Workflow is another bit of jargon that has found its way into everyday language and is here for keeps, at least in the business environment. Naturally, companies are looking for ways to ensure that work ‘flows smoothly’ without unnecessary interruptions, loss of information, and paperwork. In today’s article, we will explain exactly what exactly the term workflow covers, and how it will make your job easier.
What is workflow
Underlying the concept of workflow is a simple idea: activities that are done repeatedly are best done the same way every time. Once you do them the same way, you can think about how to make them easier, faster, and more efficient by automating them, streamlining repetitive actions, and making it easier to pass on information. The combination of a well-honed workflow, smart data working and with supportive tools creates what we then call the workflow.
For example, consider a situation where the IT department regularly purchases new mobile phones for employees. This often gets done in an uncoordinated way, whereby an IT worker deals with an employee to establish what phone they would like, then finds out who can approve it, waits for the approval and then orders the mobile. In a month, much the same request will appear, only to be handled by a different resolver, who once again needs to figure out how to process the request and where to order the mobile.
If instead we spend some time on fine-tuning the workflow of handling standard requests for a new device, things will get done very differently. The employee requests a phone via a standardized interface, where s/he enters all the key info for the request to get approval. The system knows their job role and will only offer the relevant choice of pre-approved models. The IT worker need not know who approves the application, because forwarding the approval request to the right person is also governed by predefined rules. In this way, the new mobile phone work flows smoothly from requesting to ordering, to commissioning, to handover.
What is the greatest workflow-related benefit?
Workflow will bring the most benefit to processes that require multiple people to coordinate while collecting data that you continue to work with. Let us illustrate the benefits of a managed workflow on the example of the arrival and induction of a new employee. This process requires the coordination of multiple people in the company, as well as the collection and transfer of data between different competencies through several stages.
Ideally, you have the workflow inbuilt directly into the tools you use. This does not necessarily mean that you need to obtain workflow software. Your toolkit should however be able to guide users and be open enough to communicate with other tools as required. In our example, an HR department employee fills in all required entries when entering a new colleague into the system. This will give us all the important data right at the input stage and we won’t overlook or forget anything.
Once a joining request has been made, an automated process is started, and tasks set for all staff involved in preparing a workplace for the new colleague, providing mentoring etc. They each get all the data relevant to their tasks as previously captured in the introductory form. There’s no need to manually let anyone know they have a task to do. Any request that arises in this way is governed by a pre-set approvals scheme. In other words, the request itself ‘knows’ whether it needs to be approved and by whom. The result is an acceleration of the entire joining and subsequent induction process. All tasks that do not require human intervention are automated. Your company will have dozens of processes like this one to deal with. This means there is enormous scope to save time and reduce error.
But automated chaos is just accelerated chaos
Optimization and automation are beautiful, but only if done in that order. Before you wave the magic wand of digitization, take a good look at the process you’re using. If the process itself is no good and regularly generates problems, automating it will generate the same problems, only much faster. And you certainly don’t want that.
Don’t just embark on process optimization without getting out of your chair, but talk to the people directly involved in the tasks. “You really do have to talk to everyone involved in the work” explains our colleague Jirka Sláma, “although there may quite often be someone around who knows the whole process and can explain it. However, you will find that there is rarely a consensus in the company on the best course of action. One person may be convinced that they know who is in charge of a particular task. But that particular individual may have no idea. That’s why it’s best to get everyone involved to put their heads together.”
Clarify all the steps and their proper order. Then talk about the details of each step. Consider why the step is (or is not) important, where the errors or duplicated tasks arise, what information a worker needs to complete the given step, etc. Be persistent in asking drill-down questions. How does the whole process start? ‘Someone makes a change request.’ How does s/he make the request? ‘By e-mail.’ Who is the e-mail sent to? Is that an effective way of asking?
Always make sure that people understand you. If you have been involved in the process for quite a while, you may be brimming full of professional jargon and wrongly assume that all the terms you use are meaningful to others. But you get anywhere without speaking the same language. So do make sure that everyone understands the terminology in the same way.
Typical mistakes, or, how not to screw things up
Let’s suppose you have optimized a process and subsequently automated it. All the repetitive tasks have a functioning workflow. Data is transmitted between systems, your workers know what to do. Unnecessary manual working has fallen away. How not to screw things up? First of all, do make sure you have the support of key stakeholders and stay consistent. We said at the start that workflow makes sense for task that can be done over and over the same way. If you start introducing various exceptions into this system you’ll soon be sorry. You can bet there will be many people who’ll want to get special treatment, either for themselves or for their team. That’s why you need the support of the key stakeholders in your business.
Be patient and keep explaining the benefits of the workflow you’ve established. Don’t get all defensive in response to comments and complaints. Treat every comment as valuable feedback that can lead to improved workflow, even if it is tainted by the negative emotions of the moment. It is also easy to succumb to the temptation to hide behind the process and demand it be blindly followed. A better approach is to listen to critical voices and find out what is bothering them about the present process.
Revisit your established workflows regularly, and never forget to check that the work is actually flowing like you thought it would. Make sure that no input data is missing, that the task assignments are understandable and clear, that the resolvers don’t lack crucial context or history info, that requests are not getting lost, and that you have a conclusive audit trail available.
Most of all, never lose sight of the overall benefit to the business. Even if you speed up tenfold some process for some activity that has not been bringing any value for quite a while, the business will not benefit, and you could have spent the money in better ways. So, be careful not to become a slave of outdated processes. Your business is a living organism, and the process that you honed to perfection last summer may now be out of date.