The field of content strategy is young, and debates about where it applies (and who applies it) are many. While such debates are lively, necessary, and very much worthwhile, we risk losing sight of one of our existing key jobs: Developing the foundation for the field itself.
There are exceptional works in the field, written by some of the best minds in digital content management. People like the very well-known Kristina Halvorsson, and thinkers such as Scott Abel and Rahel Bailie who are doing great things with the lexicon. Indeed, there are definitions aplenty, and lots of books, websites, and slide decks about the scope.
We risk getting lost among the trees, however.
Content strategy being strategic work — and encompassing far more than just digital content, regardless of its origins — we need to stop looking at the forest and look deeply at more individual elements of the work. It’s with this in mind that I make a case for value stream management within the content strategy space.
I’m not the first person to do so. In fact, a slightly sideways version (focusing more on the lean principles) has been the subject of meetups, and slideshares well before now. Content Strategy might be a new thing in Australia, but the rest of the world is leagues ahead of us.
The problem is that detailed thinking needs more public discussion in order to move the field forwards. If you search for value stream management and content strategy you get a whole lot of management, a whole lot of project management, a whole lot of process mapping, and no specific content strategy work.
Or maybe they are more specific but had poor titles, so I didn’t bother clicking. 😛
Thinking about it, it really isn’t too much of a stretch, going back to manufacturing for our processes. In fact, whole content management methodologies such as DITA are built on the manufacturing and technical writing environment. We might be functioning across more channels and distribution methods, but the fact of the matter is that true re-use involves smart management and not copying and pasting material.
Content strategy can adapt the value stream of manufacturing to the knowledge age
As we emerge from the industrial age, it is essential to learn the lessons from that age. The lean principles are one such lesson. Value stream management (being next in line) is one of them. Integrated quality management is yet another one.
In fact, strategists are extremely well placed to rip off the manufacturing environment wholesale, so to speak. We’re adaptive thinkers: this is not a big deal for us.
About value stream management — and adapting it to content strategy
Emerging from Japan, value stream management is most well known because of its connection with Toyota, and rests on lean principles. The various methods describe ways of identifying processes, with a view to smoothing workflow and adding value wherever possible. How do we do this? By reducing waste.
It’s a simple enough approach; one that tells us that removing waste reduces friction and encourages processes to flow effectively. See, you’re already mentally applying this to approval points, bottlenecks, and delivery, right?
In the kaizen approach (so it is known), there are 7 Wastes that need to be considered. There is an entire toolkit for assessing your value stream and identifying your wastes, and for refining your workflow and management approach. Those tools have been developed over years of study and execution, and can be considered to have been road-tested significantly enough that we can apply them without reinventing the wheel.
Similarly, there are many tools, and many protocols; sometimes you have to do a whole lot of work to determine what is actually going to work for you. Again, these tools have been tested, case studies abound, and the knowledgebase pre-exists the field of content strategy. Rather than feeling our ways through, we can pretty literally pick these tools up, adapt them, and continue marching onwards.
But, instead of exploring all of that right now (I have wads of this stuff, trust me), let’s start at the beginning. How do we identify the value of this value stream approach for Content Strategy? In fact, in what ways can it apply at all, and when does it come to the party?
In their excellent examination of the field (which is also one of the largest studies of the supply chain) Value Stream Management, Hines, Lamming, Jones, Cousins & Rich speak of re-naming the wastes to fit your industry.
Sure, sounds like the best place to start, right?
Identifying the 7 Wastes for use in Content Strategy
The 7 Wastes apply directly to content strategy. We could rename it, and call it “7 Opportunities for Improvement” but all that does is introduce redundancy and distance. It’s a bit like “owning” a garden by changing the landscape instead of accepting it.
In any case, this is where we end up (below). The strikethroughs are the originals.
Overproduction Content for Content’s Sake (or, content production without management or measurement)
Transportation Movement or distribution of materials or files, including by email
Inappropriate processing Inappropriate processing, re-work, or double-handling
Unnecessary inventory Blind inventory (or, unknown depth of content, publications, topics, or publishing activity)
Unnecessary motion Unnecessary steps in the process
Defect Correction of mistakes.
Value Stream Management helps us to identify where we are wasting effort, time, materials, money, people, and inventory. The tools, derived from manufacturing, are designed to add value at every step. When we map them, we find that some steps don’t add value but are necessary; and some don’t add value and aren’t necessary. “Value” is defined by being an action of some kind, that works on from the previous action to better meet customer needs, and result in satisfaction.
The value stream is entirely based on lean principles. These are:
1 — Specify value by product
2 — Identify the value stream
3 — Make the product flow
4 — At the pull of the customer
5 — In pursuit of perfection. [Hines et al p. 65]
This means you need to know what your customer needs are, work out how to meet them, remove friction in the process, and prevent errors and problems. If you are stuck on the terminology, rework the semantics until you’re happy. If you don’t like the word ‘customers’, exchange it for ’employees’.
When you work through the processes and workflows involved in a content strategy, how do you define the specifics of the pain points besides on gut feel when you don’t have a methodology? Strategic work cannot happen on gut feel, because that’s how businesses lose sight of their goals, make poor decisions, and go in the wrong direction. Marketers can argue all they like, but when it comes down to business process and business protocol, you can’t audit anything without knowing what it is you’re up against. Content strategy needs to be proactive work, and strategists need to be proactive change agents.
Where does this fit into strategic work?
Well, we could map things fairly directly by plugging tools and sections of work straight into the lean principles. And while that is effective, you can take it a step deeper with the 7 Wastes.
Using the 7 Wastes, you can wash a process or workflow against the categories, and come up with a preliminary list. You can then ask those who are actually involved in the process to score each waste against a weighted matrix, thus identifying which area requires attention immediately. This focus will help you direct your work and to understand which parts of which processes are more broken than the others.
To date there has not been a clear method for identifying waste in content strategy processes. Value Stream Management asks us to consider where the waste points are, and to determine which steps add value, and which ones don’t. If a step doesn’t add value, is it necessary (right now)? And if it’s not necessary, can we eliminate it without impacting on the rest of the stream?
More than this, if the flow is mapped and improvements are put in place, you immediately have a tool against which to measure whether your changes are successful.
Content Strategy, correctly applied, should help you to manage your digital content, your print “content”, and your decision-making, on an ongoing basis. Ultimately, content strategy is method of systematisation, and therefore, greater consideration of the underlying, integrated quality principles needs to take place. Value stream management is a small piece of that tool, but an essential one.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.