Process, Workflow, and Consistent Quality

by Randy Murray on April 17, 2013

It’s a funny thing. In today’s digital, online world we often exult over the fact that all barriers and obstacles have been removed, that anyone with access to the net has a global soapbox. Anyone can open a store and sell goods. Anyone can make a movie, host a radio program, or display their art. And what do we get for all that? So much more crap.

This brave new world allows work to be created in isolation, in a vacuum, and to be inflicted on the general public. Yes, a few bright stars may emerge, but not only do the levels of overall quality creep lower and lower, but I’m finding that one’s expectations are as well. Worse, some who pay for work are beginning to devalue that work, to insist on paying less for it, all because they know that “anyone can do it.”

I despair of that. Workflow and process are a very important part of what I do. It’s how I create high quality work for my clients and I make it a part my sales pitch. I have found that workflow and quality remain important for my biggest companies and customers, and from smaller companies and customers who have had experience in large organizations.

Workflow — the handing off of work from one individual or work type to another — is a key component to professionalism, quality, and cost control. Those things may be poorly understood and undervalued by some, but for anyone who wants to do good work and be compensated well for it, they are key elements. Even if one does all of the work steps oneself, an understanding of one’s own workflow and a shifting of mindsets can be very useful. A good workflow can result in predictable high quality. Do it once and never again, then process may not matter. But do it over and over and process and workflow become critically important.

A few years ago businesses wanted to hire “web-masters,” a mythical being who could program, design, and write everything needed for a business web site. It took many years for some to understand that all of those skills rarely live inside one body. To create and manage their site they’d need not just more bodies with the right talents, but they’d need a clear workflow to manage the process. Many organizations now use Content Management Systems (CMS) that manage just the content creation aspect of their site. Workflow is critically important to them and the bigger the organization, the more important workflow becomes.

For one of my best clients, how I work and the workflow that we’ve established together is just as important as the work I produce. This company, a marketing agency, contracts with me to write for a brand-name client. It’s a big, important client for them (for me as well). By establishing a clean and well understood workflow with the agency’s production manager, they know at any moment exactly where in the process we are, how much is left to be done, and, typically, when it will be finished. They trust our workflow and the quality of work it produces. They could easily find cheaper writers, but it would be difficult for them to trust an untried, unpredictable workflow. Workflow typically adds to the cost of a project, but the return from that investment is high quality, predictable delivery, and control of costs (so the added cost actually helps to lower overall costs and avoid overruns). Experienced clients understand that. That’s why they hire me instead of the recent college grad who will work for a third of what I charge.

Here’s the key to workflow: at some point, you hand the work product off to someone else. You’re delivering what you call a finished product to a customer, reader, or viewer. And that person performs their task and passes it on or back to you. For each step it’s clear who the work passes to and what they will do, possibly even how long it will take.

I had originally titled this piece as “In Praise Of Middlemen.” By that I meant all of the people in a production workflow who are charged with insuring quality: editors, proofers, press operators, designers, software engineers and quality assurance teams. But I’ve dropped that title because it’s clear that an individual can have a workflow AND involve no other people. Frankly, I think that quality becomes higher when you include these professionals, but an individual can “virtualize” these roles to some degree.

Let’s take, for example, a writer. A traditional workflow would be for the writer to create the initial copy and then hand the product off to an editor. The editor would markup the copy and return it to the writer.

But a writer can simulate this by inserting a pause into the workflow. Stop being a writer, get some distance from the work (in hours, not feet), and then return to it with fresh eyes, wearing the editor hat (actual or virtual), and approach the work as an editor. Resist the urge to edit AND revise at the same time. It’s easier to find what’s wrong, comment, and mark up, than to come up with solutions and fixes on the spot. That will slow you down and reduce your effectiveness as an editor. You can make the corrections and revisions when you pause again, then return wearing only your writer hat. Working in isolation may make you feel like a creative genius, but trust me, you’re no Michelangelo (and neither am I).

I do both the simulated and actual workflow and I know that I produce better work when I engage with an editor. This may be my personal editor, Penny (who worked on this piece), or someone designated by a client, like a production manager. The workflow and the attention I give to it helps me to focus on the work that comes after what I’m currently doing.

I love working at home, but I’ve had to re-create some of the benefits of the office by making my own workflows and finding my own resources to fill in the skills and talents I may not personally posses. Large organizations operate because they understand how work moves best through the system (or sometimes, in spite of the official system). It’s not necessarily factory work to hand off your work and let someone else perform the next part — or maybe it is, but factory work of the most desirable kind. Workflow lets me focus on what I need to do NOW. This predictability is often lost when talented people become freelancers.You need checks and balances. You need a second chance to make the work as good as it can be. Your workflow offers you that second chance at bat.

One and done sounds great, but it’s not how most work occurs. You really do need a workflow. It could be as simple as plan, build, test, refine, deliver. It’s exciting when you make something in a burst of creativity, but dependable delivery at the right quality level requires a clear workflow. You can’t trust your creative energies to magically kick into gear on a Thursday afternoon at 2 P.M. when you need to deliver a client piece at 5. Not every time. But with a tested workflow, you can know that by Thursday at 2 you’ll be in the final stages of your process and the work will be delivered on time, at the right quality level.

If you can do something really well you’re an artist. To be a business, you’ll need a reliable workflow.

Originally published in the Read & Trust Newsletter

The Process, Workflow, and Consistent Quality by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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