “day” in the 24 hour sense. We mean during your same work day.

You might even get your retouched image back in time to realize you need to reshoot it, that same day, while your samples and model are still on set.

That saves you production costs, which can be significant.

But most important of all is the reduction in time-to-market.

If you go from daily batching to three hour Flow retouching, most of your retouching is now complete before you would have even sent images to post-production in a daily batch!

Retouching traditionally adds days to lead time. Flow, with a three hour retouching turnaround, can eliminate those days and directly impact your revenue.

For example, if your dev team updates your website daily at 3 pm, here’s how Flow retouching can shave multiple days of lead time.

Traditional Production

Day 1: Shoot product at 9 am, daily batch to retouching at 5 pm

Day 2: 24 hour retouching turnaround, get back at 5 pm

Day 3: Added to website at 3 pm

=

3 days

VERSUS

Flow Production

Day 1: Shoot product at 9 am, flow to retouching at 9 am

Day 1: 3 hour turnaround, get back at noon

Day 1: Added to website at 3 pm

=

1 day

That’s a two day reduction in lead time just from Flow retouching.

How can Pixelz retouch a bajillion images a day in 3 hours or less?

Screenshot of Pixelz retouching steps

Because Pixelz isn’t just a brand name slapped on a warehouse of retouchers.

Pixelz is a retouching platform, one we’ve spent years and hundreds of thousands of developer hours on. Pixelz breaks retouching down into micro-steps that are handled by a combination of artificial intelligence, computer vision, scripts, and human retouchers.

You can read more about our lean digital assembly line, how we incorporate AI into retouching, what our team is like, and some of the AI tools we’ve open sourced around it.

Our technology is both the backbone and the muscle that allows us to deliver on a three hour turnaround.

Once you think of Pixelz as an AI-powered retouching platform, the rest of it is common sense: it’s much easier for us to scale and operate both tech and human resources when images are coming in continuously, predictably, and not in giant batches.

If we get 10,000 images from 10 different partners at the same time, it’s going to take a while to get to the 100,000th image. But if images are sent continuously throughout the day as each product is shot, we’re not working through a massive backlog.

Because our traffic control is automated—our system routes images through human and AI retouching steps in the most optimal order relative to deadlines—Flow doesn’t create an additional planning load for us. All it does is reduce work in progress.

That’s in contrast to traditional retouching services. Manual traffic control doesn’t scale.

Traditional retouching vendors favor batching because they need planners, like shift managers, to distribute images to their people and pass on instructions. That’s easier for them to do once per large batch than doing it every single minute of every hour.

If Flow is so great, why doesn’t everyone already do it?

Creative Force QA tool

The necessary software and services haven’t existed.

It takes an intimate knowledge of photo studios to understand pain points and underlying workflow challenges, and most people with that knowledge aren’t looking to develop software. They’re brand creatives, or e-commerce managers and the like.

That’s what Pixelz and Creative Force’s co-founders were. They operated a leading e-commerce agency in Denmark, before founding Pixelz in the early 2010s.

As they built Pixelz over the better part of a decade, spending all those developer hours on AI and workflow automation, they realized that the challenges they were solving in retouching applied in the studio too.

And that led to Creative Force.

So photo studios would have loved to operate Flow, but vendors haven’t been able to support it.

That’s changed. Together, Creative Force and Pixelz have enabled Flow production.

And it’s not just a theory. As mentioned in the intro, we onboarded select studios to Flow during the Fall of 2019.

That’s right. Several e-commerce studios have already slashed their lead time by 90% or more. Going from weeks to days, and from days to hours.

Studios are producing product imagery, start to finish, in a single day.

Case Study: Bestseller Group

We cut our lead time by 80% in the third week with Creative Force. We're planning to cut it by another half within the month!"

- Gedis Gargasas, Ecommerce Operations Development,
BESTSELLER

How can I make my studio Flow?

If you’d like to stop batching and start working continuously, we can help.

To improve studio operations, talk to the team at CreativeForce.io.

And to set up a three hour retouching turnaround time with Flow production, get in touch with Pixelz CS team, your account rep, or pick a Pixelz plan today.