By Brian Watson published April 13, 2015

Is Time Really the Problem? Break the Bottlenecks in Content Production

bottlenecks-content-production-coverBy far, I have found that the most difficult question content marketers face today is: How can I find the time to create enough content? Industry experts suggest hundreds of tips, including carrying around a notepad, doing voice recording in the subway, and more. However practical and useful those tips are, today I want to look at this dilemma from a company-wide perspective.

I work at Adobe in content production. Throughout my career, it has become clear that having time to create content at an enterprise level is much more about the flow of ideas from production to publication than about following time-management tips.

Now, before we discuss breaking time constraints on an enterprise level, I want to give credit to the guru behind the theory of constraints: Eli Goldratt. Throughout his life, he has worked to break down constraints in production and project management. By using his theory, I have had much success in breaking down constraints within content flow.

Before you can improve a system, you must understand the goals of the system. The goal of a content production system is to increase the publication of quality and meaningful content now and in the future.

Step 1: Document the production process

Production in content marketing varies widely, but for simplification, I break it down to four basic processes:

  • Creating the idea
  • Creating or drafting the content
  • Reviewing and approving the content
  • Publishing the final product

document-production-process-Image 1

For the sake of a clear discussion on content flow and breakdown of time, let’s follow the fictional XYZ Co. This company is struggling to consistently publish quality content on its blog. The content marketing team claims it simply does not have the time to create and publish posts consistently.

Last month, it was only able to publish four pieces of content. But, the content marketing team’s goal is 16 published articles every month. Last month’s production indicates that the team is falling short of its goal but doesn’t really tell us much more. We need to dig deeper into the potential capacity and resulting bottlenecks in the system.

Step 2: Find the bottleneck

To identify the capacity of the system and the resulting bottleneck, we need to think about how long each task takes. We also need to standardize the data to compare and analyze the content production system as a whole.

Ask if all the information is available from the preceding task to take on the next one. For example, to create the articles, are all the needed ideas available? Then, if the team members were given one week to solely focus on the task, what is the quantity the team could complete?

XYZ Co. came back with the following data on what could be accomplished devoting a week to each task:

bottleneck production evaluation - Image 2

Now, let’s analyze this data one task at a time:

Generating ideas – XYZ Co. uses researchers to come up with solid ideas for the writers. Working solely on their brainstorming processes they could come up with 50 quality content ideas for posts each week.

Drafting – XYZ Co. only has one writer. If she was given good ideas and worked 100 percent of the time without any distractions, she could produce six drafts each week.

Editing and approving – XYZ Co. has a fairly rigorous editorial/approval process. A draft is reviewed by an editor, the director of content, and the CMO. The company thinks that it could get one article through this approval process per week.

Scheduling for publication – Using XYZ Co.’s various blogs and syndicates it could publish around 10 articles a week.

So where is the bottleneck in the process?

production bottleneck identified - Image 3

Once we have standardized the capacity of each of the processes in our system, it is easy to identify that the approval process has the lowest capacity – only moving one article a week. The approval stage is the bottleneck.

So, how does this help?

Step 3: Understand how much time is wasted on non-bottleneck tasks

First of all, let’s stop to understand what we’ve found. The bottleneck is centered on approval. If each task was able to be produced at capacity in one month (4 weeks), XYZ Co.’s system would look like this:

break-bottleneck-Image 4

And the following was wasted time within the system:

  • Of the 200 ideas created, 176 or 88% were unused because the writer’s capacity was 24 pieces of content.
  • Of the 24 drafts, 20 (83%) went unused because the CMO could only approve four.
  • Four approvals were made – no wasted capacity here.
  • Of the 40 articles that could have been posted, only four posts were published because the CMO was only able to approve four.

Look at all the wasted time within the system. The writer alone spent more than 33 hours creating drafts that couldn’t be approved. The true answer to the question of how to find more time is identifying your bottleneck task, and ensuring that your other tasks are not working on more content than your bottleneck task can handle. Per this example, XYZ Co. should only come up with enough ideas and content that can be approved. Even though members of the team could produce more, they would waste their time because only four pieces of content can get through the bottleneck within a month.

Unfortunately, many companies skip this analysis and assume that the answer is in hiring more writers, thereby starting a negative cycle of frustration and wasted time.

Step 4: Increase system capacity by focusing on the bottleneck

Now that we have identified that the bottleneck is in the approval process, we need to take a closer look to see how to increase its capacity and thus the overall system’s capacity. To do so, I would look at the following options:

Option 1 – Can we get additional time or efficiency from our bottleneck resources?

Yes, the solution all comes back to time. But now you have a strong case. A resource working within a bottleneck is the person whose time is most important to the system. Does XYZ Co.’s CMO know that if she would approve two times more pieces a week then the company would publish 100% more content? Conveying this to those involved in the bottleneck task can be powerful. For example, when the CMO gets strapped for time and needs to reschedule a couple meetings, she might be less likely to move the “approve content” meeting.

Also, it would be helpful to analyze what happens in the approval process. Is it a group meeting? Do all of the participants have a dedicated time to go over the approvals? Perhaps making it more or less formal could help motivate the participants, and thus yield greater capacity in the system.

Anything here might work, even if the solution is having the editor sit outside the CMO’s office from 2 to 3 p.m. each day to encourage the timely approval of the content. Now, if you ask why a high-salary editor should waste his time in this fashion, you are focusing on the wrong thing. If the CMO’s approval is your bottleneck, and having an editor strategically “sit around” increases overall productivity by 200%, then it’s worth this “wasted” time. After all, what else would be more productive for the editor to do? Writing or editing more content that will be stalled in the approval process? Put simply, looking productive is not the same as being productive.

Option 2 – Can we get additional help? Can we shift some responsibility to others or adjust roles to increase the capacity of the bottleneck?

Using our example, let’s say that the content marketing strategist was able to have a helpful and revealing conversation with the CMO about the fact that the approval process is the system’s bottleneck. Through this conversation, the CMO reveals that she really likes being in charge of the approval process. Given that she’s done it since she started and has a degree in English, she feels that nobody has shown her that they can do it better. In fact, when the CMO tried to offload the approval responsibility to others, the resulting quality was not on par with what she would approve.

It is now clear that a problem within this approval task is that the CMO has little confidence that others can competently approve the content. In this case, the goal would be to find an approver who has a bit more bandwidth and would fully meet the CMO’s standards. In XYZ Co.’s case, there are two possible people that could take that on – the editor and the director of content.

The newly assigned approver will work with the CMO to ensure that her quality standards are met, and prove it to her over time. Even if the editor is not the approver, he has to learn the CMO’s style of approval and adapt to it, reducing the back and forth, and resulting in more content approval and publication within a shorter period.

XYZ Co. could even start to document this alignment between the CMO and the editor. For instance, record how much time the CMO takes to approve a piece of content. Then, through this learning process, determine if the CMO is taking less time to approve because the quality is closer to her standard. The goal might be to never cut out the CMO completely, though I would argue that this certainly could and, in some cases, should happen. The goal could be, instead of having the CMO review one article in a week and offer her suggestions, have her read through 10 articles each week and be satisfied with all of them. At this point, you have increased the capacity of this approval process by approving 10 posts a week instead of just one. Now the question is this: Is the approval process still your bottleneck?

Step 5: Repeat first four steps to break the next bottleneck

Every system has a bottleneck. So, once you have broken one, another one surfaces. When you are still dissatisfied with the system’s capacity, start the process of identifying the bottleneck again. To illustrate, XYZ Co. was able to break its approval constraint and, as a result, each task’s capacity now looks like this:

new bottleneck identified - Image 5

This is a great improvement. Surely, it’s time to celebrate the progress. Before the first bottleneck review, the company could only publish one post per week because that was the capacity in the approval stage.

Now ask: What is the capacity of the revamped system? Since approvals went from four to 10, the weekly capacity is 10, right? It is not. Look again. The bottleneck has shifted from approval to drafts at six per week. So the new capacity is 24 posts a month. Stop and remember that through this exercise you already have increased the draft output by six times (moving from one to six a week).

But given that XYZ Co.’s goal is 16 published posts a month and it now publishes 24 posts a month, the bottleneck doesn’t need to be addressed. But if XYZ Co.’s goal increases to 40 posts per month, XYZ Co. will have to break the next existing constraint: the drafting stage.

Conclusion

By identifying and breaking the bottleneck, you can generate a rapid increase in your system’s capacity to produce.

Focusing on the bottleneck allows you to work on improving production processes where improvement is most needed. Any focus on a non-bottleneck task will only bring marginal improvement or no results to the overall system. In fact, it’s likely to create greater waste. Taking the time to identify and break your bottleneck is the key to increasing and attaining your content production goals.

Is your content production process meeting your goals? Learn how to structure your team for more effective content marketing. Read CMI’s e-book: Building the Perfect Content Marketing Mix: Top Priorities for 2015.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Brian Watson

As an Adobe Search Program Manager, Brian Watson manages the content production and flow to the Adobe blog publications. He specializes in building systems to overcome the constraints that often intercede in content marketing management. At Adobe (a CMI benefactor), he writes to guide content marketers in solving their challenges. Brian loves to hear from his readers, and would appreciate any feedback to better understand problems content marketer’s face today. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter @brianwcontent.

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    Interesting post. I’ve never thought of it this way, but now that you mention it, I see that my company definitely has a bottleneck in the reviews process and more ideas than we know what to do with! Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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    Congratulations, Brian, I found this to be an inspiring piece from several perspectives. The first, of course, is your provocative premise–that bottlenecks are the “real” problem–and the second is the way you support the premise.

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    Fantastic post….so, what happens when you look at your systems and find out YOU are the bottleneck. For smaller companies like mine, creating content is a matter of sheer workload spread over just a few. Any suggestions for this?

    Thanks Brian!

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