JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

Lean manufacturing gained traction in the 1940s when automobile manufacturers worked to eliminate steps in the manufacturing process that did not add value. Lean manufacturing came to include examples from overproduction (producing something before it was needed), work in progress (work that takes too long to complete because of scheduling problems, and transportation (moving products from one location to another).

A famous example of a lean transformation occurred when Boeing discovered it was less expensive to bring parts and labor to the plane under construction rather than moving the plane to different areas in or even outside of the plant.

Unfortunately, the principles of lean manufacturing have not taken on a strong role in information development. I recall an outstanding presentation a few years ago by Emily Mydlowski at the Best Practices conference. She described the lean process she had put in place at the Hach Company by insisting that the information-development process would not begin until and unless the product developers met a list of criteria, focused on the readiness of the product. Certainly, she needed to ensure that the writers had sufficient work to keep them busy, but that is rarely a problem in most organizations.

Many of the managers at the conference were shocked by the audacity of refusing to begin writing before the stage was properly set. Yet, by doing so, Emily’s team was able to reduce wasteful rewriting and reduce the total time required to produce user content.

You can read Emily’s article on the lean practice here.

Single sourcing supports Lean Practices

Perhaps the most influential lean initiative in information developing has been single sourcing, facilitated by the introduction of the OASIS DITA standard in 2005. For decades, information developers had been plagued by the need to update the same information in multiple places, resulting in expensive and wasteful effort and frequent errors. The process for updating content was the very definition of non-lean.

Through the evolution of authoring tools to support single sourcing, information developers have been able nearly to eliminate redundant work. Information is written once and reused as appropriate in multiple deliverables. That information is also updated once, eliminating waste in the overall process.

We continue to disagree, of course, about the extent of cost savings that have resulted from single sourcing, but most organizations report that errors and time spent have both been reduced.

Lean opportunities abound

We have many more opportunities to eliminate wasteful processes in information development. Eliminating writing about poorly conceived and often incomplete product features is a strong possibility. I’m certain you’ve had lots of experience wondering what customers would ever use or even understand some of the features that product developers come up with.

We might also consider the misguided use of agile development practices in which scrum masters insist that writers produce weekly content about designs that are in progress, barely understood, and likely to be abandoned. Recently, a manager pleaded with colleagues on a LinkedIn site to give her ammunition to argue against a wasteful process being imposed on her staff.

Customers also tell us that some or much of the legacy content on our websites has little or no value to them. They demonstrate their views by never accessing certain content while complaining, often in the same breath, that they need more content.

Large amounts of unused and unusable content makes finding relevant content more difficult, resulting in the common “need more” complaint. But information developers are often reluctant to take content down, contending that “someone might need it someday.”

Focusing on value as a lean response

Eliminating waste is the mantra of lean processes. But there is another side to the lean coin. That side is a focus on producing higher quality, more valuable content to replace what is expensive to produce and maintain and adds nothing for the customer.

Robert Green, the managing editor of Quality Digest, recommends four important actions to add value and eliminate waste.

  • Prepare and motivate employees
  • Communicate
  • Take risks
  • Be realistic

Prepare and motivate your information-development team by helping them acknowledge that many practices in the information-development life cycle do little to produce value for the customers.

Recently someone appealed to the DITA Yahoo User’s Group for assistance in helping put instructional steps in a table cell. The individual received lots of very precise recommendations. Unfortunately, no one challenged the need to put instructional steps in table cells in the first place. I wondered whether the individual was focused on the format often required by information mapping, a format that research studies have proved makes no contribution to customer success.

Think about the time and effort required to squeeze steps into a table cell and ask “for what purpose”? Ask your information developers to focus on ways to eliminate tasks that produce little or no value.

Communicate with staff at all levels of experience that their participation is crucial to finding new ways to add value and eliminate waste. Young entry-level staff members with little allegiance to existing practices often generate some of the best ideas. Listen to what they have to offer even when the moves sound radically different from existing practices.

Ask people to question their “tried and true” practices. In my Minimalism workshop, I ask people to explain why they insist on documenting every button or a screen when most of them are completely obvious. What value does a button explanation provide for the customers? If the answer is “none,” end the practice and find better things to document.

Green explains that “a critical lean technique involves tearing down and reconstructing failing or underperforming processes.” He urges us to take risks in finding better ways to work and better ways to support our information consumers. Some of our experiments may not be successful, and failure should be alright. Recognize that failures often lead to the best solutions.

Finally, Green tells us to be realistic. We want new practices to produce more value at the same time that they eliminate waste. But, in most cases, the transition is not smooth and may take more time at first than the old methods. We have found that to be true of DITA implementations. Learning new ways of reusing content or writing using consistent structures takes time. We hear complaints that “I could write faster and more in Word than in XML.”

Recognize the truth of the complaints but be firm that the changes are essential because they provide an opportunity to produce more value while we eliminate waste.