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Process Improvement 101 with Kevin Mason of Studio Workflow

Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Full episode transcript

Daniel Jester:
From Creative Force, I'm Daniel Jester, and this is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast.
Daniel Jester:
Kevin Mason of Studio Workflow is back for another round to discuss Process Improvement. We start at the beginning. How do we get the perspective we need to evaluate the process, and then, how do we drill down from there? Spoiler alert, many recurring themes that you've heard on this show play into success when you're reviewing your process, not the least of which is how we set and communicate business, studio and individual goals.
Kevin Mason:
What does success look like for the brand? Well, how do you produce that clarity? Is everyone sure in the studio what a goal is? What are they trying to achieve? If that's not clear, then you'll really struggle to implement process change, because people won't understand why it's important.
Daniel Jester:
If you like what you hear in this episode, I encourage you to check Kevin out at studioworkflow.com. His expertise across many facets of creative production at scale gives him the right experience and perspective to help any studio improve their space or build out a new one.
Daniel Jester:
He didn't pay me to say that, I genuinely believe it's true. Let's go.
Daniel Jester:
This is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. I am your host, Daniel Jester. And joining me, welcoming back to the show, Kevin Mason of Studio Workflow. Welcome back, Kevin.
Kevin Mason:
Hi. Thanks for having me again.
Daniel Jester:
We've invited you back to extend the conversation that we had with you last time. Our listeners might remember we had you on to talk about physical studio space considerations, and it was obvious over the course of that conversation, that it was hard to have that conversation without talking a little bit about process improvement and other parts of the process that are impacted or inform the physical workspace, but include other parts of how we work in a studio.
Daniel Jester:
So I wanted to chat with you a little bit about that, but first, last time we had you on, I don't think we spent very much time talking about your work with Studio Workflow. So why don't you give me the quick pitch? What do you do with Studio Workflow, Kevin?
Kevin Mason:
So I am a consultant that gets dropped into studios, I guess when a client potentially has a problem, or when they want to redesign or go into a new studio space. I really come into look at the process, look at the spaces that they've got and also assess. Is it the right building; is the potential new site you're looking at a good building for a studio, so then trying to pitch a design for them. So really it's for me, the business that I run is about studio design and then about process workflow that fits within a design that hopefully I can produce for a client.
Daniel Jester:
So let's jump into our topic of conversation. The first question that I want to ask you, is, I was thinking about having this conversation with you. I was remembering back to a book that I've read. I don't know if you've ever read this book, Kevin, it's called the Phoenix Project. It's kind of a unusual business book in that it's written like a narrative fiction story with characters who, they're interacting with each other, and it's not written like a typical sort of business book, and in the events of the book, there's this mysterious sort of like mentor figure. It's a really weird thing to describe it this way.
Daniel Jester:
There's this mysterious mentor figure who's helping out this employee who's put into this really difficult situation to get this project back on track, and he takes him up to a catwalk above a production floor, and from this perspective, things that he couldn't see about the process suddenly become more clear to him because he's removed himself from the ground level and he's up high.
Daniel Jester:
And so, I wanted to ask you. That seems like a great place to start when we're talking about evaluating workflow, is how do we make sure that we've got the right perspective, we're not influenced by things that we're too close to, to start to look at our process and see where we can make improvements?
Kevin Mason:
Okay, to kind of understand, I guess where we're coming from, and to get a view on how I fit into that, and I can only really obviously talk from my own experience with these things, but I first of all have to look who's brought me in to the studio, first of all, and what is it that they're trying to fix, because they always have something in mind, and it may be that they feel that their process is broken or it's not efficient enough and so on. So, one of the first things that I'd do is look at that person's role.
Kevin Mason:
First of all, how deeply involved they are in the studio, and try and assess what it is that they're trying to achieve. To get an idea of perspective, then I'm always asking them, first of all, "Okay, well give me a process document for the studio".
Kevin Mason:
That's my opening gambit with people that bring me in, because I get a couple of responses. One, they'll just email me something and it's, "Here's the whole process map for the whole studio." The other option is that someone just goes quiet for a bit and they're, "Oh, I don't necessarily have that." Or they send me a process document, it comes from each line manager that's related to a particular part of the studio.
Kevin Mason:
And for me, that gives out lots of different signals. The ideal, obviously, as you know yourself is, "Oh, we've got one map for the whole studio", and yes, we may think that there's difficulties here, but we've got one. The worst case scenario is when they don't have anything at all. And I've had numerous instances of all of those examples.
Daniel Jester:
How would you say it shakes out percentage wise? What percent of the time do they have something that reflects what is actually happening, and what percent of the time do they have no document to share at all, or admit it to you, I should say.
Kevin Mason:
That's a good question. I think that really depends on the size of the client. So obviously, the bigger the client, the more they've had to get their process in place.
Daniel Jester:
Sure.
Kevin Mason:
So, for someone, and I can talk to this, I guess, to some extent with someone like Zalando. They have a process team that deals directly with the studio. So getting documents out of them is great. It's very straightforward. They've mapped every part of the flow.
Kevin Mason:
Some clients haven't got to that point where they've needed to do that, or they don't think that they've needed to do that. I'd say it's probably about 30, 30, 30 in all of those kind of scenarios though, of having nothing or having a lead that they've done their part for the studio, but they haven't done how that feeds into the next part. That's also quite common for me.
Daniel Jester:
The bottom line for this part of it though, is that all of these clients big and small actually do have a process. Whether they have it documented or not, they probably are doing at least some of the things similar ways, and so I think a place to start before they call you, Kevin, is sit down and just write out at least what you know.
Kevin Mason:
Yeah, absolutely, and this is what I was touching on at the beginning, is normally, people bring me in when there's a real need to take action on something. So it may be that they have a problem, or it might be they're going to a new space, so that's caused them to think for a second, "Okay. What do we need to try and address here?", because normally then it will be looking at the process at the same time, so it's a little different to how they would normally operate, because there's a kind of a call to action.
Kevin Mason:
And then, coming to your first question with that is, I like to do a couple of things, is obviously get a document, but then I like to just get into the studio and just walk around, first of all, ideally, with someone who's brought me into the project, and then eventually I would then go with leads for each department, but I like to just have a general walkthrough, first thing in the morning, then at midday, and then really at the end of the day, just to get a sense of, "What does the studio look like?", "Is there product everywhere?", "Does it look like product is flowing through a space?", because you can see that, really clearly a lot of the time.
Kevin Mason:
You can really see where are bottlenecks. Is every set starting at the same time? Is someone just wandering around, looking a bit confused and they're trying to find their rail somewhere, and all of those things are really strong indicators of, is the studio following the document that they have in place?
Daniel Jester:
You brought up an excellent point that I hadn't considered or thought of in this way, but if you think of a process map and it matches what you see in the studio as being two dimensional, time adds a third dimension. Things might go great until lunchtime. The process might look like it's working really well until lunchtime, so those various check-in points throughout the day make total sense, because time is another element where it might work at first and then it breaks down, so even though that may mean that you have to find something that happens at a particular juncture of the production, not necessarily something in the process itself that's breaking down, but something that occurs over time.
Kevin Mason:
I mean, this is one of the things that I love about building. So, my background is kind of architecture, as well as photography, and buildings, they provide you with those kind of answers. You'll be able to walk around a building and you'll see the physical properties of the building in terms of, "Is it producing a bottleneck?", and it does ebb and flow. A building is a very physical space, and it is the process map, written in the physical space, so you get to see those problems, and you rarely get to see how they move throughout the day, which is really key to my understanding of it, because even the best run studio, it may all start at 9:15, but then at three o'clock in the afternoon, everyone runs into similar kind of problems.
Daniel Jester:
Right. Interesting, very interesting to think about. The other thing I wanted to comment on, and I'm not sure if you've seen this, but one of the studios that I worked at for quite a while was mostly a hard-good studio, and there were 80% of the things that we shot could fit into a shoebox size bin, and so one of the things that we did was we said, all product has to be in a bright yellow bin, and that way it's very obvious to see it throughout the studio. If you see, there's no cardboard box with a product in it that gets set down somewhere and just disappears into the landscape, you can see very clearly these racks of bins, and it was interesting to watch that, like one of those ink tests they do sometimes when you go to the doctor, you can see those bright colored bins kind of flowing through the studio and see where they're stacking up and see where they're moving well and that sort of thing.
Kevin Mason:
You know, that's also a key thing for me, is I really am keen to get clients to tag product in a way that's really visual. I think the visual kind of clues of something is aging or something shouldn't be in this position or something should have moved to the next stage is really good. Especially, dealing with creatives that hopefully get triggered by visual things, but you'll find it's, when I walk around the studio and I'll walk with the lead or someone like that, I want them to be able to say, "Well, this product is jarring, because it's sitting out of place in some way." That's an ideal scenario for me, that it should be really clear, "This is in the wrong place," and that's a good thing, because now we've been aware of that.
Kevin Mason:
Sometimes you'll walk into a studio, and especially if it's on model fashion, it's impossible to tell what's styling, what's the actual product they should be shooting, what is the stuff that's meant to be going to the digitech. There's just products everywhere and it can be overwhelming, and that's interesting for me, but I can see then, as a studio, that's really chaotic for people to get a handle on what they need to do next.
Daniel Jester:
The visual cues for aging stuff I think is really important, and you jogged my memory of another process that I recall where every day of the week, Monday through Friday had a different colored tag for the product. That was a really easy way for the team on set, and it was ingrained with everybody to say, "Today is Tuesday," so if the tag is supposed to be blue, and we see a red tag coming down the line and that was the previous Friday, which means that's been in here too long. That should have been dealt with, and so now it jumps to the front of the line and everybody's on deck to watch out for that because it's really obvious in a sea of blue tags that there's some stragglers hanging out there.
Kevin Mason:
That's something that I've worked with a lot as well, and the idea that, "Okay, if it's a re-shoot, it should have a different color, it's a problem item," and those things always jump to the front of the queue and everyone can always see it. Like you say, it's red or purple, it's a priority and let's move forward with that.
Daniel Jester:
If it's an outlier in the process, we had a situation where things would get tagged with black if they just needed to go skip photography altogether and go directly to digitech for some reason. I can't remember to the circumstances that that would happen, but it did come up.
Daniel Jester:
Very interesting. I feel like we went down a little bit of a rabbit hole there. Let's come back to our high level perspective, the process map. We can't get up on a catwalk like they can, the guys in the Phoenix Project can, but we certainly can review our process document or at the very least, write out what we think our process is, and then like you mentioned, we can walk the floor. So, now that we have maybe the perspective that we're looking for, we've probably identified some things that look kind of weird. How do we start to dig into those things?
Kevin Mason:
I think it depends on what level we want to dig into them. So, let's say in the scenario that we've got the overall process map for the whole studio, obviously it needs to break down into kind of tasks and roles at some point. It's always good for me to then go into say a particular set, let's just pick a model set, and see if the people in there without kind of testing them, but if they understand the process map, and as much as does any of it going to make sense to them, because, what I always find is that people always say they have different goals, they take the quickest route to get to the outcome that they want to, and it may be that the process map works beautifully until it gets to the point of content creation within the set. So, it's then about breaking that down and say, "Okay, for your individual role, does this make sense to you?", and watching what someone does in a set is also then really key to understanding that.
Daniel Jester:
Matching up the process map with the physical actions that are happening, we can all draw out a document and take the steps, and then, we've talked on the show about process improvement before and it coming from bottom up as opposed to top down, and that is because there's often a disconnect between what a mid-level or senior-level manager in a studio thinks the process is and what the team is actually doing to either overcome some barrier that they've run into.
Daniel Jester:
A lot of times, and I'm sure you've seen this dozens of times Kevin, is a bandaid for a problem that doesn't even exist anymore that carries on because that problem changed or got solved, but the rest of the process didn't, and that's one of the interesting things that I wanted to talk to you about next is that sort of domino effect of some of these things sometimes, and it can be hard to figure out what is the root cause of a problem and what is the symptom. Are we seeing, at this point in the process, are we seeing a symptom of a problem that occurs somewhere else, or have we identified the root cause? How do we know?
Kevin Mason:
I think it's an interesting thing, because there's a lot of different solutions for that. And one of them for me is really just about watching what people actually do. So if we take a specific example, so your process map might be the photographer's shooting something. If it's the wrong size or it doesn't look like the color it says on the label, for example, maybe they're meant to take it over to the digitech or maybe they're meant to take it to production. On the process map that might make a lot of sense, but actually where the physical model set is, maybe quite far from the digitech, so maybe they only take five problems at lunchtime rather than take the problem on a kind of step by step, each time it occurs way, which the process map would request us to do. So a lot of that is then coming down to looking in a set saying, okay, well, "Is there product, just say, hanging off the desk?", and if it's hanging off the desk, we're asking the photographer or stylist, "Well, what is this?" And they'll probably say, "Well, it doesn't fit the model" or "It's a problem for some particular thing.", and it's, for me, it's then trying to kind of keep that physical space and a process map together and go, "Okay, well, why has this not moved over to the digitech?"
Kevin Mason:
That also then is about, I tend to find the people that do the process maps, they're not so involved in the physical space. They maybe don't even think in that way because they have a different kind of analytical view on things, and it's trying to get them to understand, "Let's actually walk with the product." Let's walk with it to the place it's meant to go, follow the step that's in the map and walk it to the next place and so on, and if those things become tedious or really kind of disruptive to your workflow, then you need to go back to the document and think, "How do we change this document?, or "How do we change the physical space and move the desks closer together?," for example.
Daniel Jester:
And it becomes like you asked it kind of in there, my question was a little bit leading on some root cause analysis kind of stuff, but you asked it in there, which is asking the question "Why?". The problem that I'm seeing is garments that are stacked up on this set that shouldn't be here anymore.
Daniel Jester:
Why is this occurring? And the "Why?" is it's got to go to digitech, but I don't have time to take it over there right now, because it's towards the end of the day and we're a little bit behind on our numbers or it's I got to walk all the way across the room and everyone's going to be waiting for me, what you just described, and so, in that case, it only takes us one question of asking "Why?", to kind of get to that sort of root cause, which is that their physical layout maybe has problems or they need to come up with another creative solution to move that product along without disrupting what the team on set is doing.
Kevin Mason:
Then it's also in that kind of brief conversation you have with the people on set or whatever that role is, its helping them to understand why it also needs to move to the next point, because maybe all the product you've got in from a particular brand is the wrong size for example, and someone just holding it back from 15 different sets has not allowed the producer to flag up, "Oh, we've got the wrong items in here," or the wrong size or the wrong model's been booked, and it's really about them getting people to understand what happens downstream, and how does that kick back into what should be a decision that happens upstream again.
Daniel Jester:
That ties back exactly to Daniel's Core Tenets of Working in a Studio TM. I trademarked that, so you don't take that from me Kevin, but one of them is being aware of how your work affects other people and to try to minimize the amount of work that you create for other people, and a lot of that is just about, like you pointed out, being aware that the problem that you're experiencing or the individual situation that you're experiencing may be symptomatic of, like you said, an entire shipment of product that's the wrong size and the wrong model is here.
Daniel Jester:
I don't know if I've shared this on the podcast before, but I definitely think about it all the time, which is that there are sometimes competing priorities in a studio, to your point that you also mentioned, which is that sometimes for a photographer, it might be easier to shoot an entire rack of product in a certain way that bottlenecks that product and it sits there, and that might be great for them, you're doing your job faster and slightly more efficiently, but now you're hitting your digitech with 40 products at the end of the workday that they have to review and they need to get them done in their workday because you kind of sandbagged them on your own set, so your entire team having a little bit of awareness about upstream and downstream and the domino effect that we talked about can be huge towards just keeping things moving sometimes.
Kevin Mason:
Yeah. I love that to be honest, because I really think the different priorities is a real key to understanding the studio. One of the things I like about studio is that there's so many different skill sets, there's so many different areas and it's its own kind of organic mass in some way and it's sort of an ecosystem, and the different priorities really talks to that, so I can kind of give you an example. For instance, there's a stylist on set and they're holding back items because they're going to use them for additional styling throughout the day, and let's say they've got brand alliances that they can only put certain brands together, for example, to build the look.
Kevin Mason:
Now from a visual content point of view, they're doing a great job because they're really thinking "What are the looks that I can build?", "This top goes really well with something else that I'm going to style later", so they're holding something back, and they're doing the right thing for their priorities of making really strong visual imagery, but then the item needs to go to the digitech and it needs to go eventually to outbound and holding it back is a really bad thing for the kind of whole ecosystem of the studio, so then for me, it's really about saying, "What are the priorities?", "What's more important?", "Who gets to make the decision in these things?", and "What's the key driver?" Is it throughput of the studio or is it the visual content of making really beautiful styling? If it's about visual styling, how can we maybe get that item to the digitech, but then get it back onto set so that we can then use it throughout the day again for example, but it's in our workflow.
Daniel Jester:
And now we've introduced this idea that we've talked about a bunch on the podcast, which is making sure that your studio goals align with business goals, which align with individual goals and that everybody is aware of it, because if your goal is elevated imagery and you're willing to sacrifice some SLA in service of that, everybody's got to be on the same page.
Daniel Jester:
This is a great segue into another question that I wanted to ask you, which is how can we avoid wherever possible unintended consequences of changing our process, so making sure, I guess that we understand the impacts of the changes that we might make so that we can be, like we just talked about, be aware if we're willing to make that sacrifice or just otherwise not impact negatively our process in a way that we didn't intend it.
Kevin Mason:
That's a good question. That's a tough one to answer. I think that I would approach it in a couple of ways. If I've got a process team that I can work with or a point person, then we try and map out what are all the eventual kind of outcomes of this, first of all, what happens if it breaks, what happens if every point of this process forces a kind of reject of some kind and, we may stick post-it notes up or we may just work on different outcomes on a process diagram, and then for me really, before we kind of make any changes, it's about bringing the leads in and saying, "Okay, these are the things we think we're going to do. How do you think that's going to impact someone else in your team, that first of all, may not agree with it?", because that's a big part of it. "You know, we're going to bring disruption, we may bring extra workload, extra time. Hopefully we think it's going to be more efficient, but do you think your team will kind of push back on this?", and then trialing it in small stages?
Kevin Mason:
You know, sometimes I have the luxury of a client that has 30 bays or 40 bays and so on and we can go, okay, these three, we're just going to isolate them, we're going to implement some changes and we're going to see downstream, how does that affect things and how does it impact?
Kevin Mason:
I think there's always the kind of usual thing of your desired outcome, but where people will find a shortcut and people will always find a shortcut and you have to kind of try and preempt that and then get back into the set and ask them why are they doing it. Maybe it makes sense to them at the time.
Daniel Jester:
And maybe it makes sense to the process as a whole. Sometimes those shortcuts are actually a good idea. That was one of my favorite things that we would do at Amazon a lot, is share those quick wins among studios and we'd adopt them from other studios, because it was like a great idea or a great little trick that somebody figured out and trying to bubble those up.
Daniel Jester:
I implore all of the mid-level photo studio leads that listen to this show to try to bubble up some of those things. If you have a photographer who's got some snazzy way to set their camera up faster, any little thing like that, I think that those all have a really positive impact on the rest of the team.
Kevin Mason:
Yeah, and I think to just kind of jump in on that, I think that the solution always exists somewhere within your team. You know, part of my role really, I feel, is to kind of bring people together, get them to talk about things a bit and say, "What were you thinking about a proposal that might work?", because, and this is why I like to get in on the studio floor, is that we are talking about people that do the same task hundreds of times a day, and that forces a lot of the time people to find quicker and better ways to do things, and as people that design workflow, we should respond to that and we should kind of try and embed some of that into their system. I don't think that there's many times that I've kind of gone into a studio and just come up with an idea that I have brought to it.
Kevin Mason:
It's really about watching what the people are doing and saying, "Okay, what do you want to try?," and "What did you learn from previous roles that you had?," for example. One of the key things also I feel with this is, can you get an opportunity to job shadow? Downstream, upstream? Can you understand what the previous person's role is in the workflow? And if you can get a chance to experience that, you'll probably make some decisions differently in your own day of how you handle product or how you push it through a workflow. So you'll find if you have mid-level managers that listen to this, I really think go and ask your teams what they would do differently, and if you get a couple of different teams together, you'll probably come up with the good solution to trial.
Daniel Jester:
Kevin, you've mentioned a couple of times, the idea of working with a process team at some of your clients and as an American, who's only worked in American studios, but I have worked for companies that were based in Europe, I feel like it's been a trend for a while in European companies to have a Process Engineer specifically for the studio, and it's not something that I've seen as often here in the United States. A caveat to my listeners, I've been out of the game for a couple of years, so if this has changed recently, please let me know, but I always thought it was a really interesting idea if it was implemented in the correct way. Can you speak to that trend a little bit? Are you seeing that a lot in Europe and do you know how widespread or how impactful it's been?
Kevin Mason:
Definitely with the clients that I've been dealing with in Europe, I definitely see that more. I see it more than even in the UK to some extent, if we can kind of separate in that way too. I think that some of that has maybe come out of the fact that if you change someone's kind of job description or the role that they're doing in Europe, there's a lot of legislation around that, so the companies are very protective about writing those job specs and what they would do, and if they introduce a change, it has to be approved by numerous different people and so on. So they've put a lot more time potentially into how they go about process change and getting sign-off and working on the documents and so on.
Kevin Mason:
From my experience of running studios in the UK, that's not quite the same. You seem to be able to change someone's job role overnight, and it's a little different. I don't know whether that is the driver in Europe, but you know, it potentially is one of those things, and clients that I have in Germany, you have to really have mapped something out before you introduce "Okay, your role is changing."
Daniel Jester:
Very interesting. Kevin, excellent conversation. Thank you so much for coming back on the show, and I feel like this could go on for another 30 minutes if we wanted it to, I think we're going to probably have to have you on regularly, but anything else that you want to add for our listeners about just the idea of process and workflow and space as sort of a closing thought before we wrap up this episode?
Kevin Mason:
Yeah. I think it's to really break it down into what individual's role is. What did they see as success for themselves for the day? And I think you touched on it a little bit earlier, that say for example, for a photographer, success might be for them that they don't lose connection between the camera and capture, a hundred times a day-
Daniel Jester:
Yeah. [crosstalk 00:26:41] That's a very real one.
Kevin Mason:
Sure, and if you talk to people about what their pain points are, that might be the photographer's goal, to actually get the system works for them. Whereas for production, it's shooting 35 looks a day, and for me, it's really about saying, "Okay, what does success look like for that individual? How do we bring all those things together into our ecosystem to make the studio successful?", because there's so many competing targets there.
Daniel Jester:
Right.
Kevin Mason:
The other thing just to finish on that is, and I think you mentioned also, "What does success look like for the brand?" Well, how do you produce that clarity? Is everyone sure in the studio what a goal is? What are they trying to achieve? If that's not clear, then you'll really struggle to implement process change, because people won't understand why it's important.
Daniel Jester:
Right. Excellent thoughts and excellent discussion overall Kevin. Thank you so much for your time and coming on the show again and talking with us and I can't wait to have you back.
Kevin Mason:
That's a pleasure. Thank you as always,
Daniel Jester:
That's it for this episode. Many thanks to our guest, Kevin Mason of Studio Workflow for joining us and thanks to you for listening. The show is produced by Creative Force, edited by Calvin Lanz. Special thanks to my friend, Sean O'Meara. I'm your host, Daniel Jester. Until next time my friends.

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.