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Production tip – how we always hit deadlines

Smart Processes

June 17, 2020

Production tip – how we always hit deadlines

There's an art to hitting deadlines. It really isn't difficult when you know how. Combine informed decision making with the art of winkling the truth out of people. The better you are at hitting deadlines, the closer you will get to the truth about deadlines.

Triage is the key. Get it right and pretty soon you will be making informed decisions and hitting deadlines. Hitting deadlines starts with a basic understanding of how scheduling works. Then you add a triage system to provide rules for making decisions about the schedule. 

I am sharing how we do it because the ability to hit deadlines appears to be at risk of becoming a lost art. And there is no need for more stress than is necessary. When you know that a deadline is achievable, a delicious calm descends. Heads go down, work gets down, stress levels stay at beneficial levels.

Scheduling is about making immediate decisions. This is where you decide what to do today, tomorrow and maybe the next day. These decisions need to serve the project goals.

The need for having rules to follow should be blindingly obvious. Everyone has experienced times when competing demands turning everyone’s brains to porridge.

It is here, in scheduling, that having a triage system makes life a lot easier. 'Triage' comes from the French word 'trier' meaning to sort. By triaging incoming work, you sort it into the categories you've decided apply to your studio.

Each set of triage rules must meet the project priorities. Our triage rules suit our studio which is all about implementation. In other words, our agenda is to get stuff done – we are all about deadlines. We have a clear goal – it is to 'hit deadlines and get it right'.

There is also a philosophy component to the triage rules. The rules need to fit the philosophy of your organisation. There's no point in having triage rules that make the most anxious client the highest priority if this pushes another job past its deadline. Unless, of course, pleasing that most anxious client is your highest goal and letting other people down is okay.

Again, this doesn't need to be difficult. But this is where your culture has an impact on your ability to deliver. Respect is the cornerstone of our values. So respect for the needs of the next person in the process is the way we decided what our triage rules were. See how philosophy gets involved?

Our triage list focuses on the idea of getting the job to the next stage of the process as fast as possible. We do this to give the folk at the next stage as much time as possible to do their part of the job. They can then print it/test it, check it or send it out to stakeholders for review with as much time as we can give them.

From this idea of transferring time to the people at the next stage, we developed our triage criteria. Decision making then became super easy.

The classifications we use in triage are these, in order of priority:

  1. Ready To Output

  2. Changes To Do

  3. New Work


Our highest priority is Ready To Output. This means that the job is approved and needs to go to an external agency. We make this the first priority. The external agency can then have as much time as possible to do their part of the project.

Changes to do are the second priority. When changes come in we turn them around quickly. Then the author can review while it is still top-of-mind for them. This also keeps jobs moving along. It achieves the same goal as Ready To Output in that it allows as much time as possible to the next person in the process.

Finally, new work commences. Here, another level of prioritising goes on to determine which projects start first.  Again, based on the same principle of respecting everyone else in the project.

We only schedule two days ahead at the most. We have a lot of work in our studio that requires a rapid turn around and we need to be very agile to meet deadlines. The only time frame that we schedule is the next half day. Everything beyond that is open to  change if necessary. 

Triage is essential because nothing is stable – timing and resources are unpredictable. It’s much like an ER without the medical bit, or the germs…

But let me save you some time with a couple of triage rules that don’t work but people insist on using:

  • First in, best dressed. This is a terrible way of prioritising. Imagine if hospital emergency rooms worked like that! 

  • Or, having one person do the whole job. Leaving a job with one designer until it is complete won't help with deadlines. Bad luck if they're not in, are at a day full of meetings, or have too much to get through.


Have a go at creating triage rules. It will help you uncover your true underlying culture so it's not an activity for the thin of skin!