Managing variability without constraining it

Managing variabilityLeverage smart digital assets to extend process management to variable human tasks.

Schawk, a global brand management company, works with clients to design and deliver the visual branding for the packaging of consumer goods. The design process is creative, unpredictable, and expensive, and the stakes are high: packaging directly affects the shopper’s buying decision, and legal issues can arise if text isn’t accurate. Clients need to be able to make changes as late in the process as possible. At Schawk, this deadline used to be 30 days before delivery, but in recent years the company has reduced the “freeze date” to 15 days before delivery, creating a major competitive advantage for Schawk and its clients.

Schawk halved the freeze period by shifting its management focus from assets to processes. “We were too heavily focused on asset management, so we flipped that paradigm and began putting much more of our thought in the process piece,” says Stephen Kaufman, CTO of Schawk. “Assets enter and exit [the process], and they have intelligence and metadata. The more metadata they have, the more intelligent the digital assets can be, but typically they’re still players on the stage of process. You don’t want process to be a player on the stage of assets.”

Specifically, Schawk combined an existing business process management system (BPMS) with an existing digital asset management (DAM) system to build a system to manage the end-to-end process from creative to delivery. This system uses metadata about the digital assets to provide the agility and variability necessary for rapid visual brand development.

“We were too heavily focused on asset management, so we flipped that paradigm and began putting much more of our thought in the process piece.”—Stephen Kaufman, Schawk

In contrast to this new system, most companies typically focus their automation efforts on the transactional processes best suited to standardization and reduced variability, because variability is considered wasteful and value destroying. The result has been a nearly exclusive emphasis on managing transactions instead of processes. Most companies optimize automation flows rather than what really counts: their end-to-end processes. Rare is the company that manages variable processes, including valueproducing, creative activities like visual brand design.

This issue of the Technology Forecast examines how smart digital assets and their metadata offer the opportunity to extend process management to human-driven activities without constraining variability. This first article introduces the idea of meta-process management, achieved by combining digital asset metadata with asset management and process management technologies, as an approach to continuous improvement of an end-to-end process. The second article explores technologies that exist to support this approach; the last article explores the CIO’s role in this approach. In the following section, we start with a closer look at Schawk and the lessons it offers.