The truth is… as much as we hear about business efficiency in today’s workplace, it isn’t a revolutionary idea. And though efficiency is often tied to our use of computer devices, the story starts more than one hundred years ago.
That’s right. The quest for business efficiency isn’t a fad, it’s a tradition. It’s possible to achieve and proven to work. Rewind to 1911. A guy named Frederick Taylor wrote the book, “Principles of Scientific Management.” He thought that managers could significantly improve productivity by analyzing work and engineering work processes. He studied time and motion, and explained that consistency was key to eliminating wasteful steps.
People said, “that’s nice.” As good as his ideas sounded, Taylor’s attempts to prove efficiency in the real world didn’t go quite as well as expected. But the flame of a great idea was lit. In 1915, a businessman named Henry Ford seemed to have the same idea at the same time. He looked at work processes, division of labor, and efficiency. Because of his attention to workflow, he became the granddaddy of standardized production. More importantly, his experiment worked. He reduced assembly time from 12 hours to 90 minutes, reduced costs, and created a company that thrives today.
You Don’t Have to Reinvent the Wheel
Ever since the first Model Ts rolled off the line, the quest for business process efficiency has continued. Good workflows both help employees and create competitive business advantage. Work can be done faster, at a lower cost, and with more consistency. You can reduce legal and compliance risks while clarifying roles and responsibilities.
With a hundred years of effort already invested by thousands of companies, some pretty good ideas are already out there, waiting for people like you to adapt them to your work environment.
Here are eight ideas to help you get a better handle on the way you run your workflow.
1. Create a mindset that promotes agility and change.
We’ve all heard it before. The excuse of the century.
“This is how we’ve always done it.”
When process decisions come down to this, it’s a sure sign that your company culture is stuck in the mud and innovation is not your middle name. Think of it this way, if Ford still used the same assembly line and tools today, where would it be? Efficiency that leads to business success requires you to depart from established norms and beliefs. New technologies, new competition, the regulatory environment and changing consumer demands are just a few of the potential game-changers that require a culture of flexibility.
But that doesn’t mean you need to impulsively jump onto the next new thing…
2. Analyze your business processes for logical connections
Every company wants to make good decisions that reduce its risk. Careful planning allows you to identify the areas of your business that need the most help and focus your effort and resources on improving things that really are broken. You don’t need to use a wrecking ball if you’re just updating a kitchen, right? (Though sometimes it is best to build from the bottom up!)
Evaluate your business processes to find your strengths and your weaknesses. Maybe you’ve brought new people into the company, built new departments, or reorganized staff roles. When tasks are handed off between people, or places within the company are particularly vulnerable points of inefficiency, ask questions and gather feedback from others. It’s easy to see people as the “weak link” when there is a problem, but what if the real culprit is a process that is just downright dysfunctional? Some signs of problems in a workflow may include backlogs, staff with questions (or complaints!) about ill-defined procedures, and functions that are expensive to operate or resource intensive.
3. Map your workflows
So there are signs of problems. Here’s how you can help visualize them. Use a flowchart to map out how various workflows operate today. If you are great with flowchart software, have at it. However, a simple drawing will do. The point is not to be pretty, but to catch each step of a work process and how things move from beginning to end. You’ll see exactly where known problems occur in the big picture, and you might uncover other challenges and disconnects along the way.
After you map your current workflows, it’s time to develop ideas about how you ideally want to function. Create new scenarios by reconfiguring the existing workflow. Imagine how you can create better linkages as tasks move from place to place. Plug in (or eliminate) new processes and tools. You should find that these maps will naturally lead you toward better performance and results.
4. Centralize business process management.
In other words, take an enterprise approach to building processes. If your company lets departments create their own processes and procedures independently, their attempts to make work easier or more efficient may force other areas to create workarounds for deliverables that do not fit neatly into their practices. A simple change in one department may have unintended consequences for the process as a whole.
Create cross-functional teams to develop policies and procedures. This will result in more consistent rules of interacting and communicating business needs. For instance, a front-line service rep may use a manual form to get customer information, but that form is keyed into a computer in the back office. Changes to the paper form can impact the fields needed in a database. Cross-functional teams can work together to either automate the front end or make sure that any changes to form fields are properly communicated and mapped to the database.
Small companies may be able to operate successfully using manual processes guided by consistent policies. However, many organizations can benefit from automated business process management tools. These systems offer centralized access to data and documents, help regulate the flow of work, and ensure the same rules are followed for the same kind of work.
5. Don’t make workflow changes on cost alone
It’s important to keep in mind that all processes have a goal. For example, in mortgage lending the customer wants to have their documents approved quickly and processed before a closing date. Missing that date can mean issues with the seller and put a purchase at risk. In order to provide that service, the lender needs to manage a process that includes internal departments, third-party service providers, closing agents and others. Profitability is one consideration, but speed, accuracy, compliance and retaining customer loyalty may influence various steps of the lending workflow.
When looking for efficiency in your business process, look beyond cost-savings and determine what you’re really trying to achieve.
6. Implement processes that promote communication
Business processes are more collaborative than ever. As tasks move from one place to another, it is important to ensure effective communication. Is the task routine or an exception? Is it urgent? Who owned the last task, and who will get it next? The ideal workflow will help to eliminate communication barriers across teams so that project status and expectations are clear from beginning to end.
7. Minimize technology integration points
Make your workflow as seamless as possible. If you are using automated technologies, use as few connected platforms as possible. Multiple systems increase the risk of error, require more IT support and business training, and can actually be less flexible in the long run. As processes get more complex, it may become technically or practically impossible to coordinate different software solutions. Fortunately, there are comprehensive enterprise business process management systems available on the market that will address diverse needs such as document access, workflow creation and management, automated rules and policies, review and approval processes, and other critical life cycle functions.
8. Continuously monitor and reevaluate business processes
Whether your business process is comprised of files stacked on your desk or fully automated management tools, remember tip #1: be open to change. Because the cycle of assessing your workflow continues the moment you have made even the smallest change. Are those color-coded tabs you added helping you to find the files you need? Are the automated notifications coming from your new business process management software providing the right information at the right time?
Use the first 30 days of a workflow change to confirm that you are meeting the efficiency goals that led you to make changes in the first place. Be honest and don’t be afraid to make additional tweaks. While some want to believe that making a change will immediately yield perfection, it usually doesn’t. But, if you’ve planned correctly, it won’t take too much fine tuning to get the end results you truly desired.