Lean, applied to your (mean) global content machine

Yet another meaning of the term Lean
Yet another meaning of the term Lean

“Lean”. A trendy buzzword recently. Everyone and their mother seem to try on being “lean”, as if it were a new pair of shoes that you try on in a boutique (and, in many cases, never buy in the end). Yet, what does “lean” actually mean? Specifically, how does it apply to those of us in the realm of global content – be it marketing or technical or legal, in Latvian, English, Arabic, or Norwegian? Or, perhaps, even in all those languages at once? (in which case, do we automatically qualify as being L.E.A.N.? 🙂 Let me share a story that might be helpful to understand one of many original Lean quality management techniques called Value Stream Mapping, and suggest how to fit it into our world.

Customer Value-Add, Business Value-Add, and Non Value-Add

Imagine you’re in a bookstore. A traditional, brick-and-mortar bookstore. You’re strolling around the store without any particular need, just looking at the shelves randomly. Then a particular magazine catches your eye.

It’s an old-school magazine – not the fancy digital kind that you can keep on your tablet by the dozen nowadays. No, it’s a magazine that’s thick, heavy, printed on glossy paper, fresh off the press, with a faint smell still radiating from its pages. Intrigued by a catchy headline, you take the magazine off the shelf and start flipping the pages.

First thing you see: a huge ad taking the entire double-page spread. It’s an ad for a new sports car from a globally famous brand. You don’t really care much for fancy sports cars, but at this point, you’re probably OK with seeing that ad. You realize: ads help keep the magazine running by helping the publisher pay their bills.

That’s exactly what Lean calls “Business Value-Add”, or BVA. That is, activities that aren’t directly bringing any benefit to the customer, but that are essential to keeping the overall business processes operating smoothly. Take them away, and things will inevitably fall apart – the product might never even make it to the customer.

You continue flipping through the magazine pages. More ads, large and small, greet you on each spread. You slowly start to get frustrated. It takes you 7 flips before you get to the headline article. “Aha!”, you say to yourself. “Finally, found it!” You start reading, and it turns out to be quite interesting indeed… now why didn’t I ever think about this idea before… hmm… hmm…

You return to reality only after another visitor accidentally bumping into you. “Sorry!” Taking a look at your watch, you realize that 10 minutes have flown by while you were absorbed by the article, and you’re already running late for your dentist appointment. But boy that sure was a good read! You make a mental note to look for this author online. Perhaps she has a blog I can subscribe to?

That’s exactly what Lean calls “Customer Value-Add”, or CVA. That is, activities that shape and mold and change your inputs/work-in-progress items in a way to provide tangible, visible, and important benefits to the customer. Take them all away, and the resulting product will likely remain useless for your client – even if it meets your own business needs and processes perfectly.

By this point, you realize that you’re still holding the magazine in your hands. Since you’ve already spent a fair deal of time with it and it’s hard to let go – perhaps there are more great articles like that in the remaining part? – you decide to purchase it. You pay at the counter and toss the magazine into your backpack only to forget about it until the evening.

Once you’re at home flipping the pages again, you notice that something is stuck between the last two. “Oh my, what’s that? Looks like an envelope.” You try to tear it off since it’s obscuring your view of the last few paragraphs of an article you’re trying to finish. “How did it get here? Yuck! It’s STICKY! Must be some kind of glue. Ewwww… I’ll never get it off my hands now. Who the hell had the idea of putting it here?!?”

Finally, you manage to tear the sticky envelope off your fingers. However, a large chunk of the magazine page was also torn out in the process, and now it’s stuck to the envelope. With the text facing inwards. Now you’ll never learn how the article ended…

As you might have guessed by now, that’s what Lean calls “Non-Value Add”, or NVA. These are activities in your process that do not generate any value neither for the customer nor for the business. And in some cases, they might even be harmful, just like with this magazine example of ours. A related, though somewhat wider, Lean concept is “waste”. The classical Lean Manufacturing theory identifies 7 deadly wastes – read all about them here.

Putting it into practice: 7 steps to Lean epiphany

In Lean, analyzing your process and categorizing each step into either Customer Value-Add (CVA), Business Value-Add (BVA), or Non Value-Add (NVA) is known as Value Stream Mapping. It’s one of the core techniques in the Lean measurement toolbox and can be leveraged to optimize all kinds of processes in various business situations.

Now, knowing these Lean basics, how can we actually apply them to our global content supply chain? Here’s a quick overview:

  1. Define and frame the problem with your global content that you’re trying to solve
    • For example, let’s assume that you’re trying to increase the ROI of your global marketing campaigns.
    • You agree up front with your stakeholders that your primary focus is going to be reducing the I (Investment) part since that’s what’s currently more important strategically.
  2. Create a visual map of the process used in your organization to deliver global content
    • It’s important to capture the entire horizontal scope – that is, all process steps in each part of your global content supply chain, regardless of the organizational and team boundaries.
      • In particular, remember to cover both authoring/copywriting AND transcreation/localization. Each of these sub-processes is equally important to delivering high-impact global content.
      • If you’re outsourcing some parts of your process, talk to your vendors and request their help in order to map what they’re doing as well. Often, companies might not even realize the kind of activities that happen on their vendor’s side and the impact they might have on costs and returns.
    • Be careful not to go too deep with the vertical scope – that is, into the level of micro-processes and individual operations.
      • If you’re starting to see individual mouse clicks or keypresses in your process map, it’s a sure sign you’re taking it too far 🙂
  3. Gather quantitative data on each step of the process and add it to the process map
    • Although a process map is a helpful tool by itself, it’s only with numbers and metrics that it becomes a full-blown Value Stream Map and allows to uncover really powerful insights.
      • Durations, number of cycles, waiting times, and costs are some examples of numeric data that could be gathered at this stage.
    • For global content production, a few important quantitative metrics to look at could be the number and the magnitude of edits (changes) done to the content as it transitions from one step to the next.
      • Think about an editor fixing what the author originally wrote, or an in-country reviewer making amends to a translation of a content piece that an editor has previously worked on in the original language.
  4. Categorize each step as Customer Value-Add (CVA), Business-Value Add (BVA), or Non-Value Add (NVA)
    • Once you have the right data, it should be relatively easy to do this if you ask the right questions:
      • Does the step reduce financial or compliance risks, or help keep the process going? If yes, it might be a BVA
      • Does the step enable a competitive advantage (e.g. lower price or faster time-to-market), or would the customer pay us more if they knew we were doing this? If yes, this might be a CVA
      • Does the step show potential for elimination/reduction, or would the customer ask us to STOP doing it if they knew we do it? If yes, this might be a NVA (or a Waste)
    • Remember to do this exercise in a cross-functional group, so that you don’t accidentally throw away any hidden value.
  5. Decide where to focus your improvement efforts
    • It might be tempting to try and improve the Value-Add steps. However, Lean practice shows that it’s often Non Value-Add that’s worth looking at first since these are often overlooked and under-optimized.
    • Thus, it might be easier to accomplish an improvement to Non Value-Add steps than a corresponding improvement to Value-Add steps.
  6. Analyze the focus area for possible improvements
    • Remember to think about the purpose of each step, the place where it happens, the sequence of activities, the person doing it, and the means used to deliver it.
    • Consider the 7 deadly wastes of Lean, how they would apply to the focus area, and how to avoid them.
    • Say, if you find out that a particular step in your process has never ever generated ANY changes to the global content being produced, perhaps this step could be a candidate for elimination?
      • This also applies for any step that tries to add the same type of changes – or perform the same type of quality checks – as any previous one.
    • Or, if another step in your process is always generating the same type/nature of edits, it might be a good candidate for rearranging (e.g. by generalizing the changes into an instruction and moving it upstream into the previous steps in the supply chain) or simplification (e.g. automating this quality assurance step and significantly reducing the cost).
  7. Apply the improvement idea on your next project and measure the results
    • In many cases, you won’t really know if you got it right or not until you have the data on your hands to confirm it.

Next time when you’re challenged with a problem in your global content strategy, consider applying some of these Lean principles to identify the bottleneck and collaboratively devise and test a solution. Let us know how this approach works – we’ll be happy to hear from you and support you if you need help.

Published by

Kirill Soloviev

Co-Founder & Head of Product at ContentQuo

  • Артём Ё

    What do you mean by L.E.A.N. as acronym (with dots) in the introductory paragraph?

    • It’s just a pun based on the first letters of each language name that I’ve used as an example – L for Latvian, E for English, A for Arabic, N for Norwegian. No real meaning attached, except for illustrating that the letters “lean” can stand for a great many different things 🙂

      • Артём Ё

        Sorry, I was not reading with proper attention…
        BTW, thank you for your high-quality blog texts 🙂