One of the hardest challenges for marketing managers is efficiency. Bloated operations are endemic in the marketing world, and marketers are, often fairly, criticised for blowing through budgets with little to show for their efforts.
In this article, we’ll explore how managers can use the 6S system to improve efficiency and tempo in both day-to-day operations and campaigns.
- The Problem: Time and Money
- The System: 6S
- 6S in Marketing
- Seiri (Sort)
- Seiton (Straighten)
- Seiso (Shine)
- Seiketsu (Standardise)
- Shitsuke (Sustain)
- A Cautionary Note
- Free Airtable Template for 6S
The Problem: Time and Money
In marketing (and in business generally), there are two key resources: time and money.
A time-rich team, such as a micro-business or a seed-stage startup, can compensate for its lack of money by sustaining a slower tempo over time, just as a money-rich business, such as an enterprise, can use money to increase its tempo through technology and additional personnel.
The issue, of course, is when a business has neither. A seed-stage startup overwhelmed by its operations may have neither the time nor the money to grow through revenue alone (which is precisely why most startups need funding). Similarly, when a larger business suffers a drop in profits, it may not have the time required to recover organically – this is when austerity measures like budget cuts and layoffs take place.
A marketing team is no different. Time or money are required for results. When a business is smaller, working off a limited budget, marketing timelines are theoretically longer and less urgent. When a business is larger, managers can hire contractors and leverage software – larger budgets mean they can increase their tempo and meet shorter deadlines.
Of course, as any marketer knows, the reality is far less forgiving. Timelines are always urgent. There’s never enough money to hire that extra contractor or upgrade the software stack. This leads to enormous pressure on teams – trying to accomplish too much, too fast, with too little. The inevitable result? Corners are cut. Things get missed. And, very often, there’s not enough time to focus on the basics: implementing and maintaining resource maximisation systems.
The System: 6S
Before we explore how 6S can be used to better conserve resources, let’s take a look at what the system is and how it was developed.
Like so many business methodologies that we take for granted, 6S lean management was developed by Toyota for use in manufacturing. Originally, the system comprised five Ss:
- Seiri (sort)
- Seiton (straighten)
- Seiso (shine)
- Seiketsu (standardise)
- Shitsuke (sustain)
Today, a sixth S is generally added: safety.
In manufacturing, 6S essentially removes clutter, sorts items into logical groups and locations, maintains a clean workplace, establishes best practices, standardises those practices, and manages risks to workers. It’s closely correlated with other lean principles, like kaizen (continuous improvement) and just-in-time.
6S in Marketing
So how exactly does a manufacturing system help marketers conserve resources?
Despite the obvious differences between manufacturing and marketing operations, 6S is about inefficiency – something that occurs in every part of a business. Its principles can be applied equally anywhere, provided they’re appropriately translated for the business function in question.
Let’s start with the first S: seiri, or sort. The goal of seiri is to reduce clutter – in manufacturing, this involves inventorying assets and removing/discarding unused items.
The real purpose, of course, is to save resources by removing roadblocks. The less time (or money) spent on unnecessary things, the more of those resources you have to allocate to more important efforts. Apply this to your marketing by making two lists: one of everything that costs your team money per month and one of everything that costs your team time per month.
Here’s an example list created using Airtable, where both money and time costs are displayed side by side.
Here, we’ve kept the costs fairly high-level and general, but you could theoretically delve deep into each part of your team to find smaller costs as well – if you have the time, ‘one percent’ costs (like spending an unnecessary 60 seconds trying to find the same file again and again, or repeatedly paying interest on late invoices because you forget to approve contractor timesheets) can collectively add up to a lot.
The key is to identify recurring costs – these are the things that we want to focus on fixing. To make things easy, though, set minimum and/or maximum requirements for your sorting. For example, you might only include time costs that take longer than 15 minutes, or money costs that use more than $20 per month.
Now you have your list(s), go over each item and ask yourself: does the benefit of this outweigh its time/money cost? If the answer is ‘no’, tag the item red. If the answer is ‘yes’, ask yourself whether the cost could be cut back with relatively little impact on the benefit (for example, could you cut your daily check-ins from 15 minutes to 10 minutes, or drop down from that premium software tier?). If the answer is ‘yes’, tag the item yellow. If the answer to cutting back is ‘no’, tag the item green.
You can probably see where this is going. Once you’re finished, all items should have a tag that’s either green, yellow or red. Keep the green items – these are your essentials that are delivering maximum ROI. The yellow items need to be reviewed; their cost can be reduced without impacting their usefulness to you. The red items, of course, are unnecessary. Cut them as soon as possible.
Seiri is an especially useful step for more mature marketing teams, because older infrastructure tends to accumulate more unnecessary costs. Once you’ve cancelled those old subscriptions, streamlined your meetings, and downgraded that enterprise-level software, you might be surprised at exactly how much time and money you’ll save at a team-wide level.
Red-tag and Replace
It’s fine to red-tag an item and replace it with a more efficient green-tagged item.
For example, you might realise that 15-minute daily briefings are a waste of time – but you still want to have some kind of regular team briefing. You could red-tag (discard) your 15-minute daily briefings, and instead create a new item: 30-minute weekly meetings every Monday morning.
The important thing is that you’ve made a net saving of either money or time. You could do the same thing with software subscriptions (switch to a cheaper service), contractors (switch to a more efficient provider), and just about every other item.
In manufacturing, seiton, or straightening, involves setting out your green-tagged items in a way that facilitates the fastest and safest access, while also improving storage capacity.
Ultimately, it’s about access, which is how we can apply it to marketing. Think about it as reducing the time needed for your team to take an action – whether that’s logging into a website, checking Ahrefs, or putting together a brief.
The first thing we’ll do is make cuts to the yellow-tagged items we identified during sorting. Most of these cuts will be a simple matter of reducing spend or hours. Once the yellow-tagged items have been streamlined, tag them green.
The next aspect of straightening is, for want of a better word, process optimisation. Take each of your green-tagged items and think about how you can do it faster or cheaper.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you yellow-tagged bi-weekly social media reporting with your team during sorting. In the first part of straightening, you decided to cut reporting to fortnightly (it’s now green-tagged). Keep in mind that no changes have been made to the process – you’ve just reduced the allocated time.
How can you accomplish that process faster? Well, let’s say your social media coordinator has been manually extracting granular data from each platform. You don’t need that level of data to keep track of broad progress – so you get them to just pull high-level analytics from Buffer instead, turning an hour-long task into a 10-minute one.
In manufacturing, seiso is exactly what it sounds like: making sure the workplace is as clean and tidy as possible, which helps maintain both equipment and safety.
We’ll apply it a little differently. For marketers using 6S, shining is about record maintenance – keeping accurate records of both time and money costs to ensure that things aren’t slipping through the cracks.
Depending on the size of your organisation, tracking your operating and advertising expenses should be relatively simple; you should already have a system in place to compare your budget with your actual outlay.
Keeping track of time might be more difficult. If you don’t already have time-tracking as a standard in your organisation, consider implementing it (at least within your team). You can use time-tracking apps like Clockify, or, for easier reporting, manually attribute 15-minute blocks to tasks and record them in Asana or other task tracking software.
It should be noted, though, that time-tracking needs to be implemented correctly. Make sure your team understands the reason behind it – you don’t want them to feel like they’re being micromanaged or spied on.
Whatever method you end up using for time- and expense-tracking, the important thing is that the data is easily retrievable and able to be displayed in a per-month format. 6S is about efficiency, not wasting time on administrative processes. Leverage built-in reporting features of software like Asana, or talk to your accounts team about more comprehendible reporting.
Seiketsu, or standardise, is the process of turning the first three Ss into systems that can be applied across your organisation or team.
There are three main steps to standardisation.
Firstly, make sure you actually implement the cuts made during straightening. There are few better ways to waste resources than by conducting theoretical exercises that never lead to change.
Once you’ve made those cuts, explain to your team what you’ve done and why (as well as to other relevant stakeholders, like senior leadership). This promotes the ideals of 6S at a cultural level and helps others understand that your exercises deliver tangible value.
Finally, make any changes required to minimise future inefficiency. For example, if meetings regularly run past their allocated time, you could make a requirement that all meetings have an agenda set in Fellow beforehand to prevent meandering. If creative assets like graphics are constantly being recommissioned when existing assets can be reused/repurposed, you might make it mandatory to check the asset library before tasking a contractor or junior designer with new work.
Shitsuke, or sustain, is fairly straightforward: make 6S exercises a regular part of your operations. The key is to make sure a culture of efficiency is developed and maintained over time.
For example, you might ask each team member to complete a 6S exercise for mid-level costs ($20–$100/two to four hours per month) once a month. Once a quarter, you might conduct an exercise for high-level costs (more than $100/four hours per month).
By keeping 6S top of mind and regularly eliminating inefficiencies, you’re creating a culture of lean work. Each cost, whether it’s time, money, or something else, needs to be outweighed by the benefit it provides. This, in turn, can trickle down into your marketing strategy and tactics – ideally, your team will view every potential action through a cost-benefit lens, and only those with a viable return potential will be followed through.
It’s worth noting that experimentation, when conducted properly, is not an inefficiency. While the benefits of the action itself may not outweigh its cost, testing is essential to formulating better processes, tactics and strategies. Without constant innovation, even the most entrenched incumbents are vulnerable to more adaptive, agile competitors.
The final S stands for ‘safety’, an addition made in the last few decades. Its purpose is to prioritise worker safety during manufacturing.
Marketers don’t face the same dangers as factory workers – we don’t work near fast-moving parts or heavy machinery – but other personnel risks can still impact efficiency. Mental and physical health are both incredibly important for a profession that, ultimately, relies on innovation and creativity.
In the course of managing costs, make sure those that support your team’s health aren’t cut. For example, integrating a 10-minute break in between meetings can seem like a waste of time; in reality, it lets participants process what they just discussed, formulate action items, and then prep for the next meeting, reducing their mental loads and increasing their contribution potential.
In fact, running a 6S exercise can be a great opportunity to reinvest the savings in your team. That four grand you saved by downgrading a software subscription? It could be spent on adjustable desks – ideal for improving posture, increasing focus, and minimising weight gain. The half an hour you saved a week by eliminating daily briefs? Boost morale by giving the team an early mark on Fridays.
A Cautionary Note
Before you implement 6S in your team, it’s worth noting that the exercises described in this article are only applicable to marketers/teams that deal with repeatable processes. 6S works by identifying and eliminating inefficiencies in those processes, which compound with repetition. A saving of 15 minutes a day quickly multiples to 105 minutes a week or 11 days a year.
While many managerial and technical roles in marketing do involve repeatable processes, there are also some that do not. For certain creative roles, for example, looking for inefficiencies through 6S may actually do the opposite – by trying to identify repeated processes in something that is fluid and wildly variable, the creatives in question may feel constrained.
Always remember the purpose of 6S: better efficiency means more resources for your team, which means you can achieve better outcomes. Never compromise those outcomes by imposing unnecessary constraints on roles that require creative freedom.
To summarise, 6S for marketing involves six steps:
- Seiri/Sort: Record your monthly money and time costs and tag them appropriately.
- Seiton/Straighten: Make cuts to yellow-tagged items and streamline green-tagged items.
- Seiso/Shine: Have accurate record-keeping in place for expenses.
- Seiketsu/Standardise: Explain the impact of the changes and prevent future inefficiencies.
- Shitsuke/Sustain: Regularly run 6S exercises.
- Safety: Preserve and prioritise costs that benefit your team’s health.
Marketers are often criticised for wasting resources. Sometimes, that waste occurs as a result of poor strategy or execution – which may or may not be something that you can actually control. Making the shift from, say, outbound to demand generation requires executive buy-in that can be hard to get.
What you can control, though, is how you run your team. How you allocate your budget. How you spend your time. And that’s where systems like 6S can be so valuable.
6S exercises don’t require seismic cultural or operational changes. They’re a simple way to do more with what you already have – and that’s something every marketer should find helpful.
Free Airtable Template for 6S
Use this free Airtable template to easily run your own 6S exercises.
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