Five keys to prepping content like a top chef
The best restaurant kitchens successfully juggle complex tasks amidst many competing priorities. By looking at professional kitchen practices, enterprises can discover opportunities to refine the way they manage their content operations.
Michael AndrewsPublished on Mar 3, 2021
If you’ve ever watched a talented chef at work in a restaurant kitchen or watched a famous chef on TV, you may have been impressed by how effortlessly various dishes come together. The chef seems to be in the right place at the right moment. The choreography can be spellbinding.
The best practices in professional kitchens provide inspiration for enterprises that are seeking to improve the coordination of their content operations. Cooking and content creation both involve transforming inputs to deliver an outcome designed to please others.
Like content production, cooking involves various tasks and roles. Cooking creates dishes that are based on recipes, while content production creates items that are based on content types. Where dishes are made from ingredients, content items are made from content elements and assets. The raw materials of cooking and content development are different, but their creation processes share many similarities.
Running a top restaurant kitchen successfully involves far more than simply following a recipe from a cookbook. It requires the coordination of many different resources and activities. Without the right approach, the kitchen can become chaotic. Professional chefs bring focus to their work using an approach known as mise en place—putting everything in its place.
The mise en place approach offers many useful insights into how to run content operations successfully. We can distill the essence of mise en place into five themes:
These five themes provide keys for transforming how your content is prepared.
Preparation: Mental attitudes for success
Restaurant kitchens must deliver on a promise: that they are ready to serve what you order without unreasonable delays. Kitchen staff must be ready to act on a customer’s order as soon it arrives. They appreciate that diners are hungry and possibly impatient to get their food.
Kitchen operations are structured for readiness. When orders come, the turnaround must be quick.
Content operations also have to be poised to respond to requests quickly. They serve internal stakeholders who are waiting for content about new initiatives to be delivered. Their work affects customers who are awaiting the release of updated information about their products or services.
One way that restaurants maintain readiness is to prepare certain things in advance. For ingredients that take a long time to prepare, such as sauces or vegetable chopping, they will prep these ahead of time, instead of waiting to begin these activities after receiving the customer’s order.
Content operations can also prepare certain activities ahead of time. Teams can anticipate future needs and prepare certain tasks in advance, such as building out an image library.
Process: Refining how things are created
A well-honed process brings cohesion to the work of professional kitchens.
One of the foremost rules for kitchens is to deliver consistency. Customers expect consistency; it keeps them coming back. If meals are alternatively good and bad, then they lose confidence.
Content operations must also deliver consistency. They won’t sustain success if they favor new, high-visibility projects while their more mundane content is subpar. They need a process that always delivers great outcomes—even when operating under stress.
Consistency is a by-product of being efficient. Kitchens closely manage their resources. They watch how they use time, mindful of time pressures. And they are careful with perishable ingredients, so they are used while they are at their freshest. They root out waste, since wasted food, whether poorly prepared or spoiled because it was unused, is costly.
Content operations must deliver consistency as well. Content of uneven quality ruins the customer experience and can put critical business goals in jeopardy. Operations should refine their processes and look for opportunities to become more precise and efficient.
Professional kitchens show the importance of focus. When preparing food, a certain amount of messiness happens. Chefs know it’s most efficient to clean as they go and not let the mess build up. Doing so allows them to focus on their work without distractions. The same is true in the management of content. It’s easy for clutter to build up: discarded drafts, out-of-date versions of information, or rushed graphics that no one wants to use anymore. These items get in the way of producing content and need to be deleted.
Content operations can also learn from expert chefs the value of precision over speed. Quality depends on precision. The chopping of ingredients will be sloppy and imprecise if done too quickly. When chefs prioritize precision, they can deliver consistency and quality. The good news is that as consistency develops, the speed of performing tasks will increase. Content creators should likewise focus on mastering the details of their work to be able to predict what choices and actions most influence desired outcomes for content. Hastily produced content is frequently ineffective.
Planning: Expecting when things will be needed
Kitchens and content operations both require complex planning. They involve many streams of activities. Some activities must come together at a precise time. In a restaurant, several elements of a dish need to be ready at once, and multiple dishes will need to be ready at the same time to serve everyone at a table. In content operations, the delivery of content can become delayed while waiting on a specific input because its availability wasn’t planned accurately.
It’s also important that similar activities don’t collide with each other. In a restaurant, this could happen when more than one table expects different dishes that require the same preparation resources. In content operations, bottlenecks arise when an essential team member has too many tasks to complete at once.
To deliver on time requires planning backward. Kitchens need to schedule tasks in relation to when each course will be delivered to a table. They need to consider when each serving needs to be ready. To do that, chefs must know the approximate time required for each step associated with preparing a dish.
Both chefs and content creators must manage their pipeline: each item needs to come together, and many items will be in process concurrently.
One important skill is the sequencing of tasks: knowing the right or best order in which to do things. You need to chop the vegetables before you sauté them. But other sequences are less obvious, such as the ideal time to add different ingredients to a dish. The same holds true for content. In what order do things need doing? When is it best to get an executive review or user feedback, early or later in the process?
Another aspect of planning is knowing what resources will be needed. In a restaurant, it revolves around the menu mix: predicting how many of each dish will be ordered and figuring out how much of each ingredient will be needed. In content operations, editors must plan items for the calendar and anticipate scenarios that could trigger urgent content requests. Editors must be confident they have the people and assets available to produce this content.
Planning involves getting the timing of delivery just right. It’s possible to do things too early. In the kitchen, a dish prepared too early may get cold, tough, or soggy and has to be redone. In content operations, content requirements are subject to change. Content items can become out of date because the situation changed after the content was created but before it was published. When content about fluctuating topics takes too long to produce, it can result in needless cycles of revisions.
Orientation: How to optimally arrange tasks
Much of what makes the mise en place approach different is its emphasis on using space to organize work. It considers the relationship between work tasks and how that relationship influences the location of resources and where tasks are done.
Chefs will keep the most frequently used ingredients close by and grouped together. They will create zones on their work counter for similar ingredients. Their goal is to arrange needed resources in an optimal way and keep that arrangement consistent every day. This allows the chef to build a routine for their tasks so they can work faster without stressing about mundane details such as what to do next and where something is.
A similar concept is used in high-performing content operations. Individuals should have all the resources that they need to prepare their content visibly accessible on their screens. Authors need access to a logically organized and labeled content inventory and to analytics and reporting tools that provide them with insights into that content. The authoring environment should bring what’s needed to writers so they don’t have to go elsewhere to consult information or complete a task. Well-designed content operations make it unnecessary for authors to need to switch contexts while doing their work. They can stay focused on completing the project in front of them.
In the kitchen, different activities will each have their own pace. Faster moving activities will be in the foreground while slower moving ones will be in the background. Pans act as containers for transforming ingredients, but they need to be the right temperature before the ingredients can be placed in them. Kitchen tasks are arranged according to the level of attention they require. Some dishes require “hands-on” attention, while others will need time to cook, set, chill, or marinate before they are ready for further preparation.
The variable flow of different activities is a characteristic of content operations as well. How does everyone have visibility into the different states of readiness of the activities around them? Fortunately, teams can arrange activities into different views to show the status of items. They can filter a list of items by their status, such as what activity stage the item is in. They can check items in a calendar view to see whether items are on track or are delayed.
In a kitchen, the dish is considered done only when presented to and accepted by the customer. What matters is the outcome: delighting the diner. Partially finished dishes have no value. In content operations, teams need to avoid abandoned tasks, such as a backlog of items that never get completed.
Feedback: Listening to the activity
Both food and content undergo a continuous process of transformation, from the initial collection of ingredients by staff to the final consumption of the finished product by customers. It’s important that everyone involved with this transformation pays attention to the signals of activity along this journey.
In the kitchen, activities are coordinated through the ritual of “callbacks.” The kitchen crew will shout requests and confirmations. The callbacks support a general awareness of the various activities underway and support their coordination. For content teams, awareness comes from notifications and discussions in workplace messaging channels.
A final question that both kitchens and content teams must answer is: When do you know you are done? Is the item ready and complete? This question goes to the heart of the issue of quality. In the kitchen, chefs rely on many signals. They may infer doneness by listening to the sound of the sizzling pan, testing firmness, or checking the item’s color. Smelling the aroma of a dish is another indicator. For content teams, each item is subject to feedback by different team members who make comments and suggestions about what else needs doing and how to improve what’s been done already.
The mise en place approach transforms the work of kitchens into consistent and productive practices. It provides a perspective on how to coordinate the many considerations to deliver excellence to customers. Restaurants approach their food as a service. Enterprises should approach their content as a service as well.