Creative Operations: Getting Your In-House in Order

Cleaning isn’t just for spring. Tidying your team’s processes and structure will help you not only prove your worth, but also allow you—and your team—to excel creatively.

I have three children living at home, ranging from 10 years to 2 years old. Being an organizational freak, I suffer through their messiness every day. Of course I love them and tolerate the shoes in the hallway, iPads on the kitchen table, and I’m smart enough to not even peek into their bedrooms (at least with out a good dose of Xanax). Therefore, we all manage to coexist pretty well.

In my professional life, though, as a multidisciplinary content creator servicing demanding clients and tasked with delivering high-quality, cost-effective creative solutions, I don’t have the luxury of being so lax. I’m not talking about the physical space, but rather about how cleanly I manage in-house operations—the who, how, what and when part of moving work through our creative team. Unlike my home, I’ve made getting my in-house clutter in order with best-in-class operations one of my top priorities.

I’m going to guess that you didn’t use the term “operations” when you were in design school, and what probably comes to mind at the mention of the word are images of Six-Sigma administrative geeks and manufacturing executives laboring over spreadsheets and flowcharts. This impression and lack of operational awareness puts all of us in-house creatives at a very real risk of failure.

What does this failure look like? Well, you may be living it right now. It shows up as missed deadlines, lost or overwritten files, blown budgets, duplication of effort, or worse, no effort at all being put toward urgent projects. These mishaps all result in pissed-off clients, poor morale, attrition and loss of credibility.

Regardless of whether you like it, the infrastructure, practices, processes and policies that constitute your creative team’s operations are constantly in play. The question is whether the right people are doing the right activities at the right time and in the right way. If not, you should take a hard look at your organization and then proactively take responsibility for its operational efficiency. There are three areas of operations most relevant to in-house teams. They include:

1. Organizational Structure. Visually represented by org charts, what we’re talking about here is how your group is organized into teams, who does what and who manages whom.

2. Operational Infrastructure. Included in this area of practices are general and project-specific studio processes, procedures and policies. This is your studio’s operating system and the apps that run on it, including standard operating procedures, file-naming conventions, archiving protocols, digital asset management and job documentation practices.

3. Metrics. This practice is defined as the systematic gathering of operational data and its analysis to drive process improvements and showcase your team’s value—also referred to as “number crunching.”

WHO DOES WHAT: ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE

Whether you’re a team of one or 100, you need to define how your team is set up and what everyone’s roles and responsibilities are. How your group is positioned within the greater organization and the type of work that your team does should then dictate how you organize yourselves.

The importance of fleshing this out became crystal clear to me back in 2013 during a brief consulting engagement I was working on for a large retailer. I had just arrived at their corporate offices and was talking to the team lead as she was giving me a tour of their studios when the topic of project management came up. Given the size of her team and the workload, I just assumed they had project managers in place. This was not the case, and as I dug into this more deeply, first with her and then the team, it became obvious that this was a major pain point for everyone involved. Designers, art directors and copywriters who had come on board with the expectation that they would be working in their chosen disciplines found themselves spending up to 75% of their day managing spreadsheets, client schedules, estimates and invoicing. Not only were they frustrated by not having time to be creative, they also weren’t very good at handling the operational side of the business. Creating a team dedicated to project management soon became their No. 1 priority.

So here are some criteria to consider when figuring out what your team structure should be:

• Is your group a shared services department? Or do you service multiple departments, business units and offices?

• Do you offer a wide variety of services and have a multidisciplinary team (print designers, interactive designers, video folks, copywriters, etc.)?

• Are there specific project types that dominate your business, such as proposal decks, branding campaigns or product launches?

• What’s the ratio of full-time to contract workers?

• How much work does your team do in a day, a week or a year? And is your team’s workload steady, cyclical or unpredictable?

Once you’ve tackled these questions, there are basic boilerplate options you should consider with the primary difference between them being the level of specialization your team members take on. On one end is the flat model, where everyone on the team is a jack-of-all-trades (this model works best when your workload is relatively predictable both in quantity and type). At the opposite end of the continuum is the agency model, where there is a high degree of specialization (this structure works best if you’re experiencing a fluctuating workload and a high variability regarding complexity and types of projects).

Another important staffing issue you need to consider is your mix of full-time, part-time and freelance talent. As I’ve moved from job to job, I’ve seen my teams moving away from the traditional full-time employees with the occasional freelancer to a more consistent mix of salary and hourly contractors. As with the agency vs. flat model consideration, the business needs should dictate the right mix for your team.

Operational tactical tip No. 1: Make sure to put together robust and standardized position descriptions for everyone in the group and make them available to the entire team. The basic sections that comprise a position description should include an overview of the job, whom the position reports into and who reports into the position, associated roles and responsibilities and necessary skills and experience.

HOW IT’S DONE: OPERATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE

Here’s the area where you’re programming your team’s OS and the “software” that will run on it. Let’s start with standard operating procedures. Every project that comes into your group is going to follow a path to completion. If there’s no clearly defined path, chances are your team will be wandering around, bumping into one another, losing their way and sometimes getting into territorial skirmishes. The easiest way to avoid this is by clearly creating a route and getting everyone to see the value in its direction. SOPs are that path.

Or to be more specific, the workflow is the directions and the work instructions are who’s going to be following those directions and when. To map the route, you’ll first want to gather your key staff and deconstruct the current process of your most frequent types of jobs. Then your SOP team can dig into the current maps and figure out better ways to get to your final deliverable. Just to clarify: The workflow should be the key activities associated with the creation of a final deliverable or service and the order in which they occur. When visualized, it’s literally a bunch of boxes with activities listed in them and arrows that guide the viewer from one box to the next.

The work instructions are the details of who is working at each stage (box) in the workflow and what they’re supposed to be doing at that stage.

Operational tactical tip No. 2: Create a set of instructions to accompany your SOPs, these are typically referred to as operational level agreements. Simply put, OLAs dictate how files are handed off from one individual or functional team to the next and address a common point of intradepartmental contention—people throwing sloppy files over the fence to their co-workers.

OLAs are often captured in the form of a checklist that documents expectations and force everyone to be held accountable to certain standards. As a former leader once put it, “You don’t walk into your friend’s clean kitchen with dirty boots.”

It can be tempting to mistakenly adopt a “build it, and they’ll come” mindset once you’ve slogged through creating your SOPs. Don’t do that! You need to push them out to the group in a way that they can wrap their heads around. I remember a colleague working on SOPs for a big project triumphantly dumping a telephone book-sized manual on my desk and exclaiming the job was done. While I was sorry to burst their bubble, I told then our work had just begun, and we then set about creating striped down easy to understand visual training and instructions guide to engage the team and support them in learning and embracing the new processes and procedures.

There are some processes and procedures that apply to every project regardless of media or complexity. These operational practices tend to revolve around how your team manages all the assets it works with and creates. Specifically, this involves developing guidelines on how to best name the files your team generates and how to archive and back up those files, as well as how you’ll store any purchased assets, such as stock photography or assets acquired from outside sources. Ancillary documents such as client emails and other project management documents including schedules and estimates also fall into this category. In addition, you should also determine how team members will share and exchange these assets and documents among themselves.

It’s important to call out two common in-house challenges this bucket of operational practices should specifically address—version control and rights management of purchased assets. By crafting thoughtful naming conventions that designate at what stage a design file is in, instances of team members accidentally working on an old file or overwriting a new one will be greatly reduced.

In-house groups that use stock images for corporate branding campaigns on multiple deliverables over long periods of time are often prone to incurring penalties and legal action by accidentally using those images outside of the agreed upon guidelines. This risk should make the adoption of effective digital asset management practices a key priority of any operational infrastructure initiative.

HOW IT ADDS UP: METRICS

Metrics are the quantitative measures of how your team is performing. Because these are the numbers outsiders will see and judge your progress, efficiency and ability to achieve your goal.

Operational tactical tip No. 3: Capture your time.

I don’t care if you charge back your clients for this time or not. I don’t care if your team will whine and cry about this one. I don’t care if it will even take you some time to capture your time. You have to do this!

Why? Because it’s the foundation of metrics and therefore is the only way you’ll ever be able to communicate the value you bring to your company. Oh, and by the way, if you require more head count, equipment, training, etc., you’ll need time-capture to be able to make a case for all of those goodies as well.

Obviously you have to have a way for folks to enter their time. There are a slew of online tools from which to choose, so start doing your research. Even when you buy into a solution, you’ll have to do some upfront legwork including the creation of different task categories and codes that people can assign to their work time, whether those tasks are considered billable or nonbillable. Just like I pointed out with SOPs, you’ll have to school up your team on how to correctly enter their hours.

Like pictures, a number or two is worth a thousand words. It’s one thing to exclaim to your boss, “Help! We’re really busy and the team’s burning out.” And quite another to point out that your group has logged, on average per person, over 65 hours of billable time per week for the last five weeks. Those numbers are needed to convince upper management that you’re not just whining because you had to work until 7 p.m. once last week.

Metrics can also help you find areas in your SOPs where your process is getting clogged. At a previous job, when my co-workers and I looked at the hours associated with the “prep for print” phase of our jobs, something seemed a bit out of whack. We noticed that what was a pretty tactical task that should have taken only an hour or two was typically taking twice as long. Digging into this, we discovered that we were saving each color separation as a separate mechanical instead of combining them all into one InDesign doc.

This insight that the metrics provided us allowed us to make an operational change that halved the time it took us to get our files out the door. As they say, “Time is money.” And we saved a ton of it for our company as a result of this operational shift.

Operational tactical tip No. 4: This is actually a two for one. First, always make sure you have enough data to make accurate assessments. Don’t try to use just a few projects or a short period of time to create metrics. You can’t detect trends or capture what’s really going on with only a small sample. Second, don’t use metrics to assess performance of individuals. There are so many variables that play into how long a creative may take to complete a task that it’s almost impossible to use metrics to determine how productive he is.

I recall having one of our most talented designers in a former team show up as extremely unproductive when we looked at how long it took him to execute on his projects. When we researched and thought through this situation a bit more, we realized that because he was so good at tackling tough design assignments, he was always given the most difficult projects to work on. Or when the projects were simple in nature he had his direct superior creating more complex requirements because he was able to rise to the challenge.  These took more time and created the illusion that he was unproductive.

There are three types of metrics that are the foundation of gathering actionable data for any in-house creative team. This trifecta, when used responsibly, will meet most of your metrics needs.

  • Efficiency: The measurement that captures the hours (labor) of members of your team who are dedicated to a phase of a project or its completion.
  • Duration: How long a project or phase of a project takes to complete. Unlike efficiency, which records only the labor of your in-house group, this metric captures all activities and waiting periods associated with the completion of the phase or project including client responsibilities, such as concept reviews and providing content.
  • Utilization: The percentage of a team member’s hours on the job that are billable to a client project. If you have a designer working an eight-hour day, how many of those eight hours are spent actually working on the design or activities related to completing the design, and how much time is being put toward training, general studio maintenance, trouble-shooting equipment problems, etc.? Appropriate utilization percentages vary by role, with management roles typically being less billable than individual contributor roles. On average, your entire team should be somewhere between 70–80%. Oh, and, by the way, excessively high utilization isn’t necessarily a positive thing because it usually leads to team burnout and reduced efficiency.

In Conclusion:

This brief overview of in-house operations will hopefully give you enough background to incite action and provide the necessary foundation to begin the process of decluttering and defining your business critical processes, policies and procedures. Take baby steps, and be patient and persistent. Your commitment to getting your operational in-house in order will pay off tenfold in productivity, job satisfaction and morale, and will contribute to your efforts to strategically position your team within your organization.

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