Workflow analysis is the process by which your business examines data about its workflows, determines trends and improves their efficiency. In turn, this improves customer satisfaction and the competitiveness of the business itself.
In most cases, if you ask people why a particular workflow is setup the way it is, they’ll tell you “That’s how we’ve always done it.” The design probably made sense years ago but as the business and its environment have changed, the workflow was probably never updated.
Workflow analysis is the first step towards these necessary updates. Apply it in the following ways:
- Improve manual processes e.g. eliminate an approval step so that there’s one less email to send or make instructions clearer in an Excel sheet.
- Automate manual processes to make them more efficient.
- Use data from automated processes to improve their efficiency.
While you can analyze paper- or email-based workflows, we’ll assume you’re already familiar with the benefits of electronic processes. If not, you can learn more by reading this article on getting ready for process automation.
Even with digitization, comprehensive workflow analysis has the potential to identify areas for further improvement such as:
- Usability issues
- Process bottlenecks
- Redundant tasks
- Errors in the process
Workflow analysis ensures that you truly reap the benefits you expected through your automation projects.
Why Should You Perform Workflow Analysis?
Workflow and usability are not afterthoughts; they impact the core of any project and dictate how it should be engineered.
– Ryan Holmes
Your employees literally spend the majority of their day performing tasks that are part of your core operational workflows. They process purchase orders, onboard new hires, and handle vacation requests.
Consider a typical purchase order process – perhaps it involves an employee, their manager, a VP or the CFO and the finance department. By optimizing this purchase order, you might save just 10-15 minutes on average [although in practice the savings are often far larger]. That may not sound like much.
But, multiply that by 400 x per month and suddenly, you’re looking at 1-2 man weeks of time savings each month. Add in time savings from the analysis and optimization of other workflows such as vacation requests and travel reimbursement. Before you know it, you’ve freed up one full-time person’s time. The employee can gainfully spend it on more important things like improving service to customers.
Unnecessary tasks are even worse. Sometimes, employees spend hours transferring data from one system to another or filling in lengthy paperwork that’s never even used. They do it because that’s how someone set it up years ago and it’s now become institutionalized. Obviously, if you can completely eliminate these redundant activities, you’ll see massive productivity gains.
The facts are that your business and the environment it operates in are changing constantly. If anything, business change is accelerating.
So, if you’re a business leader who wants to improve productivity and efficiency, don’t just take your existing manual process, convert it to electronic format and leave it alone. Invest in continuous improvement through workflow analysis. Your business will be in a better position to keep pace with the inevitable internal and external changes it encounters.
How Should You Perform Workflow Analysis?
The analysis has three main components:
1. Evaluate the Workflow
In this phase, you ask some important [and perhaps difficult] questions such as:
- Why does this workflow exist? You want to be sure the workflow actually accomplishes something useful and adds value.
- How often do we perform it? Some workflows are simply not worth optimizing. If you only perform it 3-4 times per year, the savings might not be enough to justify the cost.
- How many handoffs are there? A handoff is when data passes from one person to another e.g. a vacation request going through a second level of approval. Is it really necessary? Perhaps, it made sense years ago when the company was a tenth of its current size. Today, it’s essentially a rubber stamp and a waste of time.
- Does it interact with people outside the company? External interactions, especially with clients, are super important. Minimize the number of such interactions and make them as effortless as possible for the client. You’ll reduce delays that are outside your control.
- What are our business standards and does the workflow enforce them? One of workflow automation’s biggest benefits is that it ensures business standards cannot be bypassed. Once again, it’s worth evaluating unnecessary bureaucracy that made sense years ago under different conditions but is simply slowing things down today.
2. Collect Statistical Data
Workflow management software generates digital data, which can be analyzed. That’s one of its greatest pluses. Take a hard look at metrics such as:
- How many workflows were initiated in a certain time period?
- How many of those were completed successfully?
- What is the average/min/max time to complete each task?
- How many processes ended with some sort of operational error and what are those errors?
- Who is taking the most/least time to complete tasks?
- Where are the bottlenecks?
- How often are processes rejected? Sometimes, this is an indicator that the information provided to the participant is incomplete.
For example, let’s consider your purchase order workflow and let’s say it’s a 4-step workflow: employee -> manager -> CFO (if amount < $5,000) -> Finance. If it’s electronic, you’ll be able to discover things like:
- We started 100 PO workflows in the last month.
- Of those, 62 have been completed successfully.
- 54 POs were approved and issued while 8 were denied. 31 of them required CFO approval since the amount exceed $5,000.
- Of the 38 active workflows, 21 are waiting for manager approval, 10 for the CFO, and 9 are waiting for finance to issue the final PO.
- The manager and finance workflows have only been pending for a few hours but the ones in the CFO step have been pending for several days.
- Based on completed steps, managers approve on average in 18 hours, finance issues POs in less than 1 day but the CFO takes more than 7 days on average.
- Digging deeper into the CFO step, you could discover that she approved 25 of the 31 very quickly but took longer for the remaining 6.
A workflow management system can give you this kind of information very easily.
3. Get Real User Feedback
To discover real usability issues with your workflows, it’s critical to speak with real users. It’s extremely difficult to get people to adopt new ways of doing things or even just to change their existing behavior. Without world-class UX, it’s impossible.
But, there’s no way to create world class UX without talking to the people who actually use it, implementing their feedback and iteratively improving. For example, you might discover that the CFO takes much longer to approve those POs because they don’t work well on her mobile phone. Maybe it’s hard to view details of the PO on the smaller screen. A small modification to your forms could make a huge difference to their usability and dramatically speed up the CFO approval step.
You might learn that managers always email or call the employee whose PO they’re approving. That’s because some important information is missing when the workflow routes to them.
Ultimately, people are naturally more invested in solutions that they’ve had a chance to impact.
That’s what workflow analysis comes down to: real user feedback coupled with analysis of statistical metrics and an honest evaluation of the workflow.
Use the Analysis to Improve Your Workflows
Once your analysis tells you what you can improve, it’s obviously important to go back and actually address the identified issues ASAP. Nothing’s more frustrating than getting 90% of the solution right only to have it end up as shelf-ware because you overlooked a few little things.
As always, communication and iterative improvement are crucial. The earlier you involve all stakeholders, the more likely they are to support the changes. Train and inform users in advance about upcoming changes such as expected downtime, any special actions they’ll need to take regarding in-flight workflows or any changes to how the workflow will perform.
When done right, workflow automation has the potential to dramatically improve the efficiency and profitability of your business. It frees up time so employees can focus on improving the customer experience. It digitizes data so you can analyze it in near real-time to discover actionable insights.
If you simply take your existing manual processes and turn them into fully automated, electronic workflows, you will certainly benefit. However, to truly reap the full benefits of automation, you must iteratively improve based on workflow analysis.
The good news is that modern tools for workflow automation also provide easy workflow analysis capabilities. Yes, you can visually create forms, route them as part of a workflow, create business logic etc. to convert paper- or Excel-based processes into electronic form.
But, you can also use built-in charts and reports to analyze these workflows, identify bottlenecks, and iteratively improve so your operations run as smoothly as possible. Often, you can also export your process data to a SQL database and analyze it using commercially available tools.
That’s what frevvo is designed for: it’s easy to use, affordable for businesses of all sizes, and works with databases. Use it to create automated workflows that are customized to fit your precise business needs. Analyze those workflows and optimize them for peak efficiency.