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July 2019
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TD Magazine

Working Smarter to Improve the Workflow

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Working Smarter to Improve the Workflow

Use Lean and Agile principles to produce more training content faster and at higher quality.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine that the workflow and effort involved to put together a single training module is taking place within a factory. In this factory, team members each have a specific role with a set number of tasks. They do their tasks, then pass along the results of their work to the next person down the assembly line. They assume that the next person in line will catch and deal with any defects or issues. Before you know it, you have a quality problem: Your learning factory has been pushing out completed modules full of inaccuracies or other issues. Unfortunately, at this stage there's not much time to go back and fix everything. You either face delays or you push out what you have, knowing you could do better.

You can do better—if you rethink how the factory should operate.

Start by determining and documenting the standard of quality you expect. This also means identifying the aspects of production that you can automate, freeing up time for your team to focus more energy on quality. This work of documenting standards and automating tasks becomes critical when facing a huge volume of work that must be produced efficiently without sacrificing quality. Do this by building an Agile toolkit.

Putting together an Agile toolkit is a lot like building a new kind of factory—one that's leaner and better suited to producing high-quality deliverables at scale. With this kind of factory, before you can start building your product (training modules), you'll want to rethink your production workflows and processes around a proactive approach to quality management that keeps things moving. Specifically, you'll need to allow for self-organizing teams to focus on frequent and rapid product delivery through iteration. You'll also need to define acceptance criteria to determine whether what you are producing meets the standard of quality that your customers expect.

Agile principles to apply

When building a training production factory, we want our teams to manage themselves and focus on creating deliverables quickly and frequently. You can apply three Agile principles to building the factory.

Empower the team to make decisions. Good decision making relies on timely communication, so let's reduce barriers to communication. While we're at it, let's automate decisions that are made on a regular basis. We can start by getting out of the email trap.

If you are managing the development of multiple deliverables at once, email becomes the dumpster of communication tools. Each team member walks by the dumpster, throws in their email, and leaves it to you to sort through and decide what requires your attention. This is a huge waste of time. Communication should be transparent, organized, and attached to the source of a deliverable so that everyone knows where to find the information that they need.

Next up is designing your assembly line (or workflow) to automate decisions that must be made on a frequent and predictable basis. Ask: What are all the steps in the development process? Who are the people involved? Who owns each step? How does the product move down the line?

The workflow of how a subject matter expert hands off training development to an instructional designer is a repeatable process (think storyboard design, phone call or email, what content needs to be covered). Automate the process, and the SME and instructional designer can focus on making sure the content is right. You are thus removing the need for the team to make decisions about the process and empowering it to make decisions about content.

Focus on small incremental and frequent releases. In this factory, we need to keep the line running. That means moving away from a traditional waterfall approach, which typically holds up production cycles by moving deliverables together through each development stage and waiting for all deliverables to reach the end of one stage before moving to the next one. This may work if the developed products are identical. However, that is rarely the case when it comes to developing training initiatives. No two courses are the same length, include the same complexity of detail, nor do they all necessarily have the same SME.

In a high-production environment, the waterfall approach leads to inefficiency and often delays as original time estimates are thrown out the door when one course manages to hold up the entire line. By focusing on each deliverable's release in smaller and more frequent stages, independent of the other deliverables on the line, production can keep moving. A deliverable is worked until it hits the next step or stage in the workflow, moved down the line, and then work on the next one begins.

Test and review throughout development. Don't wait and inspect your deliverables at the end of the line, then go back and fix issues. Inspect at all steps in the workflow. When (not if) you find an issue, flag it and document the issue on a corrective action log to prevent further problems (more on this later). It's nothing short of painful to develop 15 e-learning modules using the waterfall approach and move all 15 modules to a final review stage, only to find they all had a similar error that could have been easily caught early in the process. (There goes your deadline.)

Lean principles to apply

We can also look to Lean principles for inspiration. Lean is about striving for perfection. It's not about turning on the factory and walking away but always evaluating and improving the process. It's also about striving for flow, making sure the steps run smoothly and eliminating interruptions or bottlenecks that could lead to delays.

These last points are crucial for managing quality. Always look for improvement, find the bottlenecks, identify quality issues, and feed them back into the system so that your team can fix them the first time and keep moving. The nature of the frequent, iterative releases allows for your team to incorporate changes without schedule delays or affecting overall flow. This means you can keep timeframes rigid, according to Agile, without disrupting the flow of development, and you can keep moving at a higher pace without hitting the brakes with every little issue found.

This approach is the difference between quality assurance and quality control. Quality control inspects products at the end of the line; by the time you find issues, delays are inevitable. When you find a defect, the line stops, and root cause analysis begins. When you finally find a solution, production equipment and processes need to be retooled, and defected parts are sent back to be fixed and worked back through the line. This will clearly result in delays.

Through quality assurance, or having frequent checks at multiple stages, you can find issues and identify and incorporate resolutions in the next stage of the process. That way nothing makes it to the end to be sent back, and if it does make it that far, only a few components are affected.

Assembling your Agile toolkit

You want a factory that can run at a high pace, produce deliverables frequently, and ensure high quality at all stages. Your goal is to establish your standard of quality and design methods for continuous improvement. Agile and Lean principles provide great clues for how to design the factory, but it's a lot easier to put the factory together when you have the blueprints. For training development, our factory blueprint is the Agile toolkit. Here's what you'll need in your toolkit:

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Documented standards for all team members. Identify what your final product is going to look like. This includes documenting everything you can: writing style, pronunciation guides, brand standards, and what development tool you will use (for example, Storyline, Captivate, or Lectora).

Take it further by identifying the interaction types and patterns that may be related to your content. Bundle these standards as development templates to be used as your production tool. Build out templates that give designers and developers a place to start that already leverages the standards. Follow it up with review checklists that highlight key standards so developers can review their own work. Go a step further and hold regular quality check-ins to enable team members to share issues they're dealing with to help others avoid the same fate. (See the sidebar for a list of possible standards.)

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Team collaboration site with documented workflows. No more email jams. Sites that leverage built-in workflows have been around for a while; look to any IT support desk and you'll see a ticketing system designed around workflows. You'll also see a tool that aligns communication to a specific ticket that enables anyone who views the ticket to quickly see the history and related communication. That is our key production tool. Numerous tools are great at this—Jira, Trello, Basecamp, and monday.com, among others. Treat your deliverables like tickets, and move them through your predefined workflow.

Clear project plans with baseline delivery dates. Good factory owners know how many widgets they can produce in an hour. They also know how many widgets they need to produce to meet customer demand and when they need to stock the shelves to meet the holiday rush. In training development, we want to know the same thing. You must be able to answer two questions: When is your intended deadline? How quickly can you produce a deliverable?

Break it down to amount of time at each stage. Doing that will enable you to measure your production pace and determine at any point your ability to meet the deadline. Measuring against a baseline will tell you whether you're ahead or behind schedule so that you can adjust the workflow.

Corrective action log for quality assurance. Good standards and workflow are required for finding and fixing problems as they come up—but to manage it all, you'll need the corrective action log. With a self-organizing and empowered team in place, everyone is responsible for spotting errors and reporting them. If someone finds an error, it's not just fixed and swept under the rug; it's called out on the log and documented for everyone to see.

The purpose is to identify the root cause of every error as it appears. That way you can decide whether it is a human error, a lack of standard, or a process error. Once you've nailed down the cause, you can implement a fix and roll it out to all deliverables working through the production line. This ensures the same error won't keep popping up. It also ensures that those little errors that may get swept under the rug won't become a bottleneck for any individual to fix.

Team huddles for production planning. Communication is key to keeping things moving. Getting out of email jail is great. Using a workflow management tool with Kanban boards is great. Staring at a deliverable and wondering why it's not moving down the production line? Not great.

As much as we love getting out of email and communicating through the tool, sometimes there is nothing that gets things moving faster than a little human contact. A good way to keep up the pace is to have daily huddles (much like Agile scrum meetings). This enables you to quickly run through the production plan for the day and review status, examine deadlines, and identify any blockers that the team will need to deal with. If one of your developers hits a roadblock, you can reassign the work to another developer. Thanks to good standards, you know that any of your developers can pick up the deliverable and achieve the same level of quality.

Continuous improvement

With these production vehicles in place, your training factory can move through development at a faster pace, with higher output than you previously thought possible.

When applying Agile or Lean principles, the goal is to improve quality and enable your team to self-manage the work through the process. However, these principles are all about continuous improvement and always evaluating the work, quality, standards, and process to make sure you are running as smoothly as possible. Whether you're redesigning the factory or formalizing a few standards, don't count on being 100 percent complete before getting started. Your standards are a living set of guides that change as your product evolves.

As new brand standards are released, development tools get updated, or your company moves to a new learning management system, your factory and everything it's made of—your quality standards, workflow, processes, and tools—will need to go through just as many iterations to keep up with demands. By building out your factory, you'll free up time normally spent figuring out the process and allow for more time to be spent on getting quality right the first time. If you hit the standard of quality right the first time, your team will speed through production like a well-oiled machine.


Setting Up Your Standards

Writing standards: Cover known style guides, tone of voice, text formatting, verbiage, grammar, punctuation, and usage of terms. Set guardrails for writing to achieve greater consistency of voice among all learning deliverables.

Script and narration standards: Cover expectations on tone of voice, quality of voice-over, pronunciation guidelines, and how to prepare scripts. Scripting standards take into account how voice-over talent will read the text and how updates will be made to maintain consistent sound quality.

Brand standards: Include corporate guidelines for internal and external audiences as defined by the wider organization, as well as sub-brands and initiative-based brands developed by individual business units. Cover colors palettes, typography, imagery, use of logos, and anything specific to a distribution mode.

Development standards: Include process-specific guidelines, such as file naming conventions, file storage and versioning procedures, product testing procedures, and general governance for how projects are managed.

Technology standards: Focus on the tools used during the production process and how those tools are maintained and who has access to them. You can include governance for upgrade cycles and how and when new versions of the tools are used.

Tool-specific standards: Certain development tools may require their own standards. This could include page layouts, interaction types, publish settings, or standards for watermarking content for tracking purposes.

Quality control review checklists: Cover items that need to be checked for overall compliance to ensure quality is being met. Focus on the modality of the product being developed and highlight anything new that reviewers may not yet be aware of, such as changes in brand standards.

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About the Author

Noah Kreischer, principal instructional designer and learning strategist at TiER1, is passionate about finding the right-size learning solution to meet employees’ needs. His work reflects his belief that improving people’s performance is about improving their ability to be effective and efficient.

When designing solutions, Kreischer looks at many different delivery methods, from simple on-demand performance support to full-on simulated environments. He has previous experience as an educational technologist and instructional designer. He’s served clients from a range of industries and settings, including government, higher education, nonprofit, and corporate. Kreischer holds a bachelor’s degree in international business, business management, and international studies from the University of Findlay and a master’s degree in education, curriculum and instruction, and instructional design and technology from the University of Cincinnati. He is also a licensed aircraft dispatcher and private pilot.

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