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The term “creative operations” encompasses all systems, tools, and processes that make up a creative workflow that creates and delivers content in some form.

And as we discussed in our blog post 4 Lessons in Creative Operations Optimization From the World Leaders in Fast Fashion, fashion and e-commerce industry leaders have become relentless in their quest to achieve the same efficiency in their creative operations as they have achieved in their product manufacturing and logistics operations.

As we wrote in that post:

“In practice, [achieving operational efficiency] means bringing operational excellence into the creative process. Fast Fashion strategy meetings involve analyzing tons of data on everything from Studio-to-Web lead-times, Product Listing Optimization, Digital Asset Management, and Multi-Channel e-commerce. They are constantly using data to identify areas of their creative process where they can make even the slightest optimizations that, over time, result in big efficiency gains for their business.”

This desire for improved efficiency isn’t limited only to Fast Fashion brands.

One year ago, our own leadership and management teams at Pixelz sat down with one goal in mind: optimize our Specialist Assisted Workflow (S.A.W.™) to reduce waste and achieve leaner operations in everything we do.

A quick note on S.A.W.™if you aren’t familiar: you can think of S.A.W.™ as a Photoshop assembly line. It is Pixelz’ proprietary production system that analyzes uploaded images, breaks the retouching process down into component steps, and then routes images between specialist human editors and automated processes depending on availability and deadlines (if you would like a full introduction to the S.A.W.™ system you can read our full overview S.A.W.™ -- An Assembly Line for Digital Lean Production).

Though continuous improvement has always been a focus for our Production teams, this year-long journey with a sole focus on efficiency gains in our operations was a masterclass for our teams in how to optimize creative operations, teaching us everything from how to focus a management team on waste reduction, how to set quality Key Performance Indicators, the importance of understanding scope in creative work, and how to effectively introduce new technology to staff.

And now, we are ready to share the lessons we have learned over the last year to provide you some insights on how to effectively lead your own creative operations efficiency transformation.

Lesson 1: Dedicate Time to Focus Solely on Reducing Waste

Historically, waste hasn’t been a primary focus in creative-ops the way it has been for other types of manufacturing.

Whether because data has been less readily available for creative activities in the past or because bringing a manufacturing mindset is perceived as a threat to creative work, brands are often more comfortable with accepting waste throughout their creative process than they are in other areas of their business.

The issue with being averse to bringing some of that manufacturer-mindset to creative-ops is that, over the course of thousands of photographs or retouched images, a little waste here or there can mean high-additional overhead in your operations, getting content out to market late, and falling behind competitors.

Two Pixelz employees discussing in front of a computer

Our success in optimizing our creative operations is due in large-part to having an open dialogue between our teams.

As we started our own efforts towards reducing waste at Pixelz, our management team sat down with whiteboards and markers to brainstorm areas where we thought we could optimize both S.A.W.™ and the systems, teams and workflows that support it.

What surprised us was how, after just a few hours of discussion, our whiteboards filled with concrete ideas for optimization.

Keep in mind, none of these ideas involved reducing staff. These discussions were simply about identifying ways to work smarter: eliminating unnecessary communication, removing redundant processes, identifying parts of our operations that are more bureaucratic than operationally necessary, and simplifying aspects of our processes that have grown needlessly complicated over time.

As it turned out, many of our managers came to the meeting knowing of ways that things could be improved. But with the high-pace of a normal workday at a growing startup, we had never sat down as a management team to focus solely on waste reduction.

Once we started allocating regularly-scheduled time for discussions specifically focused on waste reduction with all relevant stakeholders, the areas that we could improve quickly became clear and it was easy to put action plans in place for improving them.

How You Can Focus Your Own Teams on Waste Reduction

Waste reduction cannot be a side project or a footnote in a meeting. If you are going to make a push with your teams around efficiency and waste removal, we suggest setting aside dedicated time to sit down with stakeholders with the single, core focus of identify areas where your operations can be smarter, simpler, and more efficient.

The details of how you go about doing this will be specific to your industry, company, and teams. But if you would like a general model for how to structure this type of focused-effort, one well-known approach is to conduct Rapid Improvement Events. RIEs are a proven structure for identifying waste in any operational environment and moving quickly towards a solution. You can read a more in-depth explanation of how to implement RIEs over at Kaufman Global.

No matter how you decide to structure your improvement efforts, one thing we know for sure is that, given the opportunity to fully focus on waste reduction, your teams are bound to surprise you with the number of ways your operations can be improved. And, as Pixelz learned firsthand, even small improvements over thousands of repeated tasks can mean big savings for your operations overall.

Lesson 2: The Importance of Picking “Good” (And Not Too Many) KPIs

One of the liveliest discussions you will hear at a Pixelz’ management meeting is around Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Each quarter, our management team gathers in a meeting room to propose KPIs for each of their teams. All other managers are expected to poke, prod and challenge the KPIs of other teams to make sure they are the best metrics to measure the team’s performance for the quarter.

The bedrock question at the center of these discussions is always the following: what makes for a good KPI in creative operations?

At Pixelz, our general criteria for selecting KPIs are pretty simple. For a KPI to be collectively accepted by our management group it needs to be:

  1. Specific
  2. Measurable
  3. Attainable
  4. A direct measurement of what we want to change/improve

A few weeks into our efficiency project, we realized that we had an issue: due to the scope of the project, our access to copious amounts of production data, and our desire to improve efficiency across all aspects of our creative operations, we ended up trying to track too many KPIs at once.

This resulted in weekly efficiency meetings where 30 to 40 minutes of each meeting was required just to read through all of our KPI data. And because of the sheer amount of data we were looking at, by the time we got through updating all of our KPIs, the picture of our performance as a team wasn’t any clearer.

Our access to data also lead us to measure aspects of our operations that, while important, were not directly related to our efficiency goals. In the context of our efficiency project, those KPIs simply served as a distraction from our core focus.

A team of Pixelz staff standing around a team leader pointing at a computer

The amazing work of our teams in Vietnam was vital to our efforts to become more efficient in our creative workflows.

As a team, we recognized these issues early on, and worked together to limit the KPIs of the project to only those that would directly measure our progress towards our efficiency goals. As Pixelz CEO Thomas Ladefoged explains:

“We were probably trying to track too many aspects of our operations at once in the beginning, but that was mostly a result of our team’s enthusiasm to make an impact. Everyone wanted to show every way they were contributing. That is a good problem to have. But once we focused our efforts a bit and limited the number of KPIs we were tracking, we really saw the project take off.”

Setting KPIs for Your Own Creative Operations

In the digital age, you can measure just about everything about your creative operations. You can measure how many images a photographer is taking, how long an image takes to retouch, how many re-shoots are required per product, or how many many hours an image takes from being shot in-studio to appearing on your website.

And with many companies having all of that data available, the temptation can be to measure and track everything, just as we did at first at Pixelz.

But the purpose of setting KPIs when optimizing your operations is to give your individual teams a pulse on their performance and to provide your organization quick insights into how well you are progressing towards the efficiency goals you have set.

As you start to look critically for aspects of your operations you can use to measure gains in efficiency, be weary of both setting too many KPIs and also, as a result of setting too many, measuring aspects of your operations not directly related to your efficiency goals.

Setting lots of KPIs may give your management team a sense of control. It may also make your stakeholders feel more involved in your efficiency efforts. But, ultimately, too KPIs many will end up just creating more noise in your data, hurting your ability to measure your own success.

If you are still using endless binders full of style guides and a million spreadsheets to track your creative operations and workflows, you may not not have the data to set quality KPIs in the first place. If that’s the case, we suggest our sister company which provides a software solution that helps creatives streamline their work processes with world-class software and gives creative managers more insights into how their creative production is running.

Lesson 3: The Importance of Properly Scoping Creative Work

Since Henry Ford, manufacturers of standardized goods have been breaking manufacturing processes up into small steps to be executed by specialists who only focus on a specific and limited set of skills, tasks, or responsibilities. Every day, workers on manufacturing lines around the world do the same, repetitive tasks, getting faster and faster with time, making the operation as a whole more efficient.

The temptation for creative-ops leaders is to apply this concept of small tasks carried out by specialists to their own creative operations. That inclination is (almost) correct: just like building a car, creating a workflow of specialists who are super efficient at a limited scope of tasks can create a hyper-efficient workflow.

This is, in fact, how Pixelz S.A.W.™ system works.

But there is one critical difference between the manufacturing of standardized goods and creative operations.

And that critical difference is variation.

In Ford's assembly line, every door on the Ford Fiesta is the same. At Foxconn, workers are likely working with only one model of iPhone during a given day. There is very little variation product to product.

Two Pixelz staff sitting on a couch looking at a computer.

There is a critical difference between standardized manufacturing and creative work: variation.

But for image-editing or product photography (any other creative work), each “product” is a bit different. A photographer may need to shoot jewelry and then jeans on a mannequin and then a model, each requiring unique considerations. In Pixelz S.A.W.™ system, any editor can handle any customers images. That means in a single day, one retoucher might edit an image of a car, and then a model, and then a shoe.

And it is the ability of creatives to be able to operate amongst all this variation that makes them such valuable talents. Creatives can do more than just shoot one type of product or execute a single retouching skill. In fact, as creative people, they crave a certain amount of creative freedom to truly be engaged in their work.

The question that creative-ops managers need to answer is: how narrowly or widely do you scope the roles and responsibilities of your creative staff to allow your people to achieve their optimal performance?

At Pixelz, we had to ask ourselves exactly that question. As Nguyen Quynh Huong, Vice President of Operations at Pixelz, explains:

“Before this efficiency project, that question had always been a challenge for us. We knew from past experience that asking our retouchers to exercise too many retouching skills in a day resulted in a ‘switching’ costs where they end up switching between skills so often that they never develop mastery in any of them."

The easy answer is too limit the skills asked of our editors down the way you might in a standardized manufacturing enviornment. But that too presents issues, as Huong explained.

"Our retouchers are creative people, so we also had to worried about giving them too few skills and making the work too repititive. To optimize the system this time around, we needed to find that sweet spot where they could specialize without becoming bored.”

And so, over the last year, through trial and error, interviews with photo editors, and a lot of data, we settled on a number of skills that gives each editor enough variation to avoid disengagement, but not so many skills that their performance was hurt by switching costs.

And now, are our photo editors more efficient than ever, earning more money, and aren’t frustrated by too narrow or too wide a creative scope.

Scoping Responsibilities for Your Own Creative Operations

Creatives are creative. It is their ability to take a skillset that has depth and breadth and come up with creative and efficient solutions that makes them special and valuable to an organization.

When you begin your own efforts to optimize the efficiency of your workflows, you may be tempted, as we were, to scope the work of your creatives too narrowly. Specialization is critical to efficiency, while keeping in mind that the Law of Diminishing Returns applies to scoping responsibilities in creative work environments. Too little room for variation and creativity has the potential to hurt the efficency of your operations overall.

Trial and error is the only way find that critical sweet spot. That means testing different operational workflows and structures, using your KPIs to measure the impact of each adjustment you make to your creative processes, and being willing to fail in the short-term to achieve long-term gains.

As you go through a trial and error process, being transparent with your teams and giving them an active role in the process is critical. Maintaining an open dialogue with your staff who are most significantly impacted by your changes can provide you vital feedback about what changes are working, which are not, and how those changes are impacting the daily worklife of your staff.

Lesson 4: Education is Key to Leveraging AI and Other New Technology

AI is beginning to play a role in the creative landscape and that rightfully scares some people :in the coming years, the threat of AI taking jobs previously done by humans will continue to grow and the creative industry is no exception.

At Pixelz, we are at the bleeding-edge of AI in creative operations. Our Research and Development team has developed, refined, and integrated our own Photoshop scripting and AI bots to help us with some of the repetitive image-editing tasks that previously needed to be executed by our highly-skilled retouchers.

What has been exciting for us is to see how, rather than being a threat to the livelihood of our staff, AI can actually work side-by-side humans to improve the work lives of our photo editors and improve the efficiency of our operations.

In years past, some of our more basic steps in S.A.W.™ required simply pushing buttons and the most basic photo editing tasks. This work was boring and unengaging, but someone had to do it, and without the technology to automate, that someone was a human retoucher.

However, in the last few years, those tasks--not jobs--have been eliminated thanks to the development of our AI Bots.

We have developed bots that now carry out everything from button pushing to image masking. The images that are first edited by bots are then sent to a human editor. The human then decides if the masking done by the bots is good enough to be pushed along through the system, if it needs further refinement, or if the image needs to be re-edited by a human photo editor.

Three Pixelz staff sitting at a computer.

Training our people to use the new technologies we are developing is critical in making sure those tools are adopted by our staff.

Rather than being some sort of Terminator eliminating human jobs, AI at Pixelz has become a tool for our editors to use in order to help them improve their efficiency. Our AI and scripting bots take care of the boring tasks, freeing our editors up to do more engaging, challenging, and higher paying work (if you would like to learn more about our AI technology you can read more in our post How Pixelz is Using AI to Automate Retouching).

The big hurdle for us to truly reap the benefits of AI has been in terms of education: our Human Resource, Training, and Development teams have worked hard to educate our staff on the role of the AI Bots, why we as a company have invested in them, how they are a benefit to their work, and how to use the AI Bots effectively.

After a lot of time educating our staff, we are now seeing adoption of our technologies by our staff growing. Their willingness to adopt these technologies has both improved the working lives of our staff as well as boost the efficiency of our creative operations to new heights we have never seen before.

Integrating New Technology into Your Own Creative Operations

There is a good chance that you too will be integrating either AI, AR, new software or new tools into your creative operations at some point with hopes of boosting efficiency.

Unfortunately, too many companies make the costly mistake of investing in expensive technology, only to send out a single email blast on how and why it should be used, resulting in low adoption rates.

At Pixelz, we can tell you from first-hand experience that the educational aspect of introducing new technology is just as critical as the new technology itself. Fancy, cutting-edge technology that no one uses is simply waste. It is more than worth the investment to take the time to run formal internal marketing campaigns to explain the technologies you are introducing, provide training for your staff on how those technologies can or should be used, and explain how your creative staff will benefit from using them.

If you do that effectively, all that fancy technology can truly transform how your people work, just as it has at Pixelz.

After a year, our creative operations at Pixelz has never been healthier. It was a long road, but our company is better for it, and the learning opportunities we had as a company is knowledge that we know have and apply to any of our future endeavours. Hopefully, we made some mistakes that you now don’t have to, allowing you and your teams to achieve your operations even more quickly.