Don't Just Automate, Reframe Those Business Processes
By Joanne Wortman | Published June 15, 2018
Interior designers know that the right frame makes all the difference when incorporating artwork into an overall design. Reframing is also a skill that can also unlock the biggest ROI from a workflow automation initiative.
Most organizations understand that they can boost efficiency and reduce errors and rework by using workflow tools to eliminate manual tasks, person-to-person handoffs, and manual calculations. There is real value in doing that. However, the biggest value of a workflow automation tool is unlocked when they take the automation project to a higher level by reframing those business processes before automating them.
What is Business Process Reframing?
To reframe a business process, it's essential to look beyond step by step automation in existing processes. Here are the steps involved in process reframing:
- Understand the real value of the process to the organization. Standard value chain analysis is a helpful tool to use in this step. You may choose to eliminate some steps entirely instead of automating them because they are of minimal value in the bigger (reframed) context. The process itself may provide limited value to strategic goals, so it may be wise to deprioritize it for automation.
- Start a stakeholder discussion a using what if? questions that challenge the need for existing processes or the way those processes are performed.
- What if we stop offering special discounts?
- What if we moved this work to a different department?
- What if we stopped accepting faxed orders?
The answers to the what if? questions shape the vision for your target processes, and these are where your automation design begins.
You will know you are on the right track with your reframing effort when at least 50% of the stakeholders are uncomfortable with the suggested new direction. You will need to help them along the acceptance curve.
Example: Preparing for the Quarterly Meeting
For several weeks before the quarterly management meeting, a designated executive (or admin) gathers performance metrics from each department head into an Excel workbook. The workbook is routed through finance for some offline calculations. Department heads also prepare a one-page bulleted list showing their progress and problems since the last quarterly meeting. This usually involves many email reminders and an offline checklist tracking the responses. The numbers and departmental input are sent to the marketing department for consolidation into a slide deck which is printed and bound so that it's on the table when the executives arrive for the meeting. Note that this manual process means executives can only see information that is at least a few weeks old.
A workflow automation tool can clearly help with the following:
- Alerts and follow-up reminders can be sent to those individuals who need to submit information.
- The performance statistics and departmental one pager can be entered into a form in the workflow tool.
- Finance's calculations can be folded into the workflow as an attachment.
- Any content edits and approvals can be part of the automated workflow.
- The system notifies marketing when the completed package is ready to wrap up into the board meeting slide deck.
This simple attempt to automate the process certainly makes the process less chaotic, but it may only shave days off the overall process for compiling the meeting package.
To reframe the process, begin by asking what is the value of the quarterly meeting to the organization? Clearly, it's providing executives with accurate, up-to-date information so that they can make the decisions necessary to keep the organization moving in the right direction. When the process is framed in this way, the automation approach takes place at a higher level.
What if we eliminated the slide deck and ran the meeting from the workflow tool itself, displaying it on screen in the conference room?
- The meeting agenda would be part of the workflow.
- An API to the workflow tool pulls in current information from other software applications.
- Department heads could enter more up to date bullet points within days before the meeting (with automation built in for the CEO or CIO to approve/edit the bullet points)
- Issues, commentary and follow-ups can be entered during the meeting and included in the final report for the meeting.
- The workflow automation tool generates the report directly either before the meeting or after the meeting
Clearly, the reframing effort unlocked the real value of this workflow by providing up-to-date information to the executives, in addition to streamlining the process for generating the report.
Other Reframing Questions to Keep in Mind
What if we did not single thread all approvals through one manager? Can we segment and prioritize approval needs and automated business rules into a workflow?
What if we did away with discount approvals and incentivized our sales team to maximize profit instead of sales?
What if we stopped sending reports around by email and responded to information requests by directing people to the appropriate dashboards in our workflow tool?
What if we stopped replacing returns of products that retail under $100 and just sent out replacements?
How do you find more what if? questions in your organization? Look for any activity that still involves printing and filing, or endless back and forth emails. Take a peek into the meeting schedules of those people who always fall behind on their responsibilities. Consider the added value and then evaluate the concerns from the stakeholders. Sometimes the real pain is minimal when weighed against the increased value.
When you encourage this type of what if? reframing, you will find more people get on board with the type of blue-sky thinking that leads to the kind of process innovation that sparks real return on investment.
Joanne Wortman is an independent business/technology consultant and freelance writer in the NY Metro area. She has almost two decades of experience providing business process optimization, organizational change management, M&A integration, and program management across many business sectors, with a concentration in manufacturing.