Save Time, Get Things Done Faster Using Lean Manufacturing Principles

by Dean Evans

Lean principles advocate increasing efficiency, improving quality and eliminating waste. In a nutshell: more value, less work.

It’s not a new idea. ‘Lean Manufacturing’ (aka ‘Lean Production’) has its origins in the Japanese manufacturing industry, specifically in production systems developed by automotive mega-corp Toyota.

The point? What if you could take these Lean principles and apply them to content creation? What if you could maximise content efficiency? Could you write faster? Better? Could Lean principles help you save time and combat distraction? That’s what ‘Processify’ is about.

The foundations of a Lean system can be boiled down to two main steps:

Step 1 – design a simple production system
Step 2 – continuously improve the system

While Lean principles were originally developed to improve manufacturing processes, they’re also smoothing work flow elsewhere. Eric Ries has already applied Lean methodology to business leadership and product development in his bestselling book The Lean Startup. While British cycling coach David Brailsford famously used the idea of continuous improvement (aka marginal gains) to produce a team of gold medal-winning Olympic cyclists.

If you’re a content creator, these Lean principles could also help you improve the way that you write a killer blog post or how you think up a must-click headline. They could speed up the process of writing and publishing a book to the Amazon Kindle store. Or give you a handy checklist to follow when you’re optimising your content for SEO. If there’s a task that you do regularly, you should Processify it, i.e take that task, write it down and turn it into a ‘process’.

Backing up your brain code

In this case, a process is a personal ‘how to’ article – a physical backup of the brain code we often run in our heads without really thinking about it. You probably don’t need to follow a set of instructions to write a new post, proofread content or create a sales page. Those actions are usually built-in. But the larger and more complex a task, the harder it becomes to remember every detail of it.

Think of a process as a ‘recipe’. If you take 1 teaspoon of dried yeast, 500g of strong flour, 1.25 tsp of salt, 1.5 tsp of sugar, 25g of unsalted butter and 350ml of water, put the ingredients in a Panasonic SD-2501 bread maker (in this order) and run Menu ‘1’, you’ll get a perfectly baked, medium-sized loaf of crusty bread four hours later

Just think how difficult it would be to bake a loaf of bread if you started every time with only a vague memory of what ingredients you needed. Was it 25g of butter or 30g? 350ml of water or 370ml? Following a recipe gives you structure, direction, and it helps you reach the end goal with repeatable consistency and success.

Following a process can kill several productivity birds with one stone. Not only can a process be useful as a step-by-step guide or template for complex tasks, but it can also help tackle information overload and improve task performance, ultimately making you more efficient.

Step 1 – design a simple production system

Pick a regular creative task that you’d like to turn into a process. Grab a pen and paper, or start a blank text file. Then ‘Processify’ it – walk through the process of doing your chosen task (don’t worry about omissions or mistakes), noting down the key steps required to complete it. Imagine that you are explaining the mechanics of the task to a close friend or partner so they can do it in your absence. You can include as much or as little detail as you like.

Another option, and this is especially useful if you’ve never attempted a task before, is to find someone who has already done the task and documented it. ‘How to’ information in articles, blog posts and YouTube videos on the web are just a Google search away. Learn from them. Juice out the important details and write down the steps needed to complete the task. They don’t need to be perfect. For now, you just need a roadmap for accomplishing a goal. It’s a starting point.

For example, if you publish content onto a blog or website you could research and write down a basic writing/publishing process like this:

  1. Write blog post
  2. Add image
  3. Spellcheck blog post
  4. Specify category
  5. Specify tags
  6. Set publish date
  7. Publish

Try adding a ‘notes’ section at the bottom of your process, where you can add extra detail about any of the featured steps. It’s important to keep the step-by-step part of the process short, clean and easy to read when you reference it.

By following this process, you give yourself a plan for completing the task (writing a blog post), and having a plan makes you more effective. It gives you momentum. It headbutts distraction and kicks procrastination squarely in the crotch. By referring to the process you’ll never wonder: ‘what should I be doing next?’ or ‘Is there anything else I need to do?’ Because the answers are right there in front of you.

Let’s not get too carried away. This 7-step process might not be the best way to publish a blog post. Or the quickest. But it fulfils step 1 of the Lean plan – ‘design a simple production system’. Step 2 is about improving that system.

Step 2 – continuously improve the system

Whatever your particular line of business, you’ll often encounter advice that might help to improve the way that you work or deliver better results. This advice could be a tip from an article you’ve read, a different tactic shared by a colleague, or a more formal training session that opens your eyes to new ideas and fresh ways of doing things.

What do you usually do with this new information? Chances are, you file it away in a text document with the intention of using it later. But it’s forgotten. Left unused. Most people don’t immediately apply what they learn because they have no existing framework to apply it to. Processes give you a way to do that. Instantly.

With Lean principles in mind, processes are never set in stone. They evolve, taking advantage of new information or new ideas to help you work faster, smarter and to achieve superior results. In essence, when Step 2 demands that we ‘continuously improve the system’, we need to analyse what works and what doesn’t, keeping the former and discarding the latter.

For the simple blogging formula mentioned earlier, we could expand ‘Write blog post’ into its own multi-step process, plus slot in basic proofreading and SEO stages. So the next version of the process might look like this:

  1. Define keyword
  2. Write headline (including keyword)
  3. Write blog post
  4. Optimise post for keyword
  5. Source and add image
  6. Proofread blog post
  7. Spell check blog post
  8. Specify post category
  9. Specify post tags
  10. Schedule or publish post

There will undoubtedly be more improvements that we can make in a version 3 of this process. You might prefer to write the headline after the post content, add image captions and make two proofreading passes instead of just one.

“I love it when a plan comes together”

We often act on processes subconsciously. But few of us ever write them down and strive to improve them. Which seems odd because you can find processes everywhere you look – in designs, templates, recipes, plans, outlines, sketches, blueprints, routes, formulas, programs, patterns and rituals.

We can be more efficient when we know what we’re doing and what should happen next. Consider a trip to the supermarket. Won’t you shop faster if you come armed with a list of items that you want to buy and have some knowledge of where certain items are located? What about driving somewhere new? Won’t you get there faster if you plan your route in advance and take the mystery out of where you’re going?

When you tackle a task for the first time, you learn as you go, seeing what works and what doesn’t, drawing on information that you’ve picked up from things you’ve read or friends you’ve talked to. It might take some time. There will be moments when you’ll take two steps forwards, only to stumble three steps back. But you get there. Eventually.

Of course, if you don’t write down the steps that you take as you complete the task, you’ll often find yourself relearning various bits of the process the next time you tackle it. And that’s not an efficient way of working.

Developing and following a process can give you direction, save you time and produce consistent results. It’s why I now have processes for writing different blog posts and books, setting up new WordPress websites, optimising content for SEO, doing my end-of-year accounting, even searching for the best car insurance.

It takes some time to Processify. But the long-term productivity benefits can be worth it.

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