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Flow Production for the Modern Studio with Adam Parker

Chief evangelist at Creative Force
Creative Operations Consultant

Summary

Adam Parker joins Daniel for this episode of the podcast, which is really sort of an extension of the discussion the pair had during the Henry Stewart Photo Studio Ops forum virtual conference on September 27, 2022

We break down what Flow production is, how it relates to studios, and what you can do to improve your studio processes once you understand this information.

Key Takeaways

OK, so this seems like the right way of looking at things. What do I do now?

If you are looking to improve your studio's performance, here are some takeaways that are universal.

  1. First, be willing to try.
    Important: "Willing to try” also means "Willing to fail!"
    In a studio, there are very few "one-way doors," encourage "failure."
    Testing, iteration, and continuous marginal gains will always win out.
  2. No step can be sacred.
  3. The output of our work (imagery) is the entire point - not the process of how we get there.
  4. Every step needs to solve a problem and add value - and this constantly changes.
  5. Find a technology that can support this.

Links & Resources

Full episode transcript

Daniel Jester:

From Creative Force, I'm Daniel Jester and this is the eCommerce Content Creation podcast. On September 27th, my friend Adam Parker and I did a talk at the Henry Stewart Photo Studio Operations Forum, a virtual event that they held for various creative operations and photo studio operations professionals. And we did a talk about flow production. But our slot was only 20 minutes long. And in preparing for that session, we realized that we had a lot of things that we wanted to get into and we weren't really going to have time. So, we had to figure out what was the right crash course that we could give people on flow production and what was the best information that could give them something to walk away from. We decided at the time that we should record an episode of the podcast to dig into this topic a little bit deeper. Adam has been a guest at least twice on the podcast in the past, maybe three times to talk about his KPI Guide, which also covers a lot of the things that we touch on with the idea of flow production.

So, getting into this episode, Adam and I gave a brief recap of the things that we talked about at the Photo Studio Operations Forum, and we dig a little bit deeper specifically on the importance of reporting and reporting in a way that tries to minimize its impact on the actual production process. I want to give a high level sort of, not exactly a disclaimer, but I want the people listening to this, if this is something that's interesting to them and they want to take it back to their own studio, if they're not practicing this sort of flow production kind of thing. Many studios do practice some amount of flow production, maybe if they don't necessarily call it that. But by breaking the steps of production into smaller chunks and assigning those to separate individuals, you essentially are creating a flow production type of situation in your studio, and you can maximize on that.

But we talk about it in the episode, we talk about the P word, productivity. We don't want this to turn into a situation where you're trying to squeeze every last image out of your team. The idea of this is to focus your team on the ways that they can have the most impact. And part of that impact is by doing the things that they're good at that they enjoy doing. So, again, to use an analogy that is ripe from my background as a photographer, I'm not adding a ton of value and necessarily enjoying the work that I'm doing if I'm spending a lot of time updating spreadsheets about how many things I took pictures of, and that sort of thing. Tracking down missing images, while yes, maybe it is my fault that those images are missing, is really disruptive to the process. It takes away from my ability to create great images. And this is true at every step of the process. So, we want you to use this information responsibly to create a better environment for your teams, a more efficient environment for your teams.

And then invest the time and space that you saved in giving your teams the things they need to do the best possible work. Not trying to squeeze every last bit of productivity out of them. So, it's a little personal PSA up top. With that, we're going to get into this episode Flow Production for the Modern Studio. This is the eCommerce Content Creation podcast. I am your host, Daniel Jester, very proud to be hosting Spain's 197th Most Popular Management podcast. My guest Adam Parker today might be surprised to hear that particular statistic. I'm surprised that there are almost 200 management podcasts that are, I guess they're not from Spain, I guess they can be from anywhere. But just ranked in the Spanish charts. What say you about this, Adam?

Adam Parker:

I say Ola to our listeners there and hello to all of our listeners elsewhere.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah, 197th ranked management podcast in Spain. 54 management in Sweden and 223 in Australia. So, I don't know, I don't know what to make of the numbers, but they mean something to somebody somewhere.

Adam Parker:

Gaining traction in Sweden.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah, we're not here to talk about the podcast. We're here to talk on the podcast about flow production. So, some of our listeners may be aware that Adam and I recently participated in the Henry Stewart Photo Studio Operations Event that was co-located with some of their other creative operations and design ops events. It was a virtual event. We had 20 minutes to talk about whatever we wanted, and we chose to talk about flow production and what it means to the modern e-commerce photo studio. We realized in preparing for that session that we were not going to have time to touch on the things that we really wanted to touch on. So, we decided to record an episode of the podcast to elaborate on some of the things that we discussed during that session.

We're going to spend the first couple of minutes here recapping the things that we talked about in that session for those listeners of hours who maybe did not attend that session or don't have access. I'm not sure if the recording is available. I know this conference costs money to attend, so I don't know if those recordings are out there and available for people are not. But Adam, why don't you run us through what we talked about in the session itself and then we'll kind of elaborate on the parts that we think that we can dig a little deeper on.

Adam Parker:

I'm actually very relieved to be talking with you in this context and not trying to rush through a live presentation. So, this is great. What we started talking about was this general idea of flow production and also the idea of bottlenecks and how to reduce them, how to protect them. And we also left folks with some things we called the okay now, which were takeaways that folks could have and walk away and immediately use within their studio. So, yeah, talking about just what is flow production, this was something we were only able to spend 30 seconds at the conference, so it would be nice to talk a little bit more about. It's a concept that a lot of people are already familiar with without really knowing it. The flow production is sometimes called continuous production, and it's really this ideology that comes out of manufacturing, lean manufacturing. And people really tend to associate it with car manufacturing with Henry Ford and assembly lines, and they're not wrong.

That is where this concept comes from. But we're not here to talk about manufacturing. We all work in studios. And so I think thinking about your production line from whether it's brief or sample receipt, wherever it starts, all the little steps along the way, through retouching, through the asset delivery. Those are all kind of little stops on this digital assembly line that flows. And so it's really valuable to think about your process as all of these tiny little small repeatable steps stacked one after the other. So, that's one of the really big components about flow production that we talked about. That's really key to just understanding it in general.

Daniel Jester:

To segue into specifically the meat of what we talked about in the session is this idea of bottlenecks. And like you pointed out, each step of that production process represents basically a bottleneck. And we say bottleneck because every step in your process has a certain capacity. No studio in the world has unlimited capacity to receive, unpack, prep, shoot, and retouch product. They just don't have unlimited capacity. You have number of sets, square footage of the studio available. Talent is one that I bumped up against all the time at Amazon. I tried to keep a roster of two capable photographers for every set that I had in my studio. So, I always had staffing for them. And even that was quite challenging. We were a small studio and it was quite challenging. And so what we need to look at when we're talking about, and it's maybe it's even a misnomer, Adam, to call it flow production, because really what we end up ultimately talking about are kind of the basics of continuous production.

But what we're talking about is really continuous improvement also in a lot of ways. Like looking at your production process, identifying the bottlenecks, and then making a decision about those bottlenecks. Is this bottleneck necessary and what can I do to protect or expand the throughput of this bottleneck? Protect meaning, don't put tasks or things on that bottleneck that reduce the throughput and find ways that you can open that bottleneck up a little bit and potentially increase the throughput. So, we shared an anecdote in the session that kind of is in line with that sort of continuous improvement mentality of looking at things that you are doing and deciding does this add value for the places that it needs to add value? And sometimes you can be really ruthless and cutthroat and say, does it add any value to the customer who wants to buy the product?

And in the studio, the end consumer of what we're selling is not the only customer that we have to service. There are of customers on both web teams and merchandise teams, and we have to kind of balance the needs of many customers. But we shared this anecdote about our QA process in a studio that I worked at. And realizing through a system of reporting that we had created, that 95% of assets that went through this QA process didn't require any action from the person who was doing the QA. And were we willing to accept potentially 5% of our images in this high volume studio having some minor QA issue, the vast majority of that QA issue being missing images, which is pretty easily remedied. It's not hard to fix that. But it is extraordinarily disruptive to your production process. And so we shuffled some responsibilities around and we were able to eliminate this QA step entirely, recoup about 300 square feet of studio space because of the space needed to queue up product.

Again, we're talking about bottlenecks. A very obvious bottleneck in your studio is where is product stacking up and waiting to be serviced in some way? So, we recouped 300 square feet of space in our studio by eliminating the step, and I think most importantly freed up our very, very smart, very capable digitech from sitting there and just scanning and reviewing images that didn't require any action from him. To start to problem solve other things in our studio, his role went from being do this mundane task over and over and over again until you find something that needs your attention to how can we focus your attention on solving problems? And then you're adding value to every other part of the process from there because you become now, like if a photographer had a problem, they're missing an image. Don't try to solve that for yourself if you can't do it quickly.

If you process it out of capture one and it goes where it's supposed to go and it's still not hitting the folder or the dam that it's supposed to hit, call over the digitech, have them dig into it. They become a focused problem solver that keeps that other bottleneck protected. The photographers keeps their time protected. So, really a lot of what we're talking about is kind of challenging what's going on in your studio and asking the hard question of is this still necessary to do? Is there some technology that can remove the need for this step? Is there a way that we can shuffle around the workflow in our studio to avoid some of the problems that come up with this or the things that impact the bottleneck? I have another story about shooting jewelry in a fashion studio that I don't know if now's the right time to jump into it, Adam, or if you had any thoughts on this. But by changing around our workflow, we saved a ton of time because ... I'll just jump into it.

We're shooting jewelry on model first and then shooting it on table top. And what that resulted in is a lot of skin oils and blemishes on that jewelry when it went to the tabletop set. And the thing about jewelry, for any of our listeners who have never shot jewelry or unaware. The most expensive, most high end piece of jewelry that you could get in your studio, I'm not even going to throw out a brand, whatever your favorite luxury jewelry brand is. Looks incredible when you're holding it in your hand. But the macro lens of a camera is so unforgiving. You see every little blemish in the metal, all these casting marks, all of this stuff, forge marks. You see all of these things think that-

Adam Parker:

I think my least favorite job I've ever done was shooting diamonds.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah, there's just so many things that you see that the camera sees the naked eye can't see. The most beautiful piece of jewelry that you hold in your hand can be awful looking. And then when you start to layer on that, now you've got skin oils, skin flakes, I know that's gross, but it's true, dust and things. Because we were putting these pieces of jewelry on the models and then shooting them at tabletop, and we realized that bottleneck was being directly impacted by that process because that photographer's job was no longer just shoot great images of this jewelry. Their job was clean this jewelry as much as you can and then shoot great images of this jewelry. And so what we decided to do is we said, hey look, we're not shooting this jewelry macro on these models. You're not going to see any of these issues, these handling issues on the model that you'll see.

If we take this jewelry, we check it in and we send it to tabletop first, shoot it there, and then bring it back and shoot it on model. We eliminate the need for the photographer at tabletop to spend half their time cleaning that piece. And when it goes to the model, you're not going to notice any of those issues anyway, so it's not a problem. And this was a weird thing for some of the studio team to get, because in this particular studio, it was a very linear workflow. Products literally came in one door at one end of the studio and went out the other door. And that's kind of how they had designed their workflow to minimize moving back and forth. You kind of understood that there was sort of a current to the studio that moved from, I guess it was from north to south if we want to talk about it like that.

And what this required them to do is to say, okay, we're going to take this rack of jewelry and we going to shuffle it way up or downstream and then shuffle it back upstream. But again, we have to look at, that's one of those cost benefit analysis things. Is it too confusing or too time consuming to move a rack down and then bring it back versus having that photographer spend a bunch of their time cleaning that piece of jewelry and then still maybe not getting the best possible image they could get because there's only so much that you can do cleaning a jewelry piece once it's been put on somebody. So, again, thinking about those bottlenecks.

The things that impact those bottlenecks and thinking about even your physical workflow, having an impact on how quickly and how efficiently your team can do their job. All of that stuff has to be on the table. All of that stuff has to be, you have to be willing to ask those questions. Why do we do this? What value does it add and do we need to continue doing it? Or is there a solution, technological or otherwise that can remove the need for this part of the process?

Adam Parker:

Yeah, I totally agree. There's a few interesting things that you said there that I'd like to comment on. And I think one of them is exactly what you said about being able to look at every step and whether it actually adds value, and especially through that lens, as you said, of adding value to the customer, to the end goal of this entire process. And one of the things from breaking your process up as we discussed at the top of this, into all of these small, separate little spaces along this assembly line, this digital assembly line that we have in our minds is that it makes it much easier to see which pieces of a process or a sub-process are actually adding value. And then also to get even further in there and see what is my team adding value to by being a creative, by being this awesome team member?

And what's something that a machine could just add value to or could just get knocked this out itself? So, thinking of a step in your process isn't retouching, that's not a step. There's so many sub-processes within retouching. One of which could be background removal or things like that, that you could easily automate if you've got these tools in place. And if you've got your process broken up in such a way that you can automate little bits and pieces of a sub-process and then leverage your team just to add value from, to add their value to this process in the parts where only they can do it, whether it's so an art director. I mean, I'm sure there's going to be some point where AI is making selects and maybe whatever. This isn't that podcast. But if that's how your art director's adding value to at this time, let them work on that and they're not maybe checking the product.

Is this the actual product I'm reviewing? Am I looking at the red shirt? Is the tag matching? An art director shouldn't be doing any of that. They should be adding their value of their eye and their vision. Yeah. Being able to look at everything and see your process clearly, see what's adding value and being able to break it apart in that way is super important and really just kind of key to exactly what we're talking about.

Daniel Jester:

Let's talk a little bit about at what point you decide to stop breaking up the process. Because I feel like this is a concept that you and I, I don't think you and I have directly argued about this. But I know I definitely have had this argument with somebody at some point. And I think that we have talked about it. But there's a point at which it just doesn't make sense to break up steps anymore. And the example that I'm going to use is if you really wanted to resemble the most efficient style, or I don't know if maybe the efficient is the right word to use. But the sort of quickest moving assembly line for creating product photography in particular. And again, I'm betraying my background as a tabletop product person because I think this example, this sort of analogy works best with sort of tabletop. Is that when you're working in a studio and we'll say we're shooting fashion accessories, so a tabletop accessories set in a fashion studio can see any number of interesting products, belts, socks, hats, wallets, key chains, all of that kind of stuff.

When I was working at Farfetch, we had one set that was dedicated to shooting all of the odds and ends around a collection. Oscar de la Renta, maybe Oscar de la Renta is a bad example. But Proenza would send us a collection and 15 items on that collection were like handbags, wallets, key chains, that kind of thing. And so when you start to think about value add and the tasks that you're asking the photographers to do on set or the stylists to do on set, and what can be automated or what can be broken up, one of the things that you have to think about is camera movement. It's entirely reasonable that a handbag is going to require a couple of different camera angles.

And a handbag is isn't the best example for what I'm describing because typically you're shooting into a bag and then you're shooting into, meaning cameras level with the tabletop and you're shooting a front shot of that bag and then you're shooting what I'd call the overhead shot, which is into the inside of the bag. I think that's a critical shot for buying a handbag. Most companies should absolutely be capturing that. That's not a hard set to build that runs two cameras, so you're not having to actually move the camera. But there are some instances where you have accessories where the style guide may call for a shot where the camera is level with the tabletop, a shot where the camera is maybe 45 degrees down and then another overhead shot. And that presents kind of a ... Go ahead.

Adam Parker:

A great example for that is stuff where you're shooting packaging as well. If you've got the packaging for some socks or the packaging for a belt as well, there's almost always a straight in there, maybe a three quarter, often an overhead where you've got the product removed from the package. So, anyways, I think I totally see what you're describing.

Daniel Jester:

And so when you're describing an assembly line process, one of the things that you can and should question is does it add any value to anybody to have the photographer's job be to move that camera? Because it does kind of present a little bit of a logistical challenge for that photographer. And so I'm admittedly getting very granular, but this is exactly why we decided to record this episode of the podcast so we could get this granular. Because I think it's an interesting thought experiment to think about. And I think there is a correct answer to this, but it's going to sound a little absurd. You're now asking the photographer to choose between, I've got a rack full of socks. And to your point, Adam, to use your example, let's say we shoot the socks overhead, but then they come in a nice box and we shoot that into. Or whatever it is, there's two camera movements that you need to make. Photographers, I see this all the time with tabletop photographers, they want to work as efficiently as possible.

They want to focus on getting great light, getting great gradients in the product, whatever it is. They want it to look as best as possible. And so they start to think like, okay, I got this rack full of this same type of product, I got to shoot, I'm going to shoot all the front shots at one time and then swing back through and shoot all of the overhead shots. And that makes sense from a camera movement angle, but it presents some other issues where you're then working on, essentially you're working on multiple skews all at one time and it becomes very, very easy to lose track of where you are, to miss images potentially, and to do that kind of thing. And if you're using a system like Creative Force, you actually couldn't do that without separating that overhead shot and that into shot into two separate production types because you wouldn't be able to say that I'm done with this image until you shot the other image.

And then again, you're stacking up a bunch of in progress work without completing a product and then moving it down the line. So, the solution might be, one solution might be build a second set for that second camera angle. If you've got a product that requires three distinct camera angles, build three sets that shoot each of those camera angles and shoot each of those images on that set. Again, it's a little absurd, but the point of what we're talking about is how far do you break the process down? You have to make a decision for your studio. How granular do you want to get with this? Is there other solutions? Or to some extent, do you accept that there's going to be some of these sort of logistical trade offs that your team has to make on set?

Adam Parker:

I think the answer is a bit of a cop out, but it's both, right? They're going to be always those logistical trade offs. But I do think, like you said, there is a right answer. And I mean in this situation, I think the right answer might be how much time is lost from moving these camera angles or how many products are missed? If you're able to quantify in some way the struggle, the waste that's created, whatever it is. If you're able to quantify a cost on that time switching, how many of those socks do you need to shoot before it adds up to how much a lens and a couple of sawhorses and a tabletop cost and an additional camera. Whatever your equipment you're using. But in general equipment, yeah, it's pricey if on a consumer level if you're thinking about it for your house.

But when we're talking about a business, these are drops in the bucket if you're really shooting any kind of volume and if it's able to help you achieve any kind of efficiency. So, I would say if you're shooting those socks regularly, probably pretty quickly it would make sense to just add to your equipment. And again, to your other point though, I agree. I mean now my head spinning about ways I could do this in Creative Force with my general knowledge of the tool as well, because I do think there's actually a way to do it. But that's a total rabbit hole we should probably avoid. But anyway-

Daniel Jester:

Exactly. The Creative Force podcast. We can save that. That's a great video to make solving some of these use cases with some of the tools, I think makes sense [inaudible 00:22:17].

Adam Parker:

Totally, totally. But I think the zoomed out a little bit. Let's not zoom out too far, but zoomed out a little bit. I think that another answer there is having robust tools in place are good tools in place is also going to be kind of via make or break on how you decide to approach this. Because to your point, if you're shooting 200 things overhead and those all then go offset to some in between area with a stylist assistant or something, and then those 200 items are coming back to set for another angle, you're absolutely right. Your introducing whole lot of opportunity for either those socks to walk away onto a model shoot that's going on nearby or just to fall on the ... Whatever to create-

Daniel Jester:

[inaudible 00:22:53] yeah. You're bringing up some PTSD of like, I needed that handbag for this last look on set. Well, I'm shooting it right now on tabletop. Man, oh what a world. But listen, this is the great segue to something that the feedback that I've gotten since Tuesday when we did the session with Henry Stewart, Adam was also about this idea of task switching and the danger of task switching. And so I wanted to actually do the exercise that sort of illustrates for you how task switching can cause a problem.

Adam Parker:

And to explain, I think the segue that you're announcing a little bit further, if that photographer goes and they've shot, they're shooting that second set of 200 and they get to the end and it was 198, that photographer has now just turned into a different job coordinator of some other type and they're now searching the studio for those last two samples, the studio manager's been looped in, you've got a stylist on the hunt. Everybody's doing things that are outside of what their role was supposed to be and they're breaking their concentration and frustrating themselves and also not adding the value that they're supposed to be adding. So, all of that is to say example of task switching.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah, I think even more granular than that though, because the thing that's so powerful, and we'll explain it in just a second about this task switching sort of exercise that illustrates this is how similar the tasks are individually, but how switching between them back and forth, over and over again costs you so much time and mental energy. That even if you're, again, if you're shooting the overhead shot of those socks and then the into shot of those socks, and let's say you're shooting all the overheads and then all the intos or you're going back and forth between the both, that literally represents the level of task switching that can have an impact and an actual loss of productivity. And I just want to say, because I just used the P word. Adam and I are not approaching this at all from a standpoint of you got to get the most you can out of your studio.

This is 100% about having happy people doing the work. Because I can tell you that as a photographer working on set, I never wanted to have to solve these problems for myself. I just wanted to shoot great images. That's all I wanted to do. All of the extra stuff was stuff I had to do because that was the system that I was working within. So, all of this is not about squeezing every last drop of productivity out of your team, but it is about enabling them to do their best work that adds the most value. And for a photographer in particular, their best work is the best possible image they can get of those damn socks.

Adam Parker:

And I completely agree. And I think in general too, it could be easy for someone to listen to us describing things like a digital assembly line and think like, hey, my brand shoots 3,000 skews a year or 4,000 skews a year. It's not that intense. We're not shooting 24 hours a day or something. So, maybe this isn't relevant to me. And I would disagree and say just that it's not about necessarily having true continuous production 24 hours a day or squeezing the most out of everyone, but it's about when you are working, being the most efficient, get your work done efficiently when you are working. And to your point, Daniel have folks doing the actual work where they add the most value and where they enjoy it.

Even a retoucher who enjoys retouching, doesn't want to get bogged down into file naming and file movement and hunting down missing files and all of that stuff. They want to retouch. They want to make images look as best they can. So, yeah, it's not necessarily about this maximum productivity. It's about being efficient, working smart, and also letting creatives do the work that they want to do and where they add value.

Daniel Jester:

So, here's the actual exercise-

Adam Parker:

Lets go back to what we're talking about.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah, here's the exercise. Here's what we described in our session and here's what we're going to do right now. And Adam's going to tie me. I'm going to do the exercise. The idea is that you write in rows, the numbers one through 10, the Roman numerals one through 10, and the letters A through L. And the first time you do it, you write through it A, the number one and the Roman numeral one, and you go row by row each of those types of characters.

You time yourself doing that. And then the second time you do it, you do the same thing again, except this time you're going to focus on columns. So, instead of doing the number one, the Roman numeral one and the letter A, you're going to do all of the numbers one through 10, all of the Roman numerals one through 10, and all of the letters A through L. And I'm going to do this as fast as I can. Adam's going to time me doing it both ways. For those of you listening to the podcast, there won't be a video component of this, but we are recording video and I think we're going to post this on LinkedIn. So,

Adam Parker:

Excuse me-

Daniel Jester:

[inaudible 00:27:12].

Adam Parker:

Let me freshen up my hair then if this is going to be ...

Daniel Jester:

I'm repping the My Dodgers t-shirt today, my lifelong fan of the Dodgers. And I don't always count the 2020 season as a world series win. So, I'm hoping that this year is our year. That's a digression we don't need to get into though. All right, so, Adam, you tell me when to go and I'm going to do one through 10 numbers, one through 10 Roman numerals and A through L letters.

Adam Parker:

All right, ready, set, go. Should get some jeopardy music here, perhaps.

Daniel Jester:

No, Calvin, put a little bit of music in here. So, it's actually A through J, it's not A through L, I think that's an actual type on [inaudible 00:28:13]. Okay, done. So, what do we got 33 seconds on my camera? You can see I wrote these rows at a time. One, one, A. Two, two, B. Roman numerals letters. Okay, so that was 33 seconds.

Adam Parker:

That was 33 indeed. 33.18 to be exact.

Daniel Jester:

And so each of those, the task that we're switching is switching between thinking about what's the next number, what's the next Roman numeral and what's the next letter? That's just literally the only task is mentally putting myself in the right context to write the correct next character.

Adam Parker:

Again, not nearly as complicated as running through a studio, chasing down a sample or a file.

Daniel Jester:

Not nearly as ... Okay, so you tell me when to go and I'm going to do it the other way. This time I'm going to do all the numbers, all the numerals, all the letters.

Adam Parker:

Ready, set, go.

Daniel Jester:

Done. Where are we at?

Adam Parker:

19.

Daniel Jester:

19 seconds. Almost half the time.

Adam Parker:

Almost half.

Daniel Jester:

Almost half the time. Here you can see. Maybe not. There we go. Yeah.

Adam Parker:

Yep, there it is.

Daniel Jester:

It's a little, the exposure is a little rough, but there it is. 19 seconds by doing columns. And again, the thing that blows me away about this example is again, the task that you're switching between is just contextualizing where you are in each of those things. They're not that different of tasks. So, we got this out of the book Scrum, which is an excellent book. I highly recommend reading it. I was trying to look for before we recorded this, I was trying to look for, there's a section in this chapter that talks about how much waste you lose to task switching that talks all about, there's science behind this.

In order to do a given task, you have to build a mental construct for yourself. And in order to switch to another task, you have to tear down that construct and build up another one. This is why it can feel so frustrating to be right in the groove of doing something and then to get interrupted to do something else. It's not a cranky person. That's not like somebody who just has a bad attitude or having a bad day. I guess depending on how they respond to the feeling of this is maybe them being a cranky person. But it's not unnatural. The point being, it's not unnatural to feel frustrated by this because it takes time to build that mental construct, to do those tasks and then to tear it down and build a new thing.

Adam Parker:

I think we've all been extremely exposed to this. Anyone who's worked from home over the pandemic of having to go between different family needs and things at your home and jump right back into important meetings and jump right back into other things. And there's a whole emotional component there as well. But just switching between these things is extremely, for myself, I'd say stressful. But no matter if it doesn't cause you stress, it's difficult. I don't think anyone would claim otherwise.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah, absolutely. So, we should spend a few minutes, Adam, talking about the importance to reporting on flow production. Because again, if we're talking about flow production, which is sort of almost a disguise for talking about continuous improvement, there's one of the key elements to improving any process is measuring current state. Understanding what's going on today, and then understanding what the trends are so that you can identify when something changes. So, do you want to tell us a little bit, like you decide where to start, man reporting for the Flow Studio? Let's spend a few minutes talking about it.

Adam Parker:

Absolutely, absolutely. And I'll start, which is maybe tacky, but with a shameless plug for the Photo Studio KPI and reporting guide that I've written recently. And the current chapter, I think it's being released well in the coming week. I'm not sure when this podcast is coming out. But Creative Force is publishing it and it covers flow production and flow reporting. But in general, I think we all kind of know that reporting's a bit like the Wild West. In photo studios you've got these really data heavy organizations that have sort of armies of data scientists and they've got built out looker instances or what have you, and they're really dialed into a lot of different reporting. And you also have photographers writing down on index cards at the end of the day, how many items they shot. There's the gamut of maturity around reporting. So, that's one of the kind of interesting challenges and one of the things that makes it a little difficult to talk in a way that is going to be relevant to everyone.

But in general, there's some things that we can say that are going to be true no matter what. And one of the things I would say is with flow reporting, again, when we think about those steps, we keep talking about that are the production line, the assembly line, whatever we want to call it. A lot of what we talk about when we talk about flow reporting is cycle times. We're talking about in a cycle time is in this context basically how long a process takes from start to end. So, you could look at the cycle time for your entire photography from brief to delivery, but really you're looking at the cycle times of individual steps in your process. So, that could be for your sample team, the cycle time from sample receipt to samples being checked into a ready to shoot rack.

That's a decent example. And so if it usually takes your sample team, say 24 hours to check something in and then get it organized, steamed, prepped, whatever it is, and scanned into a location where it's ready to shoot. So, now you've got an idea of what your cycle time is for that piece of your process. And that's really the beginning of a lot of great stuff there. You can have a KPI where you want to keep that. Or maybe you want to reduce it, can we get that down to 22 hours or 12 hours or whatever is necessary. So, you can look at improvement, you can also measure it. And then also you can see where things change. So, if 24 hours, sticking with that example is how long it usually takes that team to prepare samples to shoot. If all of a sudden stuff starts to become late, you're looking at your flow reporting, everything's looking normal, except your sample cycle time is all of a sudden at 48 hours. It's doubled.

All right, what's going on? And at that point, you're not looking at data reporting, you're looking at data analysis, which is a fancy way of saying figure out what the heck is going on. So, at that point, you got to get out on the floor, someone does go figure out, see what's what. Is something broken? Is something sick? Did we just get a truckload of some other company samples? Whatever's happening. So, I think that's a really key component is cycle times and what they are and being able to measure them. And I think that's one of the big challenges folks have if you don't have more modern tools or more event based reporting, which we could talk about potentially. But if you don't have a- [inaudible 00:34:48].

Daniel Jester:

I think we should, because like you mentioned earlier, reporting in studios runs the gamut. And I've worked in, I don't know, half a dozen different studios for different organizations. And the one thing that was pretty consistent throughout is that reporting, especially individual productivity, was generally pretty hard to get accurately because it really relied on individuals self reporting, which is both, I don't like to go down the path of how honesty plays into self-reporting because I believe that I always hired the best possible people who are going to be honest about their workday.

But the bottom line is that you are literally impacting your team's ability to produce by asking them to self-report. And we have ways of getting this. There's definitely, for one thing, like Adam talked about event-based reporting, something along those lines would be looking at a folder full of images that your team shot and looking at the amount of time between when those images were produced. I think that's a really basic way to say, to actually know what happened on set that day and not rely on the human element to report that accurately.

Adam Parker:

That's actually an awesome idea I hadn't even thought of because I struggle when speaking to people about event based reporting, if they're not using what I would call modern software, because it's very difficult to explain this concept of like, hey, every time you do all of these different things in your process, whether it's scanning a sample, whether it's shooting a frame, whether it's approving an image, whether it's receiving it into retouching, whether it's delivering it to QA, every single thing you do is an event. And if you're using software, it tracks those events and there's a timestamp on those things and you can see the flow of assets and samples and things through your studio.

But if you're not using that kind of software, it's really hard to tell someone, hey, there's 60 different events in your process. Can you tell me about the timestamp breakdown of all those things? Like that's absurd. But I like what you just described because it's a way for folks who might not have this software to visualize it just looking at a finder window of all of the images that have flowed out from that studio a day. And you could see maybe two minute gap in between each one as the person shooting. So, it gives you the idea of seeing those events because Apple is software. And so Apple is definitely taking stock of every event like this image showed up in my finder window.

Daniel Jester:

Capture data is embedded as metadata for images automatically. And so that always seemed to me, and this is one of the things that I kind of pulled my hair out, and I don't want to put this particular company on blast, but I really pulled my hair out working for a company that is first and foremost a tech company that just did not have a way to track individual onset productivity, that didn't rely on manual reporting or making additional scans of a barcode into a separate system. And my point to them always was, I could sit here all day and scan barcodes into the system and never shoot a single product and I would look like the most productive photographer in your studio. Conversely, I could sit here all day and focus on shooting amazing images and forget to scan into this system every time because it wasn't critical.

That scanning into that separate system was not critical to me completing my other task. It was superfluous to that just for the purpose of tracking. And so I could sit here all day and shoot stuff and send images through and look like I'm the worst least productive photographer in the entire studio. It was absurd to me that we had a way to do this already. We had images that were captured in timestamped. There had to be somebody somewhere that we had, our studio was full of really smart scripts that our computers used to do all of these different mundane tasks. You're telling me that somebody couldn't write a metadata dump script that reported that information into a CSV and gave you an average cycle time between image capture or whatever it was that you needed?

Adam Parker:

I think that's a good example though, of trying to solve one tiny little piece of the problem. Of zooming in so far you want to solve one little piece of productivity, and so you're just measuring one scan. Your not in a cohesive system where it would be very obvious if you just scan samples in all day. It'd be like, yeah, okay, great. This guy's the best checker inner and he hasn't shot anything today. That'd be very obvious if you were working in a-

Daniel Jester:

Yeah, very talented scan person.

Adam Parker:

Hey man, we need those too. But that wasn't the job-

Daniel Jester:

[inaudible 00:38:56] nothing thing from across the room. It was like 12 feet. It was amazing.

Adam Parker:

Don't get me started on barcodes. I'd also like to just digress here and say that I really think that at some point we'll need a Daniel Spills the tea podcast where you just put all the companies on blast. But we can talk about that another time.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah, maybe.

Adam Parker:

When you retire Daniel's podcast-

Daniel Jester:

It's not like this podcast is that popular.

Adam Parker:

This is for me, Daniel. This is for me.

Daniel Jester:

Skreff Mesos is going to hear it and be like, what are you talking about my company?

Adam Parker:

I think he might have just heard it.

Daniel Jester:

[inaudible 00:39:26] made up name to protect the innocent.

Adam Parker:

Anyways.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah.

Adam Parker:

I think in general though, to tie this back, I think context is king in reporting in general. And so yeah, reporting on any one item is not super useful to your example about just scanning things. But I think in general, it's like if your productivity goes through the roof and everybody's just producing so much, there's a chart somewhere else in your system that says your turnover has tripled and your sales are tanking. Then maybe cranking up productivity was a really bad decision, or at least the way you're doing it. So, having context to your reporting and looking at different ways it's affecting the business is super important.

Daniel Jester:

I just remembered another story about task switching, but I think I'm going to save it for another venue because it's a really powerful one. And I wasn't directly involved in solving for this, so I can't really take credit for it. But I think it's a pretty interesting story. But the other thing I just want to add about reporting is that the other really powerful thing about collecting data, and I'm not going to say reporting specifically because what I'm about to describe is more of a project based collection of data. But it really democratizes process improvement in your studio because you're going to have a lot of people with an agenda, truthfully. The truth is like none of us don't have an ego when we go to work in a studio. We all want to be the smartest person in the studio. We all want to have the right solution, the right answer.

It's just human nature. It is what it is. But the way that you can sort of circumvent that a little bit when you get people who are disagreeing about the best way to style a backpack on set is to collect data around that. And that's what we used to do at Amazon in particular all the time. Set time aside to say, hey, what if we styled things this way? Or what if we came up with this tool? And I'm really proud of the work that we did at our studio here in Southern California on a tool designed to make it much faster to style backpacks for the front and back shop. And we did it. We knew that this would work. We knew a hundred percent that this tool was going to work, but we needed to be able to prove it. Going back to our podcast episode about making the business case, you can't just go to certain types of leaders and say, I know this is going to work. You have to bring them the data you have.

[inaudible 00:41:30]. You have to bring him the tea. I guess. I don't know if I'm using that right. But what we did is we timed, we spent a day shooting backpacks and timing how long it took to do that styling part of it. When I wasn't shooting and the stylist was doing the styling, I had the timer, the stopwatch. And we realized that yeah, this tool saved us something like 60% decrease in just styling time, which at the end of the day is marginal to throughput on that set because there's a lot of other things that have to go on.

Styling is just one small part of it. But still it justified the idea that, hey, it's worth taking the time to build this tool to save yourself time and frustration. And almost always, almost always, but it's not usually the winner when you're trying to sell this up to a manager. But almost always it will result in some kind of an image quality improvement. And that was kind of what we were after with the backpack styling thing. Once you've taken the time to style up those straps and you need to turn the backpack around to shoot the other side, you don't want to undo all that work. You just want to turn it. Someday I'll draw up what that tool looks like and post it on LinkedIn because it's pretty cool.

Adam Parker:

Nice. Nice. I would also just say a kind of gut check to be more specific about these cycle times and things and not make it general at all is you should be able to ... If someone asks you in your studio, how long do images wait for approval after being shot by art directors? How long does it take for something to be retouched after the retouching team gets it? How long does it take for samples that are received to be styled and ready to shoot? You should be able to answer all of those things. And so I think that's just a kind of very straightforward way of driving home the point. These are all things with cycle times and you should be aware of them, you should be able to speak to them and they should be baked into the KPIs of your studio and the team's responsible.

Daniel Jester:

Absolutely, and I want to direct that message squarely at the people that work in the studio who are interested in moving up into managing their studios. Maybe they're just a photographer or stylist or a lead. But embracing data, and I feel like I've had this conversation before. I feel like in a lot of studios there's sometimes is a fear of data and you really don't need to be afraid. Data is not good or bad on its own. It's just information. And what you do with that information kind of decides whether or not it's good or bad or what it tells you about the reality of what's going on.

If you really are interested in making that jump up into middle or senior management for your studio, really embrace understanding the data inside and now and learning for ways that you can get that information better and faster without impacting the productivity of your teams. When the regional, whatever, I can't remember who it was to visit our studio all the time, but it was some kind of global director of Studio Visits. Their whole job was just visiting studios around the world. But when they show up and you're the person who can answer that question of how long does x, y, z take, it's one of those small wins that makes you feel really good. But it does make you more effective at your job day in and day out.

Adam Parker:

Yeah, I absolutely agree. Absolutely agree.

Daniel Jester:

Adam, is there anything else we want to talk about? I feel like to some extent we were just kind of riffing, but that's kind of what we wanted to do. We got an extra 40 some odd minutes of talking about flow production. But again, to recap, realizing that every step in the process is a bottleneck. Being willing to identify which bottlenecks you do not need anymore or which have a technology solution that can maximize throughput. Protecting the bottlenecks when you can, meaning not bogging down those bottlenecks with extra tasks that pull them away from their core function. And then really digging in on the reporting. Finding a way to report on what's going on in your studio accurately. Knowing where your starting point is so you can know what incremental improvements you're able to make. And then really having that information at your fingertips in a way that allows you to address when things go wrong, to address those things quickly or see opportunities for improvement.

Adam Parker:

And that true flow production is probably something of an unattainable ideal. But it should be an ideal in a North Star and nonetheless to work towards because it supports all those things that you just said.

Daniel Jester:

And if we're just going to shamelessly plug it Creative Force, if you're not running Creative Force in your studio, it really enables a lot of these things. For instance, just the reporting thing, because we spent so much time talking about it. Creative Force logs everything that happens in the system, every time you shoot something it's captured in the system. And so the reporting alone I think makes creative force worth the cost of getting into it. But again, I'm employed by them. They pay my bills, they feed my children. I would say that if they didn't feed my children, take it for what it's worth.

Adam Parker:

As someone who's not employed by Creative Force and they do not pay my bills and I'm not being paid for this podcast, I'd like to complain slash say. As that person I will also say that the flow reporting tools in Creative Force are pretty awesome and I would encourage someone to check them out. They're very cool and they're very robust.

Daniel Jester:

Well, Adam, as always, it's amazing to hang out with you talk shop with you, thinking back to that first time that we met at the IEN conference at the Garland Hotel in Los Angeles in 2019. Sitting around a pool drinking probably whiskey sours or something and talking about this exact topic because we're a couple of huge fucking nerds.

Adam Parker:

That is true. That is true.

Daniel Jester:

All right, dude, have a good one.

Adam Parker:

You too, man. This is good.

Daniel Jester:

That's it for this episode of the E-Commerce Content Creation Podcast. Many thanks to my guest, Adam Parker, and thanks to you for listening. I hope you got something out of this episode that you can use in your own studio, even if it's just doing that crazy task switching exercise just to see how well it works. I don't, maybe I'm way off base here. It really blows my mind. I think it's really cool. The show is produced by Creative Force, edited by Calvin Lanz. Special thanks to my friend Sean O'Meara and to you for listening. I'm your host, Daniel Jester. Until next time, my friends. And Ian, I did not forget about you, even though I did not write down my outro for this episode. I did not forget. Hi, Ian.

About the host

Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Daniel Jester is an experienced creative production professional who has managed production teams, built and launched new studios, and produced large-scale projects. He's currently the Chief Evangelist at Creative Force but has a breadth of experience in a variety of studio environments - working in-house at brands like Amazon, Nordstrom, and Farfetch as well as commercial studios like CONVYR. Creative-minded, while able to effectively plan for and manage a complex project, he bridges the gap between spreadsheets and creative talent.

Creative Operations Consultant