7 Steps to Workflow Nirvana

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Ideas often come in interesting packages — a multitude of shapes and sizes.

I work with people to improve their business processes, moving them from analogue (paper) to digital (bits), helping to reduce data loss, error, and duplication. I have a knack for solving intractable problems.

Over the next few paragraphs I’ll provide you with some ideas to help you tame the worst business processes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

While at an event in Sheffield, I introduced myself to a fellow attendee, and after explaining a bit about what I do she began to regale me with the tale of a fascinating and somewhat alarming problem she once had while working for a major high street retail chain.

Understanding the process

As I understood things, during the summer months, certain parts of the store had a strict dress code, and signage was required to make a polite request (no vests or shorts).

However, before anything could be printed, a couple of bureaucratic stages had to be navigated:

  1. there was a minimum budget requirement of £8;
  2. 5 signatures were required (signature 1 was needed before signature 2, and so on and so forth).

As you might imagine, this process of gathering signatures was glacial, somewhat difficult to orchestrate, and — as the woman explained — prone to failure as the paperwork, because of the flimsiness of the stock, often got blown from a desk by the merest breeze.

So that would be the loss part of what Octane works to reduce, along with duplication and error, a point I made to the woman, which earned a sardonic chuckle.

I’m guessing the minimum spend was intended to reduce costs and avoid needless activities, but after a quick calculation, things didn’t quite add up.

So imagine a scenario where this 5-level sign-off process is performed 5 times a week per store for various activities across 100 stores. Each time the process is performed, there’s an average loss of 48-72 hours (a figure gleaned from the discussion with the woman).
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Defining the ideal business process

Now, let’s imagine a simple secure piece of software with a sign-in for the stakeholders: managerial signatories; and floor managers. After an initial investment of 5-8 hours of basic training it’s up and running.

A sequence of ‘signatures’ is required, and after the stakeholder signs into the application, he or she does nothing more than read the request before clicking either an “Approve” or “Reject” button:

  • If approved, an automated request is sent to the next person in the chain.
  • If rejected, the person who sent the request could then ask for further clarification, a process captured by a messaging component within the application.

Running the numbers

Let’s assume our ideal business process shaves a modest 12 hours from a number of workflows bound by the same rules. So that’s 12 hours, multiplied by 5 times each week, multiplied by 100 stores.

Our little application would have saved them 6,000 hours.

Imagine what would happen if we applied the same streamlining to mission-critical processes that are vital to operations?

I know, it’s that commingling of terrifying and amazing!

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Optimising a workflow

So now you understand how structured processes might lose time, let’s explore some ideas on how we might fix that.

  1. Reduce the number of stages. If you have 7-10 stages, that’s at least 7 different places for something to go wrong, and then you or someone else has to figure out where and then how to fix it. So examine the workflow with a mindset of simplification, liaise with the stakeholders, be on the look out for loss, duplication, and error and bring them down (elimination is the goal, but not often feasible — we are human).
  2. Keep the processes small and manageable. If your workflow must consist of 7 stages, keep them compact and understandable. Some other idiot (you, I’m guessing) has to read over the documentation in 6 months’ time and make sense of it.
  3. Document everything. Use something like Google Docs and share the documentation amongst the team. Use the ‘Track Changes’ feature, to follow who wrote what, why, and when.
  4. Automation. If feasible, automate your workflow. Don’t be afraid of a hybrid analogue-digital series of processes (paper and bytes), so long as you’ve documented everything and each analogue stage has a person responsible for it. Whatever shape the workflow takes, make sure the data it creates is in digital and not analogue format (at some point, you might need to analyse the data).
  5. Limit the number of people involved. I often have to explain to clients that design is not a democratic process. So unless you’re a multinational corporation, you won’t need to vote each time someone proposes a change. An ambassadorial approach is often required to deal with those protecting the borders to their fiefdoms, and then there’s the oft cited refrain: “But, we’ve always done it like this!” In each case, take the big-picture approach and be brave!
  6. Restrict the number of signatories. The fewer the number of chiefs, the more time the indians have to — you know — do the hard work. However, build in an audit trail (via the documentation in point 3), so the decision-makers know what happened and when.
  7. For goodness sake, communicate! If you suspect there’s a flaw in the process, speak up. If someone has a suggestion, listen. Neither of these two things should be a major problem (or another time vampire) if you’ve followed point 5. While this might sound obvious, engage with the people executing the processes because they’re the ones doing the hard work, so they know better than anyone.

Perhaps now you understand why I’m passionate about ideas because it’s often those in the smallest packages that are the greatest of gifts.

First published on LinkedIn.

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