by Robert Palmer
The push to optimize business processes prompted by the need to improve productivity and operational efficiency is evident across all business segments and vertical industries. In the enterprise sector, it is not uncommon to see entire management teams dedicated to driving process efficiencies across a broad range of front-and back-office business functions. Indeed, many large organizations have strategic directives or procedural policies in place for continuous process improvement (CPI).
However, for small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) the idea of process optimization is often met with a great deal of apprehension. Executives and managers are so busy dealing with the day-to-day tasks of running a business that there is rarely time to truly evaluate current work processes. Most can easily identify areas where improved efficiency is needed, but without a clear understanding of the problem there is a general reluctance to simply throw time, money, and resources at a solution.
Historical factors are often the root of the problem when it comes to process breakdown. Existing business processes put in place years ago have simply become accepted methodology—despite significant changes in the organizational makeup, goals, and IT infrastructure. In many cases, legacy business processes outlive the intended consequences for which they were initially designed.
When it comes to driving real process optimization, companies should begin with two important elements: 1) understand why existing work processes are performed as they are, and 2) identify if and where a break occurs in the system. In other words, where exactly are the bottlenecks in existing workflow and what is required to improve the overall process?
The first step toward improved process efficiency is a comprehensive workflow analysis or assessment. In most cases, workflow analysis should begin with a detailed understanding of the existing document infrastructure, along with a detailed mapping of individual work processes. Obviously, this requires significant input and participation from both management and employees—particularly those who have direct interaction with corporate documents and information.
Including employees in the initial phase of the workflow assessment is crucial to the long-term success of any process optimization strategy. After all, individual employees are likely the most knowledgeable when it comes to defining existing work processes and identifying specific trouble spots. At the same time, gaining employee trust and buy-in during the earlier stages will help to ensure seamless implementation of a replacement process later on.
A comprehensive workflow analysis will look closely at a variety of areas related to document infrastructure and information management, including existing document management systems, content management systems, security requirements, document workflow, review and approval processes, and the need to integrate with legacy business systems, only to name a few.
Understanding the flow of information throughout the organization should also be a primary objective. Ultimately, it is necessary to identify the mix of electronic and paper-based processes, document silos and digital repositories, problems associated with document storage and retrieval, what physical constraints might exist, information output and distribution, and how well the company is addressing corporate security and regulatory compliance.
Mapping out existing business processes can be very helpful and is often a crucial step in the initial stages of workflow assessment and analysis. Business process mapping is nothing more than creating a schematic representation of the sequence of events that occur during any given process or task—mapped out from start to finish. This can be done manually, but there are also numerous software applications that provide process modeling tools, either as standalone solutions or as part of a business automation software package.
The detail and level of complexity for each process map will vary depending upon the scope of the individual task. When completed, the process map will help to answer a variety of questions. For example, does the task involve more than one individual or department? What is the flow of information or documents? What inputs and outputs are required during the overall process? Is input required from a third-party or anyone outside the corporate firewall? Are any other processes triggered at any point along the way? What is the final desired outcome of the process?
The purpose of developing process maps is twofold: model the current state and create a baseline for comparison to a future state. The process map is also very helpful when it comes to identifying opportunities for improvement and optimization. Even so, it is important to understand that a process map primarily serves as a tool to facilitate communication with all those involved in the specific process.
Identifying Process Bottlenecks
Naturally, it may not be necessary to map out every single process or task, and for most businesses that is not even feasible. Nevertheless, mapping out and walking through each step of specific business processes is instrumental in helping to identify where bottlenecks occur. Many different factors can lead to bottlenecks in existing business processes. Some are more short-term in nature, such as employee turnover, vacations, and changes in work assignments. Other causes can be harder to identify and tend to have a more lasting impact. Either way, identifying existing bottlenecks is key to improving workflow and driving process efficiencies.
While bottlenecks in workflow are not always easy to find, there are some key indicators, and work backlog is perhaps one of the most visible. A common analogy is to think of what happens when a bottleneck occurs on a manufacturing assembly line. Any kink in the system results in products or components that pile up somewhere along the way.
With business processes, work backlog is a typical indicator that a problem exists at some point in the overall chain of events. Other indicators include lengthy wait times, extended allocation of resources, and high employee stress levels. Once the result of the bottleneck is identified, the next step is to locate the source behind it.
Ultimately, the purpose of the workflow assessment is to identify opportunities for process improvement. There are several areas where companies could gain operational efficiencies, and many of these have little to do with paper or paper-based information. Consolidating assets, resources, and partners, could provide significant productivity boost by eliminating redundancies. Other opportunities are more employee-centric and might involve revising individual roles and responsibilities.
Even so, for most organizations, streamlining paper-based workflow is a natural place to optimize business processes and improve productivity. This could involve many facets, from digitizing content to automating existing paper-based workflow. Converting from paper to digital is one of the biggest challenges facing businesses today because paper remains entrenched in many business processes. While there is a strong desire to move toward digital workflow, it is not necessarily an easy transition for many companies.
Moving from paper to digital likely means implementing a new document management or enterprise content management (ECM) system, which could raise a lot of red flags for some organizations. As mentioned earlier, many CEOs and business managers are wary of programs that might disrupt the existing work environment, require wholesale changes to the IT infrastructure, or be costly to deploy.
This is where a comprehensive workflow assessment could be very valuable, by helping organizations create an implementation plan for process optimization. The plan should not only identify problem areas in the existing environment, but also set parameters for measuring the effectiveness of new procedures, including those that involve workflow automation.
Businesses should also understand that, when it comes to conducting a workflow assessment, there is no need to go at it alone. In fact, it is highly recommended that organizations find a consultative partner to help guide them through the process. Most document management and ECM software companies offer professional workflow assessment services, as do printer hardware OEMs, IT VARs, and office equipment dealers.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Workflow.