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How to setup a Lean Photo Studio

Lean. It’s an overused word these days. Lean methodology. Lean business. Lean finance. It seems like everything leans towards being ‘lean’ these days.

A cynic might say that lean methodology is all just a cunning ruse that allows consultants and influencers to line their pockets with higher fees… But…

We like to look for the hidden gold and there is, without doubt, a rich vein of gold lying underneath the overabundance of lean consultants, books, blogs, and courses out there.

Maybe you’re thinking of improving your studio into a lean, mean, photography machine? Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, we applaud you!

But first, to get lean, you need to know exactly what ‘lean’ means. Then you can start to build a lean photo studio and reap the benefits.

What do we mean by a lean photo studio?

In business terms, being lean refers to three main things:

- Reducing waste
- Improving quality
- Speeding up processes

There’s no reason why these goals should be restricted to ‘serious’ corporate businesses. In fact, lean goals and methodology can just as easily be applied to a creative workspace.

As a result of building a lean photo studio, you’ll almost certainly cut costs and make more money in the process.

Sounds good, right?

But before you get too excited, be aware of one thing – there’s no silver bullet!

Software solutions and tools can help you to achieve a lean photo studio, but you cannot buy a one-size-fits-all system to “fix” your workflows. In other words, you’ll need to do a bit of groundwork and change some of your processes first.

It’s worth the effort though, and once you start applying some lean photo studio principles, you’ll never stop improving.

So, let’s get started, and you’ll be building a lean photo studio fit for the 21st century before you know it!

The Process is the Problem

A bad process will beat a good person every time.
- W. Edwards Deming

OK, so the quote from Dr Deming, a godfather of quality control, is almost 80 years old now, but it still holds true.

In fact, it’s 100% relevant to building a lean photo studio in the 2020’s. If you didn’t know better, you might think it was a quote from the Creative Operations Exchange event in New York. (What a keynote that would be!)

Lean methodology came about in Japan, when a Toyota engineer called Taiichi Ohno began introducing techniques to improve efficiency while maintaining quality. His methods caught on and helped to rebuild Japan’s economy after the second world war.
Dr Deming was also a big factor in restoring Japan’s fortunes and building an industrial powerhouse, which remains the third largest global economy today.

All these years later, the lean approach is still going strong and the main reason is that it works.

What makes lean methodology work? Processes.

Dr Deming had it right. He believed that a person’s performance is largely determined by their environment, not their motivation. For that reason, he was highly opposed to any sort of performance ranking system for employees and instead looked to improve their working environment.

He did this by improving the processes and making life easier for employees. So, when we focus on building a lean photo studio, it’s important to emphasize that the people you employ are talented. Most people want to do great work and do it consistently.
In other words, the problem isn’t always obvious.

The talented people working in your photo studio will almost certainly improve their performance and be more productive if we can keep them from drowning in processes.

Sinking the bloat

Think about your photo studio for a moment. Does your team spend a lot of their time on time-consuming secondary tasks? The kind of tasks that don’t really add a whole lot of productivity or help you to build a lean photo studio?

Examples of photo studio secondary tasks include handling samples, updating spreadsheets, generating lists, sending status updates, renaming files, moving files, performing check after check to be sure no shots are missed or images are lost along the way, syncing systems, etc.

It’s pretty obvious that concentrating on these kinds of tasks are not going to help you to build a lean photo studio. And it’s only going to get worse as content needs continue to grow.

So, what really matters?

Styling. Capture. Post-production. That’s pretty much it.

So why the bloat? Let’s look at the root causes.

Problem 1: Too many interfaces
How many different programs do you use in your various workflows? ERP, PIM, CRM, DAM, Capture One, Photoshop, DropBox, Excel, email, printouts, maybe more? It’s Frankenstein’s monster.

There are tools available to take care of some of the discrete time-consuming tasks, such as Photoshop for retouching or Capture One for professional image capture. And in this day and age, no photographer should be using Excel! These tools don’t do squat to help you find a sample, pair an outfit, get art director approval, update status, or upload to the website. You just end up jumping in and out of different programs. Which is terrible for productivity.

Focus switching has been shown to break concentration, create more points of failure (“Cool, 10 different applications can break and take our whole department offline”), is error-prone, and adds a whole lot of stress onto each individual employee.
Not only that, but because your applications don’t speak to each other, you have to track the process and do status checks manually.

“Was that outfit really not shot, or did Amy just forget to update the spreadsheet?”

“No, wait, is that it? There, in the ‘Final - Final’ folder but named ‘1643a23’ instead of ‘1642a23’?”

It’s pretty ridiculous, and there are a million studies around multi-tasking reducing productivity.

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.

Needless to say, task switching is no way to build a lean photo studio, so it’s high time we reduce it to a minimum.

Problem 2: Exception handling
When it’s happening all the time, it’s not really an exception. And that leads to a true productivity sin: baking errors into the process.

For example, take file naming. When you undertake it as a manual process, you’re going to have frequent errors. Incredibly mundane things like bad copy/paste, typos, or the wrong fields being checked in a batch processor.

Many times, that leads to adding an additional check to the workflow. A review before moving on to the next step. So now your process is longer, more complex, and therefore slower. It’s a lose-lose situation, that certainly isn’t a step towards building a lean photo studio.

Problem 3: Stakeholder communication
“Where’s X final image?”. “What’s the status on Y—has it been shot? I need the sample for a buyer meeting”. “Has Z been reshot as a laydown yet?” Wake up! It’s time to stop interrupting your studio team!

We’re not saying that information on your photography isn’t valuable and doesn’t need to be accessible. It’s the way that you do it that counts. There are lots of stakeholders who genuinely need to know the status of samples, images, and bookings.
But there needs to be a better way than sending “Status?” emails, texts, or walking into the studio to ask.

These are distractions that divert the studio team from their current task, and since tracking is done manually it likely sends a team member to a spreadsheet to check—and then to somewhere/someone else to verify the spreadsheet is up to date.
And maybe the spreadsheet’s not up to date and status couldn’t be verified, so incorrect info is shared and status updates become considered unreliable. Which creates a negative feedback loop, resulting in even more status checks.

It’s also not that easy to communicate about the product itself. It’s often difficult and annoying to provide context on something visual — maybe you need to draw on an image to indicate a styling mistake, a sample change, or a preferred way to fold a laydown. Maybe you have to Photoshop it a bit to get your point across. You might have to give multiple examples of “good” and “bad.” And create different PDFs for a stylist, a photographer, and a hair and makeup artist.

That’s a lot of work!

Wouldn’t it be better if that information was all in one central, auto-updating, visual system?

Solving Problems with Three Simple Lean Principles.

There’s an overwhelming amount of information on lean methodology out there, often bundled with worksheets, achievement systems, and making use of alphabet soup processes. We’re not going to get into that.

The following are three simple principles that anyone can apply, with examples of implementation. Best of all – they are all related to the specifics of building a lean photo studio, not just generic lean principles.

We’ll also show some examples from Creative Operations as it can help you build a lean photo studio in the fastest possible time. But once again, a single system will not act as a magic bullet. You will have to change your processes if you want to apply lean principles to your photo studio.

Principle 1: Address the root cause, not the symptom

This is common sense, but easy to ignore when you’re busy and looking for quick fixes. Don’t treat the symptoms. Dig in and address the root problem in order to get rid of the symptoms.

For example, if your problem is that too many quality control gates are slowing down your process, don’t bundle them all into some master QC step at the end—you can fix whatever is causing the errors in the first place.

You take a “countermeasure.” Countermeasures prevent error, rather than allowing and then correcting it. Countermeasures are a crucial part of building a lean photo studio as they save you and your team from wasting precious time correcting errors.
Safety features make for some dramatic examples of countermeasures.

Take for example a push lawn mower. You HAVE to be holding the bar, the “dead man switch,” in order for it to be powered on. You can’t release it and walk away, leaving the mower to roll along its merry way cutting everything in its path. If you slip and fall, the engine will cut out, dramatically lowering your odds of being mowed to death. The bar is a countermeasure against dangerous user behavior.

Let’s go back to our earlier QC example. Let’s say you frequently saw that a photographer occasionally forgets to snap a photo from one particular perspective. You could introduce a countermeasure in the form of capture software. You could configure the software so that it requires that a photo from each angle is dropped into place before proceeding to the next item.

Creative Force Capture’s “Style Guide” provides information on how shots should be framed and styled, but it does more. It also requires that selected images are dropped on the right example before moving on to the next product. (The software also automates file naming, updates status, and requests art director approval—but more on that later.) An image isn’t missing or “wrong” until you move on. It’s much easier and more cost-effective to reshoot the image in the moment.

Principle 2: Map your process with the whole team

The idea is to “Do less, better.” And then do more of it!

But before you can do less, you need to know what you’re already doing. You need to draw out, on one page if possible, every single action taken in the product photography process.

It’s important to list out all the actions from start to finish. This usually means listing out everything from the initial sample intake to uploading on the website.

Once you actually know every step, you can identify the steps that add value and where you can improve in your quest to become a lean photo studio.

So, how do you map out the process?

You might be tempted to simply ask the studio manager. By all means, go ahead and involve them, but don’t stop there. From on high, it’s easy to miss crucial details and managers are often looking through rose-tinted glasses. Basically, the manager may have a false impression of what’s actually happening.

It’s crucial to include the entire team in the exercise to map out your processes. Get the warty truth. Get an accurate picture of how the world works.

Then, host a “Blue Sky” event. Forget the world ‘as-is’, and ask team members to visualize their ideal world. IMPORTANT: You’re not going to be able to build that world! Probably not even close.

But you can keep working towards it. In other words, you’ll be working towards the lean photo studio of your dreams! After you’ve discovered the as-is world and mapped out what the dream world looks like, it’s time to start creating your new world and building your lean photo studio.

Your world is just an agreed way of working. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and it certainly doesn’t have to be settled after a lengthy communal debate. You just need people to buy-in to the idea, then start building a lean photo studio. Consistency is incredibly important so you can figure out cause and effect. Once you have a stable line, it’s easy to identify spikes (good or bad).

While your way may not necessarily be the best way, as long as it’s consistent you can apply some intelligent changes.
In other words, you’re ready to run some lean process improvement activities!

But first, you need to make sure you’ve got all the data you need, which brings us onto our next principle…

Principle 3: Get accurate performance data

This is where powerful systems can be a huge help. Accurate data is crucial for success. Why? You need data to help you figure out what’s working and what isn’t. Otherwise, you don’t really know why you had a good week or bad week. It just kind of happens.

The thing is, it’s extremely difficult to get data manually. Even if you were that one unicorn team that dutifully recorded every action, the simple act of recording would slow you down significantly. You need some kind of automated system for data collection and recording.

Data and processes should go hand-in-hand. The idea is to go from your current, variable state (the as-is world) to an interim stable state (your world) and reap the benefits of a continuous improvement state. You can’t tell whether “improvements” are what they say they are unless you measure the results of change.

That’s another reason why the Frankenstein’s Monster of too many interfaces is so scary. If activities are happening all over the place, you can’t track them and get meaningful data.

Implementing Lean Principles in your photo studio

Identifying waste leads to quick wins. We all want quick wins, right? But they’re especially important when you need to gain traction with your team. If you can show them quick and obvious benefits, then they’re going to be way more engaged. An engaged team is a much faster route to a lean photo studio than an unmotivated one.

First, let’s talk about waste. “Waste” is any step that isn’t value-add or necessary work. “Necessary work” is a little bit abstract, so we’ll put that aside for now. It’s too easy to mentally start classifying actions that are actually waste as necessary work.

Let’s concentrate on non value-add work instead. In the photography workflow, the processes that are actually value-add are usually very few: styling outfits, capture, and post-production.

Most of that other stuff? The spreadsheet updating, file renaming, application syncing, email battles? Waste!

It doesn’t add any value to the customer. It doesn’t help them to view the product more accurately or more quickly. The photo quality doesn’t change in any way because of all that extra work. Wasting time on tasks that don’t add value or are unnecessary will get in your way of building a lean photo studio. So eliminate waste wherever you can, starting with a rapid improvement event.

But first, an aside on necessary work: Necessary work needs to be kept to a minimum, or else it can turn into waste. Don’t repeat it. For example, setting up studio lights is necessary work. Once. But if you have to keep changing them because you have varied (poor) product flow, that’s waste.

Or if you’re sent the wrong size sample and have to spend a long time clipping and pinning it, that’s waste. Studio downtime. Your final output will still look good, but time has been wasted and your output will fall.

Rapid improvement – accelerating change

A rapid improvement event is when you bring key team members together for a set amount of time (let’s say no more than 5 days) to focus on a specific opportunity that you already have the approval to change. You make the change during the event.
For example, let’s say you’re a retailer with a mixed flow of products and you know that you’re losing a lot of time on set changeovers. The powers that be authorize an RIE on it. You, the photographer, and the assistant are the team members involved.

You decide to film a standard day’s production, then spaghetti map the photographer and assistant’s walking routes.
You might discover you’re using more space for your set than you need, which presents two improvement opportunities:
Making your primary set smaller so the photographer and assistant spend less time walking around and adjusting lights
Building an additional tabletop and overhead set in the freed space so you can move from set to set for different products.

Now you’ve made a small investment in equipment, but didn’t have to grow the team or invest in more space in order to increase your shot count. All just by eliminating waste. Sound far-fetched? It’s not. That’s a real world example from our own James Lewis when he was consulting for one of the largest retailers in the UK.

Now for a quick word on word choice, human nature, and workplace culture when you’re trying to build a lean photo studio.

Understand the workplace culture

Be careful when introducing lean principles to the workspace. Don’t come in and start shouting about eliminating waste, waste, WASTE!

Lean is a methodology developed by statisticians and economists that first grew to prominence in a disciplined country that had been devastated by war and was desperate to rebuild. Its terminology is efficient and accurate. Excellent mechanics.

But people are emotional. And calling a process someone has been performing for years “waste” can feel like an attack to that person, even though it’s anything but.

So take care in your framing. Make sure your teammates understand that you’re not here to turn them into robots or eliminate jobs. You’re here to empower them to improve their own work-life.

A key principle of Lean is that those closest to the work understand it best and therefore have the greatest opportunity to improve it. That’s why the improvement process needs to be team-led, not management directed. The structure you put in place—the data collection, the standardized process, the meetings and improvement methods—are all so that individuals and teams can make their own work better. More useful. More meaningful.

No one ever says “This is a waste of time!” in a happy tone. It’s an angry, frustrated shout. So telling people their time is valuable and giving them the opportunity to spend it in ways they think are better is a powerful thing.

Pointing at them and calling them time wasters is powerful too. But not in a good way!

Maintain accountability to boost performance

So how do you stay in sync, keep improving, and build a lean photo studio? We’ll assume you’ve got a system in place that gives you all the necessary data, and that your process is consistent enough for that data to be meaningful.

Now you’ve got to hold regular meetings.

<groan>

You don’t need to go full-on Scrum with daily standups, but regular meetings to address issues, followed by a bi-weekly improvement meeting is important.

<GROOOOOAN>

Alright, we get it. You hate meetings, because so many of them are a waste of time. How do you make yours meaningful?

Set the right KPIs

First, set KPIs and investigate under-performance. Don’t drown in the data, either. It’s easy to get excited and start wanting to measure and make change everywhere, but you need to narrow it down to a handful of North Stars. Otherwise, you’ll just create distractions.

For example: image throughput, downtime, lead time, and number of reshoots are probably good high-level KPIs. Something like “styling time” probably isn’t.

If your image output drops, your studio has more downtime than normal, it’s taking you longer to get photos to the web, or there’s a spike in photos you have to reshoot, that’s a serious alert. You’re soon going to see some impact on your bottom line.
At that point, you might start to look at styling time and other lower-level indicators to see if they’re contributing factors. However, an increase in styling time itself probably isn’t worth getting alarmed about if your throughput and other KPIs are unchanged.

Downtime Logs

Next, look at down time logs. What’s keeping those lights from flashing? You’re not Big Brother looking for slackers—you want to know what issues are inhibiting production. If you’re seeing the workflow regularly pausing at a certain point, you need to know why. So ask!

"The Five Whys"

Don’t take the first response as a final answer. Remember, you want to fix the root and not the symptom. This is where techniques like “The 5 Whys” originate. Really dig in on cause and effect analysis.

Throughput on tabletops is down. Why? It took longer to style the laydowns. Why? The shirts all needed extra steaming. Why? The samples just arrived yesterday and were deeply creased from shipping. Why? Production just finished on them, these are fresh from the factory. Why? Shirts were the last category produced this season.

Maybe you can’t do anything about it right now. Maybe you can. But when you really dig in, you get a deeper understanding of the process and have more opportunities to solve the root problems. Buying another steamer and hiring another stylist will address the symptoms today, but changing your shoot schedule to align better with manufacturing may prevent the problem from recurring in the future.

Prioritize and the 80/20 rule

Prioritize the issues you’ve identified from steps 1, 2, and 3. Actually follow those priorities, even if you’ve got quick fixes for trivial things near the bottom of the list. The Pareto Principle is pretty well established: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

That 80/20 rule is applied all over the place and is generally true. 80% of sales come from 20% of customers, 80% of a software’s benefits come from 20% of features, etc. Well, it’s true here too. Addressing the highest priority issues will have the most benefits for your team. So don’t skip them just because they seem hard.

Design Countermeasures

Design countermeasures. Eradicate the issue, instead of creating additional work to catch errors and manage the symptoms. We’ve covered this pretty thoroughly already.

Escalation and Accountability

Issues that can’t be fixed within the team are escalated and addressed, and management is accountable to the team.
If the photographer tells you the biggest bottleneck is how frequently products arrive unassembled—and the photoshoot screeches to a halt while three team members are on their hands and knees reading instructions and turning allen wrenches—it’s on you to fix that.

You’ve got to prove that you care, that you can take data upstream and make changes too.

Unleash the creativity of your creatives!

Whew, that was a long one! But nobody said that building a lean photo studio would be easy. I hope we managed to give you actionable points without too much mind-numbing jargon.

The really important thing is to recognize that you can understand, control, and improve your studio—at multiple levels. Running a lean photo studio doesn’t mean eliminating creativity. It means discovering better ways to work, eliminating boring repetitive tasks, and freeing your creatives to actually BE creative.

Because photographers should be behind the camera, not buried in a spreadsheet.