There are countless ways that automation technology can be applied to businesses processes. But although many people first think of specific technologies like AP Automation and Document Management, these are just specific applications. The backbone of all process automation lies in workflows.
The Nervous System of an Organization
Workflows are made up of automated or manual tasks that are connected by paths. These paths direct documents and data from task to task according to specific rules for each individual process in action.
In this way, workflows can be compared to the human nervous system which sends complex orders and information back and forth from the brain to all other parts of the body almost instantly. Similarly, workflows move information back and forth between people and departments in order to complete the various tasks that make up a process.
Unfortunately, even in 2021, many organizations are still languishing under inefficient manual workflows. An estimated 33% of all process steps within the average business could be fully automated, yet are still being done by human hands. (Source: McKinsey)
What do Manual Workflows Look Like?
Manual workflows are processes in which data is being physically delivered to the next stage in a process in the form of papers, emails, or other forms of direct communication.
Employees are tasked with hand-delivering documents, sorting through both physical and digital records, and alerting their coworkers of completed or upcoming tasks via email, notes, and in-person meetings. The lack of tracking and visibility results in lost documents and data, as well as accidental duplication of effort.
Just because you have a technology program designed to accelerate a specific task in a process, if the result of that task is then hand-delivered and put into a stack of papers on a desk, the workflow is still manual and still ripe for disruption.
Our human nerves aren’t just about transmitting orders, they also provide feedback to stimuli both internal and external… including pain. Keep an eye out for some of the common symptoms of poor workflows:
- Lost files or papers that slow down projects
- Delays in processing as a task moves between individuals and departments
- Tasks being missed or done twice out of organizational confusion
- Employee burnout and frustration
- Frequent Crunch-time for filing or processing papers/form
Why Manual Work Doesn’t Flow
Think about times when you’ve needed to act quickly and your brain can’t tell your arms or legs to move fast enough. Manual workflows can leave companies unable to quickly adapt to changes in product or personnel.
If someone in your organization leaves, do you know what stages their projects were in? How about where they keep their information, and who they send it to next? Over time, manual workflows can devolve into highly personalized practices as employees are left to their own devices to meet efficiency goals while being expected to remain mistake-free. These makeshift methods become siloed within small teams which can lead to a full-scale departmental collapse if a key piece of that shaky structure is removed.
The majority of problems arise when there are complex decisions to be made. Workflow steps can vary in difficulty, assignment, and importance. Even if each individual step is done correctly, what happens when there is a decision to be made about who it is forwarded to next? Or if there is a special exception that requires additional approval before progressing?
Anytime there is still decision-making required on the part of employees to consistently identify special circumstances, there is a risk for delays and error. Mistakes can be costly, and one misstep along this path can cost your company time, money, and reputation.
What Makes a Workflow Automated?
Workflow automation eliminates common process pain points by bringing together people, processes, and information. The expertise of your workforce is built into the automated processes, as information moves through the organization without unnecessary administrative burden.
Any step that does not need a human touch is completed automatically by a software tool. Complex rules-based decision trees enable the software to correctly identify specific conditions and exceptions that would change the normal execution of a task.
Advanced workflow software is able to automatically route tasks throughout a process to each subsequent step, from beginning to end, so that tasks can be completed in a fraction of the time it would take to perform manually.
The Benefits of Workflow Automation
There are numerous advantages common across any organization that applies workflow automation:
- Reduced administrative costs
- Enhanced operational efficiency
- Expanded task management capability
- Increased consistency and transparency of information
- Improved employee satisfaction and retention
Lockheed Martin, an aerospace manufacturer was struggling with a communication gap between their front office and procurement that resulted in production delays and strained relationships with their buyers.
After implementing Workflow Automation software, Lockheed Martin experienced a 46% reduction in processing time as well as an overall 96% increase in productivity thanks to the added transparency and removal of tedious paper-driven processes.
In today’s professional environment, companies must be able to adapt quickly to changes both internally and externally. Automated workflows not only accelerate complex business processes but can also close the loop on siloed information and visibility gaps within large companies.
3 Tips for Automating Workflows
1. Start by Process Mapping
Automation technology is powerful but if you want to save time and headache long term, you'll want to set a strong foundation first. True improvement begins with gaining an understanding of the state of your current workflows. Process mapping is the act of creating a workflow diagram with the goal of gaining a clearer understanding of how a process and its parallel processes work.
Once your process is mapped and understood, you may see steps that can be taken out or redirected or you may realize that some of your resources need to be reallocated to heavier, more time-consuming tasks. The true benefit comes when you are able to identify steps of your process that can be completed by process automation tools, eliminating them from your team’s workload completely.
2. Integrate with as Many Systems as Possible
Imagine how ridiculous it would be if you needed to hear something in both ears in order to remember it. The human body is the highest level of integration and your organization can benefit from integration in a similar fashion.
You wouldn’t want one arm or leg acting completely on its own accord. But that is what can happen if systems are not integrated. Data accuracy is a massive problem for companies that don’t ensure consistency of information across applications. For an organization like a hospital, incomplete patient records can result in a misdiagnosis or a harmful treatment plan.
Without integrating your systems, employees will be forced to endure the repetitive task of entering information multiple times in order to ensure its presence across all programs. If you think manual data entry saps employee morale, try telling them they have to do it in triplicate.
Proper integration will pull data from one system and then present it to a user for updates, changes, or approval. Upon completion, the input from the user will sync back to the originating system and all other linked systems and the task will be directly routed to the next step that requires human intervention.
3. Ensure Your Automation Solution is Accessible
At the end of the day, the most important thing for your workflow automation solution is to be easy to use. It doesn’t matter how advanced a process management system is if it's incomprehensible to the people using it every day. An easy-to-understand user interface ensures that business leaders, end-users, and IT alike are all capable of learning and utilizing workflow automation.
The most effective workflow solutions can be managed and maintained without a need for coding or programming experience. Easy-to-use, flexible systems allow the workflow to be adjusted to changing business needs without IT involvement.
One way to test whether the system is easy to use or not is to ask the vendor to change a workflow and see how long it will take. If making a change takes more than a few hours, that is a major red flag. If the experts cannot adjust a process quickly, how long might it take your company to react to changing business operations?
Find an Automation Partner You Can Build a Future With
Trying to find the right workflow management software can feel daunting. Unlike so many other business dealings, automation can’t be boiled down to a simple one-time transaction. That’s why it helps to think about automation not as a deal, but as a relationship that will empower and enable businesses. For a few tips to help you on your journey, check out our blog post 4 Ways Automation is Like Dating.