JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Lean manufacturing means finding ways to reduce or eliminate waste in the process of producing a product. It focuses on actions that add value to a process rather than simply costing time and money. If waste is eliminated in a process, it is generally assumed that time and costs will also be reduced.

Information development, it could be argued, can be a wasteful process. Writers spend time, for example, rewriting information because what they originally learned about a new product has changed. Writers may spend time recreating information that has already been written by someone else but is difficult to find or “just doesn’t sound right.” Writers can spend inordinate amounts of time formatting text so that it looks “just perfect,” often using tools that make formatting a time-consuming and frustrating process. And, probably must concerning, writers spend time developing information that no one needs or wants.

All of these problems point to a wasteful process that can clearly be improved. We can reset schedules so that writing doesn’t begin until product development reaches a key milestone. We can institute an agile process that ensures that writers are fully integrated into the product-development process, avoiding writing about products that are still in early stages of development.

We can institute content management practices that make it easy to identify information that already exists. We can put a reuse strategy in place so that information is developed specifically to be reused.

Of course, we can institute practices that eliminate formatting completely, as we have seen with XML-based authoring environments like the OASIS DITA standard.

And, we can bring writers and information users closer together through social media as well as traditional user experience activities so that we develop information that is used and eliminate what is not.

Process improvements like these can reduce waste, save time, and cost less, much in the spirit of lean manufacturing. In fact, our September 2016 Best Practices conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico features keynote speaker, Joanne Molesky, an expert on lean practices. We take lean seriously in information development, although Molesky will warn us that eliminating waste in one area can actually increase it in other areas.

The effects of “waste reduction” in many of our organizations is a familiar issue for information developers. Someone in senior management decides that it’s a “waste of money and time to pay information developers to create technical information when we have all those engineers and software developers sitting idly around just developing new products.” Why not have the technical people write the information rather than conveying it to someone else to write it? We can save so much time and money by eliminating the middle man or woman.

As you know, waste reduction of this type happens regularly, with generally negative results. The engineers and software developers actually aren’t very good at developing technical information for end users, and they are focused on their development jobs, giving short shrift to the writing tasks. They also have little or no understanding of the end users, leading to more information that is inappropriate, incomprehensible, or simply not needed. Many of them find writing an overwhelming chore, putting it off until the last possible moment.

By reducing waste in one area, we create it in others. The engineers waste valuable time at a task they don’t need or want to do. The information deteriorates, increasing the cost of customer service and decreasing customer satisfaction. And, remember all that formatting time? It just gets worse.

A central concern that information-development management has about improving processes and reducing waste is the implication that becoming more efficient will result in downsizing. Senior managers ask how many staff can be eliminated if an organization moves to DITA and a content management system. Reusing content among deliverables implies that fewer writers are needed to produce the deliverables. No wonder that reducing waste has a strong negative vibe. But it doesn’t have to.

Consider the genuine gains of eliminating waste

Consider what an information developer could do with all that newly available time, saved from rewriting, writing what is already written, writing what no one needs, or prying information out of reluctant product developers. The opportunities for making better use of time are exceptional.

Information delivered through the web or through apps provides so much opportunity for invaluable feedback from customers. Today we can analyze how customers search for information, how they navigate through the content, where they stop to read, and where they skip to the next topic. Web analytics provides us with a detailed view of what our customers may be doing as they search for and find information.

Information delivered online can be used to solicit immediate feedback from our customers in the form of comments on small content chunks. And the comments can be directed to the individual writer who has been assigned responsibility for responding to the customer and improving and reissuing the source content. Customers comments attached to actual source topics enable content revisions that make a real difference.

Using web functionality like online conferencing enables information developers to interview customers while they are using content. We can watch every keystroke they make, ask questions as they search and navigate, listen for words and sounds of frustration or success.

Information developers not only can use their hard-fought-for time to expand their understanding of their customers. They can also work on new ways to deliver content, including videos and even augmented reality and Internet of Thing (IoT). They can improve the readability of content and develop metadata to support findability.

Any manager who is building a business case to improve processes and eliminate waste is obligated to create a list of the projects that the team has not been able to accomplish because they are spending time on activities that do not produce value. That list should, of course, include first of all those projects that senior management has heard customers asking about. If customers need more troubleshooting information and the service team knows it will reduce their telephone time, that project might go at the top of the deferred projects wish list.

Clearly, eliminating wasteful practices can produce a leaner organization. But a leaner organization will have the time to do projects that have been neglected in the past. These are often the projects that embody the leading innovative ideas that the team wishes it had time and money to pursue.

Lean practices give information developers the time needed to pursue the excellence they know they are capable of producing.