For Faster Innovation, Bridge the River: Connecting Design with Production
This article originally appeared in The Dieline on August 23, 2017.
Paris has a secret. A hidden lesson to teach us about how diametrically-opposed groups can coexist, even the likes of “creative imaginers” and “production do-ers.”
I have visited Paris a few times, and the Seine River is a permanent fixture in the “mise en scène” of the city. Through my visits, it became clear to me that the Seine physically separated the two halves of the city’s commerce, that one side is the creative side, and the other is the execution side. Herein lies a truth that can help all product development teams, whether designing shoe boxes or boxing gloves, writing romance films or romance copy. In fact, any company that innovates probably has a river that runs between its design and production functions.
TWO SIDES OF THE RIVER
The two sides of Paris cannot exist without each other, but they are culturally and physically divided by the Seine. The left bank, including the Latin Quarter, Montparnasse, and Sorbonne, is all about the creative process, design and ideation. The right bank is where you’ll find the Champs Elysees, the Royal Palace, and most of the larger banks and businesses. The latter are places business is transacted, where decisions are made and products are transported.
I frequently talk with people on both sides of this metaphorical river. On the design side, we find the innovators, the artists, the visionary people that bring new ideas to life by specifying requirements, or scribing annotations, or sketching images. The production side is comprised of the makers, the ones who craft the objects, who manufacture the goods, who realize the value that’s been envisioned by the designers.
It is not much of a secret that there is conflict between the people on the left and those on the right. Each side is trying to meet their own objectives, which are often in opposition. In product companies, the left side could be the new product innovation team, graphic designers, packaging designers, product designers, 3D structural designers: all people who are rewarded for their creativity and differentiating ideas to grow the brand. These folks dwell in studios with special lighting, in coffee shops and workshops.
The production side could include your pre-press experts, procurement team, product and packaging manufacturers, logistics providers, printers, all of whom are rewarded for standardizing and simplifying to reduce operational costs. These can be found in manufacturing facilities, warehouses and shop floors, in gray cubicles and transportation centers.
THE PROBLEM OF THE RIVER
The problem may not actually be that the teams are divided physically, but certainly they are divided in terms of their understanding of each other’s work. If we just take color for example, Pantone Color Institute found in its 2015 survey of over 2,200 designers that 86 percent of designers had little to no knowledge of the manufacturability of color in their workflow. This means that these designers had never asked their production counterparts (in a sense: their “customers”) what it is they needed from a color specification to produce the desired outcome. Those on the production side are so squeezed for time and cost that often they just take orders and do not give feedback until the result is rejected as unacceptable.
Unfortunately, when we interviewed dozens of product companies, we found that they all have roundabouts between design and production, where new products or ideas get stuck in loops (or as one executive said, “death spirals”) between designers who want something that’s new and different and production professionals who say the idea can’t be achieved or is too expensive as designed. And so, ideas go back and forth, often by trial and error.
In the roundabout, the two sides debate over trade-offs that must be made between speed, quality and cost, they negotiate and try to sort out what is actually achievable, and they define product sourcing. Between the left and right, in the roundabout, sits a tremendous amount of waste and loss of productivity. We found that just for color, companies waste 2-6 months coming to an agreement on a standard, at a cost of 10 percent (or more) of the project.
BRIDGING THE RIVER
It’s incredibly easy to cross over from design to production early on in the process, just like at the “head” of the river, to communicate a specification and receive feedback about what is and is not achievable so the spec can be adjusted. But the river widens as time goes by. As you move farther downstream, crossing back and forth becomes more treacherous, in that it takes longer and is costlier to change specs later in the process. It’s much better for designers to skip across the little creek at its head to understand as much about the production process as possible, so that learning can inform their designs, which will then be achievable downstream.
The Parisians can teach us something when we look down the Seine and see some 35 bridges connecting the two sides of Paris, allowing the free-flow of people, goods and ideas back and forth. We learn that in order to maintain the vitality of the relationship between creative and execution, we must build lots of bridges from one side to the other. And these bridges are not shoddy, rusty, temporary structures—they are investments of architecture, beautifully maintained.
Many teams simply accept that Design is disconnected from Production. They build dividers and have separate spaces. Each side may even look down on the other. But instead we should intentionally build bridges between the two sides, just like Paris did, to eliminate the roundabout entirely, establish multiple connection points, and allow the resulting fast, free-flow of ideas. This can streamline our innovation processes and create more integrated ways of working together.