Workflow – What does it really entail?

by Frank 8. April 2012 06:00

Workflow has been defined as “the glue that binds business processes together.” Depending upon your background and experience that particular definition may or may not be as clear as mud. Despite having been a key factor in business application processing for a very long time workflow is still very poorly understood by many in business and is more often than not too narrowly defined.

For example, you do not need to pay big bucks for a heavy-duty workflow package and all the services associated with it to implement workflow in your organization. Workflow is really about automating some business process using whatever tool is appropriate. You can automate a business process with Word or Excel or Outlook for that matter and the most common starting point is to first capture a paper document as a digital document using simple tools like a document scanner. You don’t even need a computer (apart from the human brain, the world’s best computer) to implement workflow.

Designing and implementing workflow is more about the thought processes, about evaluating what you are doing and why you are doing it and then trying to figure out a better and more efficient way to do it. It is about documenting and analysing a current business process and then redesigning it to make it more appropriate and more efficient. It is by making it more efficient that you make productivity gains; ideally, you end up doing more with less and adding more value.

You shouldn’t undertake any investigation of new workflows without first having defined objectives and metrics. You should also always begin with some basic questions of your staff or end-users:

  1. What are you doing now that you think could be done better?
  2. What aren’t you doing now that you think you should be doing?
  3. What are you doing now that you don’t think is necessary?

I call these the three golden questions and they have served me well throughout my consulting career. They are simple enough and specific enough that most end-users can relate to them and produce answers. These three simple questions provide the foundation for any business process re-engineering to come. They are also the catalyst to kick off the required thought processes in your end-users. Out of these three simple questions should come many more questions and answers and the information you need to solve the problem.

In every case in the past I have been able to add value well before using tools and creating workflows just by suggesting changes to current manual business processes. As I said earlier, workflow is really about thought processes, “How can I do this in a better and more efficient way?”

Adding value always begins by saving time and money and usually also entails providing better access to information. Real value in my experience is about ensuring that workers have access to the precise information they need (not more and not less) at the precise time they need it (not earlier and not later).  It sound simple but it is the root of all successful business processes, that is, “please just give me what I need when I need it and then I can get the job done.” Modern ‘just-in-time’ automated production lines only work if this practice is in place; it is fundamental to the low cost, efficient and high quality production of any product or service.

When something ‘just works’ very few of us notice it but when something doesn’t work well it frustrates us and we all notice it. Frustrated workers are not happy or productive workers. If we do our job well we take away the sources of frustration by improving work processes to the point where they ‘just work’ and are entirely appropriate and efficient and allow us to work smoothly and uninterrupted without frustration and delays. This should be our objective when designing new workflows.

Metrics are important and should always be part of the project. You begin by taking measurements at the beginning and then after careful analysis, predict what the measurements will be after the project. You must have a way of measuring, using criteria agreed beforehand with your end-users, whether or not you have been successful and to what degree. It is a very bad trades person who leaves without testing his work. We have all had experiences with bad trades people who want to be paid and away before you test the repaired appliance, roof or door. Please do not be a bad trades person.

Metrics are the way we test our theory. For example, “If we re-engineer this series of processes the way I have recommended you will save two hours of time per staff member per day and will be able to complete the contract review and sign off within two days instead of seven days.” The idea is to have something finite to measure against. We are talking quantitative as opposed to qualitative measurement. An example of a qualitative measurement would be, “If we re-engineer this series of processes the way I have recommended everyone will be happier.” Metrics are a quantitative way to measure results.

In summary, implementing workflow should always be about improving a business process; about making it better, more appropriate and more efficient. Any workflow project should begin with the three golden questions and must include defined objectives and quantitative metrics. The most important tool is the human brain and the thought processes that you will use to analyse current processes and design improved processes. Every new workflow should add value; if it doesn’t you should not be doing it.

Critically, workflow must be about improving the lot of your staff or end users. It is about making a process easier, more natural, less frustrating and even, more enjoyable. The staff or end users are the only real judges because no matter how clever you think your solution is if they don’t like it, it will never work.

Add comment

  Country flag

  • Comment
  • Preview

Month List