As the Best Practices conference nears, I’ve been thinking about the theme of the conference: “Maximizing Value—Reducing Waste.” Specifically, what do these terms really mean in the context of information development, and what can we personally do to influence each within our organizations?
By definition, value is “the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.” To prove our value to the organization, we strive to gather data from customers that indicate documentation was an influencing factor in the decision to buy. We collect user comments that praise the content and solicit anecdotes that demonstrate how our documentation helped a user effectively use the product or overcome an issue quickly. We translate the effectiveness of the documentation into cost savings by tracking support calls and demonstrating how new and improved content reduces these types of calls.
In the absence of solid data on the value of the documentation itself, many information development organizations are working to expand their reach to increase the perceived value of their team members themselves. Technical communicators are being added to user experience teams, using their knowledge of the users to influence the design and interface of the product. On Agile teams, they often serve as user advocate, write all required user stories, and may even serve as the SCRUM master. The theory seems to be that if content itself is a necessary evil, rather than providing actual value, at least the people who create it can do other more “valuable” activities as well.
In contrast to value, waste is defined as “to use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.” The English language has a variety of idioms that advise us about avoiding waste:
- We should not “waste our breath” talking about topics that have no worth or that are likely to be ignored.
- We should not “waste our energy” performing a useless or redundant action.
- We should not “waste our time” trying to do something that is clearly unachievable.
- We should not “waste space” on something completely without value.
- We should not let things “go to waste” by leaving them unused and likely thrown away.
- We should not waste valuable things on people who will not appreciate them.
We are told that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste” so we are urged to educate and exercise it so that it doesn’t wither, or “waste away.” We even know that we cannot save time by hurrying because “haste makes waste.” And we are promised that if we “waste not” now, we will “want not” in the future because the resources we need will still be there.
Despite these cultural reminders to avoid waste, it seems to me that we tend to concentrate more on maximizing and demonstrating value than on eliminating waste. It’s a matter of perspective—value is the positive, glamorous side of the coin; waste is the ugly, dark side that no one wants to admit exists. We want to call attention to the things we are doing right, not the things we should be doing better or, worse, the things we should not be doing at all.
However, for almost three decades, the manufacturing industry has done the opposite, focusing on the elimination of waste to increase value. The lean manufacturing framework categorizes waste into eight areas, which many now assert have universal applications to all industries, not solely manufacturing. I’ve spent some time proving to myself that the eight manufacturing wastes do indeed manifest themselves in information development. Although a few might be stretching the original definition, here’s what I’ve come up with (see Table 1 below).
Certainly my list is not new. Information development organizations have been struggling with these challenges long before anyone tried to correlate them with the lean wastes. However, our strategies for eliminating them should be influenced by lean thinking. Traditionally, we try to fix what we perceive we can control; thus our solutions to issues such as those I’ve listed focus on isolated changes within our own organization. However, lean thinking encourages a broader viewpoint. Although we might improve our own department processes, our fixes frequently only shift the burden to some other place in the process. Waste has not been eliminated from the enterprise, just moved.
For example, consider the rapid adoption of reuse strategies within technical communication. Don’t get me wrong, I believe reusing content can greatly eliminate waste…when done correctly. By reusing content, we can avoid the waste of writing, editing, maintaining, translating, and storing content more than once in the process. However, many reuse strategies I’ve seen implemented in organizations don’t actually take all of these areas into account. Largely, the focus is solely on how to reduce the writing burden with a vague understanding that the reuse will also save time when the content is later updated. However, the reuse mechanisms themselves and the granularity chosen for the reuse often fail to consider the impact to other functions.
For example, many people operate under the misguided thought that increasing reuse reduces the number of files that must be managed. They write topics to be processed in dozens of ways depending on the specific conditions applied. While this may save in file management and writing activities, review and maintenance can become a nightmare. Reviews must be done within generated files, rather than directly in the source to ensure that the reviewer has the right context, adding time to the review process by requiring writers to make all changes in the files, rather than simply accepting a change within the source file. Updates can frequently take longer as great care must be taken to ensure that the change is applied under the right conditions. In another example, reusing content at too granular a level again might make the initial writing easier, but it can make translation more difficult and often completely impossible. Reusing a small sentence fragment might make sense in English, but its position in the sentence and the form it takes often won’t work in other languages.
A broader viewpoint that eliminates waste, rather than simply shifting it, is essential to a successful organization. In fact, in their book, Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale, Best Practices keynote speaker Joanne Molesky and her coauthors, assert that an organization’s ability to innovate is directly related to their ability to apply lean methodologies throughout the entire enterprise, rather than a single department or team: “Successful companies have rethought everything from financial management and governance, to risk and compliance, to systems architecture, to program, portfolio and requirements management in the pursuit of radically improved performance.”
I invite you to take a closer look at these concepts of value and waste at the Best Practices conference. I think you’ll see that they are intertwined, rather than the mutually exclusive concepts we have traditionally made them. Clearly, we can provide highly valuable products and services, while still being wasteful in our development processes. Similarly, we can be highly efficient in our processes and still deliver products with no value, products that no one wants or needs. As a result, it’s important to address both to be successful. We’ve designed the Best Practices program to do just that.