My initial introduction to process improvement involved the transfer of product technology from research and development into a manufacturing environment. This often meant taking semi-manual processes and applying automation to improve consistency and eliminate human error and waste. When I began working with creative services organizations I thought the same principles would apply and creative processes could be treated just like manufacturing processes. Now, there are many similarities between creative processes and manufacturing, particularly custom manufacturing. And, the closer you get to production, whether print, web or video, the more it really is like manufacturing. But I quickly learned that there are some areas where a manufacturing mindset just doesn't work--specifically the goal of minimizing human interaction in the process.

Implementing automations and technology in our workflow is an effective way to decrease costs and errors. But there is a point of over-introducing technology that creative leaders need to be concerned about as creative departments are often labeled "black boxes"--projects go in and projects come out, but what happens in between those milestones is the great unknown. Some technologies can help increase that transparency, but others reinforce that "black box" label as teams may choose to hide behind the systems.

Face Time with the Client

The best example of necessary personal interaction is the time spent with your client. When I first looked at the client interaction part of the creative process, it seemed a huge waste of time. How could it possibly be efficient to produce mock-ups and printouts of concepts and then meet with multiple clients to present and collect feedback? Wouldn't it be much more efficient to require the client to fill out very specific online creative brief questionnaires, then for the creative team to develop concepts based on the client's input and then have the clients mark up PDFs of the concepts with their specific feedback? Heck, with enough technology you wouldn't have to ever actually meet with those pesky clients who keep changing their minds about the details. Just get everything online and structured and eliminate the VARIABILITY (a dirty word in process work) of client feedback.

What I quickly learned was that I had to take a new look at what that client interaction is all about. First it's about a relationship. A client and account manager (or other creative team representative if you don't have account managers) need to develop a trust and understanding that goes beyond today's specific project. Second, it's about creativity and collaboration. A manufacturer gets a detailed specification from their customer, but creative projects often start as a vague idea and the client relies on the creative services provider to turn those ideas into an effective design reality. Lastly, face-to-face interaction with clients is necessary to "sell" concepts and collect feedback. Clients may select an inferior option or provide feedback that is not business-based. When this meeting occurs in person, the account manager or creative director can guide the conversation and collect constructive, guiding feedback.

Creative Team Collaboration

There are also internal parts of the process that require personal interaction. More often these tend to be at the front end of the creative process. Concept development is often a collaborative effort involving designers, copywriters and production staff. This is truly a case where the collaborative interaction of creative resources is a vital part of the creative process.

Ensure Face Time Adds Value

Now the question is, how to account for face time, both within the creative group and with clients, while also working to improve processes and apply appropriate technology solutions? The answer is conceptually simple, though not always easy to apply. The answer is to look at each step in the process and determine if it's adding value. There are only three answers to that question and they are:

1. It adds value to this specific project.

2. It adds value to the overall business relationship with this client.

3. It doesn't add value.

Answers 1 and 2 are acceptable. If you can't answer with 1 or 2, then you better look seriously at eliminating or modifying that particular step in your process.

Today there are many ways to improve process efficiencies, particularly through the application of technology solutions like automated workflow and online reviewing. Let's just make sure we don't insulate ourselves with technology and eliminate those important personal interactions that contribute to ongoing relationships with our clients and to providing a truly creative and effective end product.