Finlay Miller, a lean consultant at the University of St Andrews, presents a light-hearted and personal look at the word of lean in cyberspace. The pitfalls and problems involved with bringing lean into the World Wide Web and how lean ideas can tackle the proliferation of non-value adding ephemera.
Working with the web and its people is always a good time. Maybe it’s the technical and creative mix in the room, the ever changing, ever innovating www landscape as the backdrop, or maybe it’s simply, that as an ex journalist, digital media reminds me of my inky-fingered beginnings.
Whatever is going on, continuous improvement rarely feels this good. Over the last few years I’ve had the pleasure of working in the online arena a number of times, tackling initiatives within different spaces of the wonderful world wide web.
It’s not necessarily the most obvious place to do kaizen.
First off: the people-y stuff:
It seems to me, those responsible for the online-ness of an organisation are less fettered by tradition than most, maybe because they and their industry, are comparatively young.
The idea of status quo, to the average web designer, is merely a vague childhood memory of some bad boogie woogie, often accompanied by an uncle dancing badly at a wedding.
Their world moves fast, and they get to see that speed every time they go online, whether at work or at home. Imagine if, with every single browse, you learned how to do your job better.
Meanwhile, web workers seem to have the concept of the customer pretty much down pat, as well. How many times does the query, “what about the user?” – arise? There are times it has been hard to keep up.
They are entirely engaged with the practice of analysing user data to help guide improvement. Web analytics are after all quite easy to get hold of and quite hard to argue against, and ultimately this enables PDCA to become the webbed folks subconscious funderland.
Within their work, technologies change, designs change, user trends change, and if you add this to the fact that most, if not all changes in an organisation are reflected online, you surely have a people open to innovation.
But, of course, there is also the respect for people principle to consider here and it would be wrong to go on pretending web professionals are all wondrously lovely, balanced and basically perfect individuals. Because clearly, who is?
However, there is something about the nature of this work and the clear and distinct lines between skill sets that almost demands adherence to Aristotle’s, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ I think web teams may well understand their reliance on one another better than other functional groups.
Cyber kaizen has also moved around its thinking the relationship of the two lean principles. It used to be considered respect for people was the prerequisite for continuous improvement. However, if you have a team fully engaged with continuous improvement it will open their minds to all possibilities and as a result, all opinions – the bed rock of respect.
Meanwhile: the business-y stuff:
As with any other business area, there are less positive things to confront when working in and around the web. Alongside all the lovely people-y stuff, is some less lovely business-y stuff.
For example, while continuous improvement is considered and desired by webbies, it can be hard to deliver in a consistent way across large organisations with many content editors and a comparatively small central team.
Content management is often devolved to the extent that duplication and variation are rife. Whether it be text, documents or links, it basically exists due to a lack of information, and goes live because editors are not sure of the reliability of the central source and at the same time, to compound the issue, are unaware of what the user needs.
As a result, many service sector websites grow so large that support and maintenance become the every day for digital professionals.
Another common problem is web sites being built to reflect the structure of the organisation around them.
Let’s imagine a design delivered with the small number of internal users in mind rather than the much larger number of external users.
External visitors, as web professionals will frequently explain, don’t often care about how a team is structured, what it’s called, or who is in it. Adding that internally focused architecture and content actually detracts from the user experience.
Of course, both of the issues described above are symptoms of two much larger and related issues. Ownership and understanding.
If you have a devolved model of ownership, consistency of design, voice, brand, is a tough nut to crack. Furthermore, without clear responsibility for strategy and work priority, a web team will be left at the whims of whoever shouts loudest, without an agreed rationale to push back with. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the loudest people in the room are rarely the most reasonable.
Which leads onto the second overarch-er; few people really understand what the web is about. For example, what users want, how an information architecture should be laid out, and how online content should be written.
There’s a lot going on. Some think because we go online we understand how to do online. There is skill here we don’t see – which is entirely the idea.
The government website digital transformation initiative unveils its concept around content design with the old adage: just because a person can count doesn’t mean they are an accountant. They then fully reveal by saying, just because you can write, doesn’t make you a web content designer.
And its true, web work is a complex and subtle scene. Failure to understand this often results in an organisation leading itself down the proverbial garden path into the land of boom and bust, where their site needs major revamps every few years in order that normal service might resume.
It is all these positives and negatives that make engaging in improvement work within the digital world rewarding and challenging in equal measure. It would be fair to say harnessing the potential of people to improve business delivery is the same wherever you are and whatever you are doing.
But what sets web work apart is the extent to which these sit at opposite ends of the spectrum, creating huge potential and making online the ideal place to do kaizen
Of course as always, lean stays the same, providing the philosophy and methodology to deliver successful change to work practice and culture.
How does lean thinking and the web stuff fundamentally engage? Here are a few thoughts for the road, or the infobahn, if you prefer:
Speaking of which:
- Inventory, for example, is a big issue online. It’s not storing pages necessarily has a significant impact on space, or the tying up of financial resource, but too large and complex an architecture makes it harder for the user to find what it is they are looking for and what’s more, many digital products have a shelf life.
- Considering motion of the user’s focus on a site is certainly key within web design. Too many images, too many and overly complex graphics and menus, all cascading from endless waterfalls of scrolling – we have all experienced these joys.
- Then, of course, there is waiting. When a page looks great, but takes ages to load and has drop downs that respond tardily, the feel is poor, cheap, half-baked and basically unacceptable. Most sites are, first and foremost, functional things.
- Over production and over processing are also begging to be peeled from online value streams. Content is king, it’s been said. Yet many websites are littered with reams of well worked prose. Users engage differently online, where succinct snappy writing, which is kept to a minimum, is the order of the day. The message has to be conveyed quickly.
- People are often given web responsibilities in addition to their real job, and not always because someone has identified the skills required within them.
Note: While much of the waste removal of waste in real world processes frees resource then reapplied to deliver new value, the removal of waste within the virtual world almost always results in a direct increase of value.
Note: While much of the removal of waste in real world processes frees resource then reapplied to deliver new value, the removal of waste within the virtual world almost always results in a direct increase of value.
- Flow is a major consideration for web wizards and they are constantly trying to weave their magic to simplify and smooth the user experience.
Look and feel is one area that benefits greatly from studying and optimising flow. By considering motion around a page it is possible to create a design more visually digestible and engaging as a result. Meanwhile, a common look and feel enables flow throughout the browse.
- In an online experience users are continuously and forever voting with their clicks. Everyday they pull from the virtual shelf that is a website and consume.
And the great thing is, the data is available. And the greater thing is it can be used to inform the organisation, structure, and labeling of content in a way that optimises user engagement.
Trends can be witnessed in real time and acted upon. Allowing a home page, for example, to change on a daily basis, providing users with exactly what they need.