Summary: In the digital age, speed is the name of the game. Any modern business needs efficient processes to operate at their best. The problem: Many are still living in the past. They rely on inefficient or manual processes that slow down their operations. How can you streamline your inefficient workflows? In this article, we explore 9 steps to meet this goal.
One study found that inefficient processes are the biggest source of wasted time in the average workday. Another study found that employees waste 26% of their day on “avoidable administrative chores, unnecessary tasks, and outdated ways of working.”
Why is this topic so important? We’re living in the digital age. Speed and agility are the name of the game. If your business moves slowly, you’re operating at a disadvantage.
The problem is, many are still living in the past. They rely on inefficient or manual processes that slow down their operations. Is your company one of them? Here are a few warning signs that you’re using inefficient processes:
- Employees manually enter (or re-enter) data into your system(s).
- You rely on paper or email-based workflows.
- Your business relies heavily on spreadsheets.
- Customers complain about poor or slow service.
- Tasks are often overlooked.
The big question: What can you do about it? First, how can you identify inefficient workflows? Second, how can you streamline business processes in your organization? In this article, we’ll explore these two questions. We’ll walk you through 9 steps you need to automate and streamline your business processes.
1. Take an inventory
The first step: Take an inventory of your existing processes. Make a list of every process and workflow in your organization. This can range from critical processes to the mundane. In short, if it requires someone’s effort on a regular basis, put it on the list.
Now, I realize that you might already know which process you want to streamline. I still recommend that you perform this step. It helps you understand how your business operates, and may even uncover other inefficient areas.
“Every business can benefit from defining and documenting their processes,” says Ryan Pitylak, CMO of ZenBusiness. “Whether it be a business that is just getting off the ground or one that has been around for years, documenting processes can effectively streamline business workflows. This will enable current and future employees to have a framework to work from and will support consistency.”
But, it doesn’t stop there. Once you have a list of processes, go through each one and answer three questions:
- What’s the trigger?
What starts the process? This is a critical question if you plan to automate the process in the future.
- What’s the output?
What’s the goal of this process? When it runs successfully, what happens? As explained below, this may seem obvious but is often overlooked.
“This may sound obvious; however, I see processes without a clear goal every day,” says Sergei Brovkin, Founder and Principal of Collectiver Consulting. “As an option, the goal is defined – but the definition differs if you ask several people. It is important to start your improvement initiative with a clear goal.”
- How important is this?
Finally, rank your processes by importance. How critical is each one to your business? This will help you understand which one to attack first.
2. Outline every step in the process
Once you’ve identified where to start, it’s time for process mapping. Break down each step in the process, outlining key deliverables for each one. Be as specific as possible. The more details, the better.
“Identify all the steps, activities, stakeholders, and interactions that currently take place in the processes that impact the goals outlined in step 1,” says Alex Gindin, Vice President of Operations at fivestar* Development. “Understand the current inputs and outputs, as well as the processes and workflows that feed into or are impacted by the processes in question. This could involve supplier, customer, or other 3rd party processes and workflows that directly impact yours.”
Once you’ve outlined a process, share it with everyone involved. Make sure they agree on each step before you proceed. Why is this so important? As explained below, you’ll often find that an existing process is not implemented as intended.
“This is extremely important and actually covers all the steps above,” explains Brovkin. “Quite often, even though “everybody knows the process,” its actual implementation does not align with the agreed flow; to make sure that the agreed process is clear, do document it and make the document available to the team.”
3. Observe each step in the processUnderstanding how each step SHOULD work is often far different than how they DO work. To understand the work process, you must observe each step in action.
Why is this so important? It accomplishes a couple of goals:
First, it paints a clear picture of how things work right now. You’ll understand the workflow chain and where bottlenecks exist.
Second, it lets you see who handles which task and how efficiently they complete each one.
“Observe the work in progress yourself: sit alongside your engineers, designers, or other employees and see how they’re doing things currently,” says Jonathan D. Roger, Director of Operations, Treehouse Technology Group, LLC. “Make notes, but don’t necessarily offer critique or criticism.”
4. Gather feedbackNow that you have a clear picture of the process, let’s focus on long term improvements. Solicit feedback from anyone involved in the business process. Ask questions like:
- What are your biggest areas of frustration with how this currently works?
- Which areas need more time or resources than they should?
- If you could change anything about this workflow, what would it be?
There are no wrong answers in this phase. Focus on gathering every piece of feedback, from small tweaks to wholesale changes.
“Work with key stakeholders (or representatives from those stakeholder groups) to evaluate the current process and to provide feedback on areas that are working, not working, causing bottlenecks, etc…,” explains Gindin. “Identify key metrics by which the performance of the current process can be evaluated (in context/support of the goals outlined in #1) and assign values to the different steps or sets of steps (dollars, hours spent, time to process) to better understand the impact of the individual steps in the workflow. Collect data on the existing process.”
5. Optimize the process
You now have a detailed outline of the process and a list of ways to create a more efficient workflow. While the end goal is automation, you must first optimize the workflow itself.
Using the knowledge gained in the previous points, focus on these three questions:
- Do we keep the same structure? Is the general workflow good as is, or do we need a new method?
- Where are the bottlenecks?
- Which steps should we remove or rework?
Keep your focus on this step’s goal: Boiling down the process into the fewest possible steps needed to reach its goal. We’re not trying to automate those steps yet, just maximize efficiency.
“When it comes to streamlining workflows, everyone’s mind goes straight to automation,” says Ben Sibley, Found of Compete Themes, LLC. “Automation is wonderful, but in this case, a classic quote from Donald Knuth comes to mind, ‘Premature optimization is the root of all evil.’”
“While his reference was to software development, it applies to business process optimization just as well. It’s critical that you start by documenting each step of the process and remove all unnecessary actions. Otherwise, you’ll end up optimizing a workflow that is in itself inefficient. Find the fastest and most efficient way to complete the process manually before you deal with automation, and then utilize automation to further eliminate steps. Ideally, you’ll leave all the grunt work to computers while reserving human input for the kind of work that requires our touch, such as tasks requiring creativity and intuition.”
6. Create an automation plan
Once you optimize the process down to the fewest possible steps, it’s time for automation. When creating your automation plan, focus on these questions:
- What areas of this workflow can we automate? You can’t automate every workflow 100%. In some cases, you can automate the entire process. In other cases, only a few steps are ripe for automation.
- What tools do we need to make this happen? Chances are, you’ll need workflow automation software. If you already have a tool, ensure that it fits your requirements. If you don’t, you’ll find all types of workflow management software available. Some tools are comprehensive. They let you create workflows that are specifically designed for your business rules. Others offer more basic features. The right tool depends on your needs and goals.
Once you’ve answered those questions, create your plan. As explained below, this includes a project timeframe, required resources, budget, and ROI.
“Get organizational buy-in for the re-design plan, and for the projected ROI,” says Gindin. “Come up with a change management plan that articulates what needs to be done to change the process and define the resources available (or one that need to be acquired) in order to change the process. Identify internal and external areas that will be impacted, and how (i.e., resources within the organization). Create a schedule, budget, and approach (i.e., phased approach, MVP, etc.), and the target ROI. Get organizational buy-in.”
7. Implement the plan
Anytime you streamline an existing workflow, things will change. The steps in the process might change. You might adopt new software. Those involved in the workflow might see their responsibilities change.
Be careful: People hate change. They get comfortable doing things a certain way. When they hear that they have to learn new skills or processes, many will fight it.
Approach the implementation phase carefully. Of course, I can’t provide a perfect blueprint that will work for every business. The experience will change depending on your workflow process and your employees.
One piece of advice: If you’re making big changes or rolling out new software, set up training and onboarding. Show each user their responsibility and how this approach will help them save time. Help them understand how these changes will benefit them, and they’re far more likely to buy-in.
“Work with the organization and other key stakeholders to make process changes based on the selected approach and within the budget and timeline,” says Gindin. “Report back to the organization and impacted areas on progress. Provide training and support to users in adapting the new process. Make sure that organizational leadership is motivating and showing support of the process change as it is being implemented and users of the processes are being onboarded/trained.”
8. Measure the results
Once you’ve implemented your streamlined business process, you’re all done…right? Of course not! Now it’s time to measure the results. How much business process improvement have you seen?
To measure the results, start with the process itself. Is it working as expected? Is it operating more efficiently? Second, talk to all involved in the process. Are they happy with the new format? Is it running as they expected?
“Collect data and solicit user feedback,” says Gindin. “Use the metrics established in prior steps to evaluate the new process, and to show operational improvement. Benchmark against the goals. Be consistent in what is being measured, why it is being measured, and how it is being measured. Report findings to key stakeholders and the organization to help bring awareness and maintain motivation/support for the new process.”
9. Improve as needed
Once you have feedback and data from your new business process, make tweaks and improvements where necessary.
One tip: I recommend that you set aside time to revisit and update the process. It’s easy to set it and forget it, especially if it’s running as intended. As explained below, set periodic meetings to re-evaluate the process and make sure it’s running as efficiently as possible.
“Evaluate your processes continuously,” says Parker Hillery, Operations Manager at Moxie Media. “Streamlining your processes does not end here. You must always evaluate your business’ processes to maintain and improve your workflow. Establish periodic meetings every quarter or year to re-evaluate processes.”
I hope this article helps you in your quest for streamlined business workflows. What do you think? Would you add any steps to this list? Feel free to comment below!