When we talk to businesses about workflow automation for the first time we often hear that for a long time they A) didn’t know they had a problem and B) had no idea what to do when they realized they actually had a problem. We think this is understandable given that “workflow” isn’t necessarily something people spend a lot of time thinking about unless they’re in a business that centers around workflow of some kind (printing, manufacturing, etc.) For most businesses, workflow is something that, while important, is much less visible.
Because of this we put together a list of signs that might raise a flag in your organization when it’s time to look at a workflow solution.
It takes too long to get everything approved.
If you or your co-workers are frequently pointing out that “things take forever to get approved,” it could be that the current approval process is poorly designed.
For instance, submitting expenses is frequently done in a very manual way. Open a spreadsheet “form” save it with a new name, fill it out, save it, attach it to an email, send it to your boss for approval, wait for their response and then forward their reply to accounting so they can see it was approved.
Now someone in accounting has to open the email, confirm the approval from your boss, open your file attachment, save it to a folder, review your spreadsheet entries and so on. Meanwhile there’s nothing pushing the process along other than people just remembering to do everything. And what if there’s something questionable entered, for instance a large ticket item that needs to be reviewed by a higher-ranking Finance person? The email forwarding ping pong match starts. Meanwhile the original submitter has no idea when he’s getting paid.
With workflow automation, the expense submitter fills out a form online and the expenses automatically route to his boss. His boss reviews the entries online, hits “Approved” and they route to the right person in Finance. Big-ticket items are automatically routed appropriately for approval. Meanwhile, the original submitter is watching his request move from one point to the next, completely aware of who’s doing what.
Important tasks are being skipped during critical processes.
If people are frequently skipping agreed-upon process steps there’s probably a reason for it. It could be bad training, bad process design, bad timing or a weak link.
In the previous expense request scenario, what if the accounting person who received the request failed to notice the big ticket expense item, entered everything into the accounting system and moved on? Later, when fire and brimstone rain down on the supervisor for approving the expense she may say “I didn’t know there was a policy for expenses over $250!”
In an automated scenario, the expense would have set off the appropriate flags and notified the appropriate people, preventing several employees from getting into trouble and keeping the books in order.
Mistakes are frequently being made during critical processes.
Let’s say your workflow automation scenario is a vendor approval process for a school system. Whenever a school in the system needs to hire a contractor, the school needs to check with the central office for approval. This is to keep costs in check and ensure that vendors are licensed and bonded before contracts are signed.
A principal at one of the schools in the system sends an email to the central office requesting to use a new vendor and the email goes into an email pool. The person at the central office who gets the email first is new and eager to move things along quickly. They check to ensure the vendor is indeed licensed and bonded but forgets to check if the requesting school bid the project out. They approve the request by replying to the requestor via email and the vendor contract is signed. The school finds out later they paid three times more than they should have but have to fulfill the contractual obligation.
In an automated workflow scenario, the request may not have proceeded unless the appropriate bidding requirement was met. For instance the workflow could dictate that three separate bids needed to be included in the original request before it could be processed.
The wrong people are regularly dealing with internal requests.
In the previous scenario, what if that new person in the central office wasn’t supposed to approve any request above $50k without their supervisor’s approval but was getting pressured by the requestor to push it through anyway? The process would have broken down there as well.
We naturally look for the point of least resistance when we need something. In some cases this means going to the person in another department we think will get us what we need. For instance, if you need approval to use a corporate logo on a piece of collateral you’re working on you probably contact the person in Marketing who probably has access to print-ready logos and is most likely willing to just email it to you at a moment’s notice.
Hopefully you are a student of the corporate branding guidelines and use the logo appropriately. If not, you risk unintentionally damaging your company’s brand.
With workflow automation, logo/branding requests can be handled swiftly but with proper checkpoints for brand consistency. A side effect of this scenario is you’d probably get some help from the Marketing team with your collateral!
No one seems to know the status of anything during or after a process starts.
In all the previous manual workflow scenarios a common element is that each step happens in a vacuum. Once someone submits a request it becomes invisible. They know they sent it but finding out where in the process it is requires more emails or phone calls to follow up. The simple request is now chewing up valuable time that could be spent on high value activity.
In fact no one involved in the process really knows the status unless they’re the ones currently dealing with it. That means supervisors, looking to keep things flowing efficiently and looking at service levels are potentially blind to bottlenecks in the process or underperformers on their team.
An unexpected benefit of an automated workflow is that not only does it streamline the process but it helps point out how the process can get even better. The process itself becomes a tangible, measurable entity. Gaps can be identified and corrected just by running a report.
Every company has workflows. Some are simple and some are complex. There’s a good chance people in your organization are frustrated at some level with a workflow that’s integral to them getting things done. Start looking for the signs.