What goes wrong?

There are many reasons for inefficient workflows. Some of the most common ones that I encounter are:

  • There isn’t a consistent approach. No workflow has been defined for an important type of business event, possibly because it only occurs occasionally. Therefore each member of the team handles it a bit differently, leading to overlooked tasks and failed handovers.
  • The steps in a workflow are inherently inefficient, but because everyone is so busy (and “it’s always been done this way”) no one noticed.
  • The workflow is not well supported by the team’s software. Tasks are being done manually that could be automated, or the existing software is limited and needs to be supplemented with manual steps.
  • The handover from one workflow to another is not well coordinated. There may be a significant delay during which time-sensitive information is ignored, or the information that is transferred to the next team is insufficient for their needs. This is one of the most common problems, and can occur even when a team has paid attention and carefully analyzed and optimized their tasks. The workflow from their perspective may work just fine, but when you step back and look at the bigger picture the information is not getting to where it needs to go.

What we do

The most important part of our process is listening. We talk to you and your team members about what you do and how you handle your workflows, starting with the ones where you feel the most pain. Then we write up what we learned in a format that helps you visualize and understand what is going on.The level of formality that we apply varies considerable according to the scope and goals of the project.

Together we can then look at:

  • Are there key business events that are not being well handled?
  • Are there ways to streamline existing workflows?
  • Are there problems with the handovers from one workflow to another?
  • Are there manual steps that could be automated using your existing software?
  • Are there gaps or inefficiencies in the existing software that could relatively easily be patched?
  • Are there missing reports or dashboard information that would enable managers to do a better job?

Usually in a meeting like this, one or more avenues for improvement become obvious to everyone in the room. It is then up to our client to decide how to proceed.

What is a Workflow?

When I first started working with workflows, I read a number of books and articles on the subject, each of which defined the term differently. (The same is true of its big sibling, “Business Process”.) So I thought it would be helpful to provide a short explanation of what I mean by “workflow”, and the role workflows play in a typical organization. This is neither the most rigorous nor the most complete definition available, but I find that it works well:

A workflow is a repeatable set of actions that occurs in response to a particular type event, in order to achieve a desired result.

Inside the workflow some information (or, in a manufacturing environment, a physical item) is acted upon and transformed in a series of steps in order to achieve the result. For example, when a customer calls in to place an order, she kicks off a workflow in which team members respond to the information in the order, clarify it, acknowledge it and record it for processing.

The steps in a workflow may be performed entirely by people, entirely by software, or by a combination of both, and there may be just one person (or software application) involved or many. The workflows within an organization fit together to define its end-to-end business processes, which are like high-level workflows that span the organization as a whole.

A workflow continues for as long as each action directly triggers another within the same team or its software; the workflow stops once the information is safely stored in an appropriate place or has been transferred to another team, where it will kick off another workflow that is the next step in the overall business process.

Here’s the key point:

An organization’s workflows limit its overall efficiency. No matter how good or well intentioned the people in the organization, if its workflows are not effective, the organization as a whole will be less effective than it should be.