I automated Hidden Factories out of existence, but no jobs were lost
It all started with some grunt work that landed on my team, in the downdraft of a corporate downsizing that wiped out the old group doing the work. Suddenly, I was responsible for producing masses of product images (think: cellphones and their accessories) for AT&T’s e-commerce website. To deliver the work, I had to take three designers away from high-priority work… at the worst possible time.
I couldn’t make the work go away. There was just no way out. But I could find another way to win. It didn’t take much digging to see that everything about the work was a mess. It was ripe for overhaul. As I began digging in, I uncovered a ganglia of nasty business processes up and down the pipeline. The problem was much larger than merely optimizing the graphics work. By the time I finished my overhaul, work that used to take 80 hours, shriveled down to 1. What used to be a massive time suck had shrunk down to a small hobby — and the entire team stood up and cheered!
The alternative wasn’t pretty: Hire more people? (never going to happen); or cut the amount of high-value work we could take on (never a good idea). I put the time we clawed back to a better purpose — increasing our output and expanding our capabilities.
And oh, as a bonus I’d figured out a slick process that I could apply to other scenarios. One year later I replicated the success, this time with some logo resizing work that another team managed to dump on us. I could easily see automation of this kind being applied to use cases ranging from digital banner ad production… to the “poster art” that every TV network in America provides to accompany their shows on platforms like XBox, iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, video on demand, etc.
Automation taps in to one of the great fears of our time — will it (or AI) take away everyone’s job? Some people are taking advantage of the fear by playing up the dire scenarios about the imminent mass extinction of our jobs… and how 1 out of 3 people will end up without work in the coming “jobocalypse”. I even heard a version of this just last week from a career coach trying to (literally) scare up business.
Predicting the future is an uncertain art. But looking at the here-and-now, in the field of design, what I’m seeing is that creative automation enables teams like ours to do more work with the same resources.
One of my designers caught up with me later and wanted to talk about automation. What was going on here? Are more layoffs being planned? The emotional element of this is unavoidable. But my answer was No, nothing to worry about. The simple truth was that everyone on my team could get back to more meaningful work — doing more, and doing it better, with a lower risk of burnout.
Looking back at the work I’ve optimized, one thing does seem to jump out: Hidden problems had become accepted as normal business process. The pipeline itself was contorted and people had invented non-value added workarounds — just to get the work done. (These are called Hidden Factories in Six Sigma parlance. I first began thinking about hidden factories after hearing Tearle Calinog’s presentation at an IEN Creative Operationsconference.)
Hidden Factories were the biggest problem with the logo process. I discovered that two graphic artists (LA vs NYC) were simultaneously taking logos from our entertainment partners and producing a slew of size and format variations for AT&T platforms including open video on DTVNow, the DirecTV set top box, mobile apps, and several locations on two different websites. The poor graphic artists spent as much time naming and organizing the outputs as they did actually doing the work. But get this — the two graphic artists (and their producers) were completely unaware of each other and their parallel workstreams.
Shannon Peterson, one of the producers in question, asked me, How come nobody ever fixed this?
That’s a fair question. All I could say was, “I’m fixing it now.” I could have given a longer answer but that would have sounded like bragging. These kinds of end-to-end creative ops problems are actually hard to solve. And since it’s nobody’s job to actually solve them… well, they just fester on.
Long story short, the changes we implemented gave back three-quarters of a full-time graphic designer job for meaningful work, cleaned up redundant workstreams, and built a clear path for producers and stakeholders. Transparency… accountability… breaking the reactionary cycle — all plusses. As far as Producers’ time saved, it adds up to about 1 day per month.
Nobody lost their job over it.