Using Lean Six Sigma in creative work

Lean Six Sigma is mostly used in a production environment which raises the question if it is applicable for creative work such as design or marketing. The basic premise of Lean Six Sigma is to understand the problem and solve it in a  sustainable way. All this is generic, the approach applies itself easily to anything from advertising to sales management and other similar arts of business.

Creative people have the tendency of approaching their work using qualitative terms. Statistical process control seems vague and distant from this vantage point. A typical argument would be that you can not measure art. That may or may not be true. Still, any advertising agency managing director is faced with the dilemma of how to control and improve the profitability of the firm. This gives an illusion of a conflict between artistic freedom and process control.

Art can not be measured, or can it?
Art can not be measured, but the process that creates it can be defined, measured, analyzed, improved and controlled. Let’s take the example of an Arts Director AD in an advertising firm. The managing director has sold a design for a news paper advertorial and gives the project to the Arts Director to execute. She designs the advertorial using inspiration from the subject of the article, selects suitable colors and illustrations and presents the results to the customer. After some feedback rounds the work is approved and the happy customer gets her advertorial followed by a bill from the advertising agency. This is by definition a process and processes lend themselves for improvement.

In Lean Six Sigma we first define the practical problem, convert it into a statistical problem, solve the statistical problem and then convert the statistical solution to a practical solution. Let’s see how this works in the case of the advertorial design using the DMAIC methodology.

Define the problem
The managing director wants to improve profitability. He has a suspicion where the key improvement areas are, but he is not sure about them. He does not want to change things that already works, but he does not really know what does not work. The Managing Director knows the overall profitability of the firm but is unsure of his pricing strategy due to a lack of knowledge of the internal cost structure. In effect he can never be sure about the profitability of a project until it is concluded. This makes the advertorial design project a risk. Further , the goal of a Lean Six Sigma project is to minimize the time spent between an incoming order and the incoming payment from the customer. This could also be called the Voice Of Business.

Measure current state
One of the key elements of Lean Six Sigma is to provide data based, statistical evidence for the improvement that is undertaken. The idea is to make sure the improvement work really resulted in a real improvement. To do that a measurement system is created and measurement points are selected. Indicators such as: sold price, billed price, work hours spent and project profitability per project are examples of measurement points that can be applied to creative work. Attention should be put to select correct  measurements. Lean Six Sigma provides for a number of tools to do proper measurement of any type of process. One way is to take a sample of 30 last sold projects and analyse the results using range and/or control charts to identify process mean and variance.

Analyse the current state
Control charts of the selected measurements are used to confirm process stability and most importantly indicate reasons for instability. In the case of the advertorial design the analyses can be done on average production time, customer satisfaction etc. Focus Groups can be used to ensure the Voice Of Customer is heard. An Ishikawa diagram followed by “5 whys” can be used to track down and identify the root causes for process problems. Create a current state process map to reveal the “hidden factory” using Deployment Flow Charts DFC. One applicable method is to run a Brainstorming session to reveal key problems in the processes followed by an Interrelationship Diagram analysis to identify “the vital few of the useful many”. Quantify the current state in a few simple slides.

Improve the process
Once the key improvement areas and their root causes are identified they can be improved. Analyse the process maps: are all steps in the current process really necessary? Minimize or get rid of non-value added work and solve root causes and significant problems identified in the analyse phase using e.g. Kaizen workshops and selected Lean tools.  Redesign the process to minimize process steps. In this phase it is valuable to ask the question: Would our customer pay for this?

Control the improvement
The last phase in the DMAIC method is the Control phase. First verify that the improvement work was effective: sample the selected measurement points again and do a statistical analysis on the data to verify improvement really has happened. This is a key action to ensure management approval for spending time and resources. A smart Lean Six Sigma practitioner binds part of his project bonus to the results of this analysis. After confirmation of the results a Kaizen workshop with the stakeholders should be held to create response and out of control action plans. Together with continual process measurements these are the key tools to ensure the organisation does not fall back to old habits the next after the improvement project is over.

Art can not be measured, only subjectively appreciated, but the process that creates professional art can be Defined, Measured, Analyzed, Improved and Controlled. Understanding the sales and artistic processes helps the Managing Director control risk and pricing when selling the advertorial design project. Lean Six Sigma is a versatile methodology for business improvement and can be used successfully in almost any business and industry.

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