How to Improve Workflow Efficiency
According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, less than 5% of the companies who responded to the survey had a rigorous and disciplined process for focusing on management’s top priorities. These aren’t failing or floundering companies, either. Some of the companies included in the survey are among the world’s biggest and most well-funded.
It doesn’t matter the size or the earnings of the company — many organizations lack well-thought out processes and workflows to ensure maximum productivity.
Even if your workplace does have processes in place, learning how to streamline processes and improve workflow efficiency is important. Many companies have documented processes in place, but they are often scattered, open to interpretation, difficult to monitor, inefficient or outdated.
Documenting workflow processes isn’t viewed as critical to the company’s mission or goals, so many companies set aside the task of updating process manuals for ‘when they have time’ — which, for most companies, is never.
There are several work process improvement ideas you can implement at your organization to prioritize process mapping so you improve efficiencies at all levels. Improving workflow efficiencies will help your team complete more work in less time and standardize how the work is performed. The resulting efficiencies mean more time can be devoted to pursuing other corporate goals and improving profitability.
How to Streamline Your
Business Processes and Workflows
- Assemble your team with members from each department
- List all processes and workflows that need to be documented and streamlined
- Interview team members and department heads to ensure all relevant workflows and processes are on the list
- Determine which are an immediate priority, which can be worked on over time, and which are acceptable as they are
- Assign teams to review, outline, and streamline new and existing high-priority processes and workflows
- Review completed workflows with department heads and senior staff members to ensure they accurately reflect the necessary steps needed to complete each process
- Make new workflows and processes available to the rest of your team
Workflows and Processes: What’s the Difference?
First, though: a primer on workflows and processes. Although the two terms can be used interchangeably in some workplace environments, they have different connotations:
Processes refer to the steps, actions and accountabilities taken within a department or across multiple departments to complete a task. Most processes begin with an input and end with some type of output. A good example is how a new marketing brochure is created within a large organization. Let’s assume the product manager approaches the marketing manager with the need for new marketing materials to promote the product.
The project process begins with the product manager, moves to the marketing manager and then moves into the design or creative services department. The final stop may be with a printer or the web department to print or launch the final brochure. The process map describes the who, what, where, when and how a project moves along each point within the company, with clearly defined roles, responsibilities, timelines and accountabilities.
Workflow refers to the movement of work within a department. Using the process example above, the process map shows who is accountable for which task, and by when it will be completed. The workflow for the project demonstrates how the work “flows” or moves through the project. It may indicate that a project request form must be initiated on the company’s intranet, outline who reviews each phase of the marketing brochure and note where the final piece is archived on the company’s servers.
The term ‘process’ and ‘workflow’ are often used synonymously in a manufacturing or industrial environment, and in a different sense within creative departments and IT infrastructures. If the difference between the two isn’t apparent to you, usually the term “process map” will help make the project understandable to others who need to be involved in its creation.
How to Streamline Workflow Processes
The process streamlining methodology is a multi-step process that begins with someone taking the lead in the project. You can step into that role and lead the charge for better continuity within your company.
Allow several weeks or months for the first time you’re learning how to improve processes and procedures. It may take longer for a large, complex organization.
After you complete the project, schedule time next year to review and update the process documents you have created. Updating existing documents takes less time than discovering necessary processes and workflows within your organization and creating them from beginning to end.
The basic process streamlining methodology suggests that you:
- Assign someone to be the project leader.
- Designate a team if you think the project will be large and complex or span multiple departments. Choose someone from each department to participate on the team so all are represented.
- Determine where the process maps and workflows will be kept. Electronic documents on an intranet offer a secure, easily accessible place for all documentation. Better yet, consider investing in a workflow management software that can automate these processes for you.
- Collect all existing documents.
- Examine when they were last updated. Some processes may be completely outdated, while others remain viable.
- List all potential processes and workflows the team feels must be documented. Good examples of possible processes and workflows to document include new hire onboarding process, training processes for equipment or software, invoice payment process, new vendor approval process, requisition process for time off, capital requisitions, etc.
- Interview senior-level managers and department heads to ensure all needed processes and workflows are on the master list.
- Compare the master list to the list of the processes already written — where are the gaps?
- Create a list of new processes and workflows to write.
- Create a second list of those that need to be updated.
- Set aside those that are acceptable as they are.
- Assign teams to write, edit and review new and existing processes and workflows.
- Review with senior staff and department heads to ensure all processes and workflows accurately reflect what is needed.
- Complete each process and workflow. Ask a senior manager to sign off on them.
- Date and archive the completed processes and workflows.
- Managers should alert their teams that new documents are available for use.
There are 16 to 20 steps in any process management workflow creation project. The 16 steps above reflect the bare minimum amount of work required in an average size company. Such work typically takes a month or longer to complete by a team well-versed in business process management and process workflow improvements.
Eating the Elephant: Improve Business Workflow One Project at a Time
There’s an old parable asking how to eat an elephant. The answer is “one bite at a time.” Your “elephant” may be a gigantic list of processes and workflows that make you wonder how you’ll ever finish it. In some companies, writing processes and workflows is a full-time job. Technology companies, for example, often assign such tasks to a project manager who documents work completed for customers so it can be replicated for others later on.
Given that you probably have other job duties and responsibilities, it’s unlikely you can focus on process management and improving business workflow full time. So take your ‘elephant’ list of needed processes and prioritize it.
To prioritize your workflow and process list, consider the following questions:
- Which processes and workflows will make a direct and positive impact on customer service?
- Which processes and workflows align to a company goal or objective for the year?
- Is the lack of any of these processes negatively impacting your business?
Generally speaking, any workflow or process that makes a direct, measurable or noticeable difference on the customer experience should take priority over others. Customer purchases generate revenues, which can, in turn, generate profits if expenses are managed well. If your department brings in higher revenues for the company or directly contributes to activities that support increased revenues, this is a plus that can be attributed to you and your team, and it’s one that may have positive consequences at review time.
Improving workflow efficiencies will help your team complete more in less time and standardize how the work is performed.
Why You Should Invest in Streamlining Process Management
Why bother with process management and workflow improvements? There are several reasons why both activities are important to your company:
Identify inefficiencies: The discovery phase of the process management and workflow process creation uncover inefficiencies within companies, divisions and departments. As you review the information you discover during meetings to discuss processes and workflows, you’ll find there are extra steps, areas where timelines can be tightened and discussions around better ways to handle tasks. This a healthy sign of a productive process mapping meeting and a step in the right direction toward better efficiency.
Better task management: Process and workflow mapping offer the added benefit of improved task management. By mapping out each process, you’ll clearly delineate which task belongs to whom. Employees gain a clearer understanding of their job responsibilities and scope.
Clear accountability: Along with understanding who is responsible for what, clear lines of accountability can be created. Accountability and responsibility go together. Leadership teams become clearer as accountability is confirmed for each process. Teams can work with confidence knowing that ‘the buck stops here’ on a project, or understanding who leads, who approves and who completes each phase of a task.
Faster new hire onboarding: Onboarding new employees is easier when you have process maps and workflows in place. You don’t have to explain everything from scratch. New hire training can include a review of the pertinent process documents and workflows so new hires can learn quickly how things are done at your company.
Impact on Customer Service
While process maps and workflows do not directly benefit customers, they provide several indirect benefits. A team that understands the process for delivering a service or product can do so with greater efficiency and accuracy. This can shorten the time from order intake and processing to final delivery of the goods or services your company sells.
With faster and more accurate order fulfillment, customer satisfaction should improve while complaints decline. Happy, satisfied customers are much more likely to recommend your company to a colleague or friend. The resulting increase in orders and sales may be subtle, but it is an indirect benefit of updating and creating process maps and workflows.
Reduces Problems Attributed to Turnover
Another reason why processes and workflows are so important is that it can reduce the problems attributed to employee turnover.
When key employees leave an organization that lacks documented processes, they take with them institutional knowledge that cannot be easily replaced. If the answer to any question is “Ask Jim” or “Ask Jane,” when Jim or Jane leaves the company, the answers leave with them.
Process and workflow documents put down in writing the information your top employees hold. If they should unexpectedly need a leave of absence to deal with injury, illness or family matters, work won’t stop because the information to complete a task is missing with the person. Instead, the information is easily shared in a consistent format to whoever needs it.
Process mapping and workflow documentation also prevent knowledge from being lost as employees leave and enter the company. It retains information where it’s needed most — for the next group of employees who must perform the same task.
Stop the Overwhelm Through Process Management
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with tasks, competing priorities and projects. Managers often juggle multiple tasks, staffing needs, customer service and interdepartmental projects simultaneously. The resulting feeling of overwhelm has led many a manager to ‘burn out’ or feel unmotivated.
Process and workflow mapping can prevent that feeling of burnout by identifying places with the process where specific tasks can be delegated to others. Managers who carry a heavy workload can look across workflows and process maps to find others in their departments who may be able to take the task onto their shoulders. Delegation also helps employees grow their skills and prepare to step into increasing responsibilities.
Manage Process Accountability
One of the key outcomes of process and workflow automation is the chain of responsibility and accountability that process mapping provides. No one on the team can claim the other person was responsible for a task if the task itself is clearly assigned to them. When the steps in a process are written down, it is difficult to blame others for shortcomings. The result is increased accountability.
Workflows and process maps provide an end point at which a process or project can be deemed successful or not. Documenting the process, the tasks involved to complete the project and specific turnaround times can benefit managers who seek to manage by evidence. Tracking the process from start to finish and documenting key metrics can help you better manage your team and make improvements.
Evidence-based management also helps employees feel that their treatment within an organization is fair. Evidence doesn’t play favorites — you have either successfully completed the task outlined on the process map by the deadline given, or you haven’t.
Evidence-based management can also be used to suggest additional employee training opportunities if you notice someone demonstrates a pattern of being unable to complete specific tasks in their process map. They may lack crucial skills needed to complete their task.
No one in the team can claim the other person was responsible for a task if the task itself is clearly assigned to them.
Workflow Automation Makes Processes More Time-Efficient
There are only so many hours in a day, and you may not be able to tackle all of the process maps and workflows you’d like to finish. That’s where workflow automation comes into the picture. With workflow automation, you can easily and quickly track workflows, update them and share them across the organization.
Workflow automation streamlines paper-based processes maps and workflows. Workflow analytics helps you input key points into a computerized system, which in turn generates workflows and process maps for you. These can also be easily and quickly updated as new information, materials, equipment or people change the process.
Automated workflow processes allow day to day systems operations, rather than humans, to trigger workflow tasks like the creation of an AR invoice, work order generation, a new vendor added to the systems, and more. This allows team members to focus on more high-impact tasks, rather than on making sure process steps are done the right way. Additionally, it eliminates the need to track down non-responsive employees, as the automatic workflow takes care of alerting the employee of their delay, saving time and patience, improving the overall workplace efficiency and office morale.
How to Ensure Your Workflow Automation Implementation Is Successful
Taking certain actions before and after you implement workflow automation solutions helps to ensure they work. The following steps will help increase the success rate of these new processes in your workplace:
Choose the right software solution: You’ll want to select the software that’s right for your business as opposed to going with the most popular option on the market. By determining what you need out of your workflow solutions, you can better assess which software is likely to lead to success. Consider the right level of IT involvement before choosing as well. Some systems, like Vanguard’s, require no IT involvement for process changes since adding new tasks and changing routine rules are easy steps. Other software solutions may require IT involvement, which is likely to influence your final decision.
Test the process: Before you implement something company-wide, test it out first in just one or two departments. Using it on a smaller scale at first can help you pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of a process so you can adapt before making it an official policy.
Introduce Kanban: This system is based on continuous refinement. Kanban uses a project board, either physical or digital, that helps employees visualize workflow processes. When everyone can see exactly what is expected of them, they’re more likely to complete their tasks properly and efficiently. It also helps open up communication to improve those processes.
Remember the steps involved: Installing the software is a preliminary step, but remember you’ll need to train employees on new processes. Set clear expectations that the new workflow will likely need adjustments and won’t be perfect from the start. Remind your team that ultimately, the software is in place to improve operations.
Keep security protocols in mind: Along with training employees, consider what security protocols might be most relevant in your industry. Inform workers and set these protocols in action to keep your business, employees and clients safe.
Always communicate: At every stage of a process, there needs to be open, clear communication with every person it affects. When someone has a serious concern, it shouldn’t bounce between different members of management until it’s lost. Giving everyone a voice in the new process shows that you value their input, and it can help point out issues of different stages of the automated process.
Measure the results: Track improvements in efficiency over time and measure the change’s results to determine whether the software is working as you planned. As you measure, you can implement changes as needed and continue positive trends.
Successful implementation of workflow automation systems can yield significant improvements in operational productivity. Whether you are concerned about current productivity and efficiency data or are always looking for ways to improve workflow, Vanguard Systems has the automation solutions you need.
Consider MHC for Your Workflow Automation Needs
MHC provides workflow automation software that does not require business process mapping experience or specific computer skills. Bring your business mindset to the project, and the system helps you with the rest. It’s a system created by business people for business people to help you improve workflow processes throughout your organization.
For more information on how to improve a process at your workplace, please see MHC Workflow Automation information. Schedule a free demo or contact us for more information on how workflow automation software can help you create processes that work for your business’ needs.