Workflow can be defined as a sequence of tasks through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion. A workflow can be visualized in a diagram or a checklist which helps ensure consistency. Once a workflow has been defined, it’s wise to look for opportunities to optimize the process to eliminate waste or create efficiencies. Only after optimization has occurred should you consider automating steps in your workflow. There is an abundance of tools on the market to help with automation, although some steps may always require human intervention. With the emergence of RPA (Robotic Process Automation) and similar technological advancements, members of the business community can create workflow automation without the assistance of their IT teams.
Identifying the tasks and their order to achieve completion of a workflow is the first step in ensuring consistency. There are often many ways in which to complete work. Investing in an exercise that brings together key personnel to lay out the possible paths to completion is well worth the time and money. With the rise in popularity of applying the concepts of Lean Manufacturing to business, it’s become much easier to find experts in Lean Process Improvement to run such an exercise. After the steps have been mapped out, team should identify waste in the process. For example, handoffs or waiting introduce waste. Sometimes overcoming waste requires changes to jobs descriptions or roles. Other times, a simple change in the order of tasks can create workflow efficiencies. This is why it’s important to involve the right people in the exercise, to generate ideas and buy-in to a new process. I’ve seen the results of such exercises and the improvements are sometimes drastic, shaving hours or even days off of the flow from start to finish.
Investing in workflow standardization are invaluable for business survival in a world where speed to delivery is a competitive advantage. Whether you automate your workflows or not, defining the most efficient path to delivering value to your customers is imperative
Once the ideal process has been mapped out, you should document the workflow as a Standard Operating Procedure, or SOP. The steps can be tracked in a workflow tool, either off the shelf, or they can be built into an existing system. Better yet, if the workflow process can be automated, it can ensure compliance to the SOP. This can be as simple as required fields in a system that drive the user to the next required field, or automated execution of some of the steps without human intervention. As a very simple example, if one of the steps requires an email notification, that email could be noted as an instruction or task, or it could be automatically sent without the user needing to interact with their emails system at all. The latter requires more logic and coding, but could result in a quick payback or ROI.
Even in manual workflow execution, tools can help track tasks necessary to ensure consistency. The methods and tools available to improve workflow have changed tremendously over the past decade. One major change is the emergence of new jobs, and companies, to create and support these methods and tools. Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence have been on the rise and tools continue to evolve and mature. Companies are going more and more digital, to the point that reliance on certain pieces of hardware will become obsolete. Just consider the multifunction printer that scan, fax, and email. These are rarely used for those functions in many businesses. Software is becoming so sophisticated that I can handle much of my workflow from a smartphone.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the best workflow, with or without automation, will not work in a dysfunctional environment. Maintaining a steady flow of work requires true teamwork. Also, workflow does requires maintenance as things change. Failing to generate buy-in to your company’s standards and processes can create one-offs which are an enemy of workflow. Don’t underestimate the importance of culture. Barriers to flow can include things like personality conflicts, lack of trust, and personal agendas. Aligning the team to a common goal vs. individual goals is imperative as is building a true sense of team. I’ve seen process fall to the wayside when teams don’t function as teams.
Investing in workflow standardization are invaluable for business survival in a world where speed to delivery is a competitive advantage. Whether you automate your workflows or not, defining the most efficient path to delivering value to your customers is imperative.