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The Workflow Automation Field Guide: Manual Business Processes to Automate

It’s 2 p.m. You’ve just had lunch and you need to get back to that report you were working on. But then you see it. The fresh pile of paperwork sitting on your desk waiting to be processed.

Before you know it, a couple of hours have gone by and you still haven’t gotten to that report you wanted to get to. As you head home at the end of the day, you have an unsettling feeling that your day wasn’t very productive, even though you were working the whole time.

Why is that?

Because you know your day would’ve been better spent on other tasks––like that report. Instead, you were stuck with a manual business process that could have been automated and taken off your plate. The truth is, a computer would’ve done it in half the amount of time you just spent.

In WorkMarket’s 2020 In(Sight) Report, 54% of employees surveyed said automation could save them up to two hours a day (or 240 hours annually). Seventy-eight percent of business leaders said it could save them even more, up to three hours.

In short, automating manual business processes can make your life easier. But it goes beyond that. Let’s look at the other benefits of workflow automation.

The Benefits of Automated Business Systems

In 2017, McKinsey reported that 50% of all current business processes can be automated today. Furthermore, 30% of the workload for six out of ten occupations can be automated.

But what would that really look like?

It turns out that in the U.S., there are about $2 trillion worth of activities that make great targets for automation. These cover a diverse range from repetitive work performed by low-wage workers to administrative tasks eating up time for the highest-paid professions.

This means automation would solve or at least help reduce the three common pitfalls of manual business processes:

  • Data inaccuracy
  • Low productivity
  • High operational costs

An easy example is the usage of paper. Eliminating paper from the office saves costs on printing and utility bills for electricity. When the British National Health Service (NHS) set out a plan to go paperless by 2020, they estimated cost savings of 4.4 billion pounds

But the benefits of going paperless didn’t just stop there. The NHS outlined that this change alone would prompt:

  • Better patient care by freeing up valuable time for caregivers.
  • More patient control over their health and data through easily accessible electronic records.
  • Facilitating the development and support of new medicine and treatments.

Apart from the organizational benefits of cost savings, improved productivity, and better data accuracy, by far one of the biggest advantages of automation is the quality of work in all occupations. 

By reducing the need to spend time on important but mundane activities, we can focus on the work that matters most. These are activities that cannot be automated, such as customer relationships in sales, patient interactions in healthcare, innovations in technology, and creativity in all sectors. 

Common Business Workflows That Can Be Automated

Think about your current business processes. According to McKinsey, as much as half of all that could be automated. Which workflows come to mind? Could automation impact your department? Others?

Let’s get into the specifics of common business processes that can be automated today.

Accounting and Finance Workflows to Automate

Accounting is one of the areas most vulnerable to human error because of the numbers and calculations involved. A consulting firm in England found that 90% of all spreadsheets with more than 150 rows contain errors. More famously, spreadsheet mistakes have cost major firms like Fidelity and Fannie Mae to miscalculate their finances in the billions.

When it comes to accounts payable, CFO found that companies that require the most manual intervention in invoicing spent $12.44 on average per invoice, while the top performers spent less than half of the cost, at $4.98 per invoice.

ap process cost

The more human hands touch the invoice, the more prone it is to errors. To avoid these costly mistakes, companies can automate accounting processes so that everything is done digitally, without the need for the paper and data to exchange human hands. 

Sales and Marketing Workflows to Automate

One of the biggest traps of sales and marketing is not measuring the right metrics. The only way to really see if your sales and marketing efforts are producing results is to track progress with data. But more than that, automation makes it much easier to capture leads, follow up with customers, and go through the buyer journey more efficiently.

Here are some workflows in sales and marketing that can be automated:

  • Capturing leads through web forms
  • Scheduling follow-up calls and emails
  • Sending tailored emails
  • Tracking important metrics such as email open rates, average customer value, sales per item, and predictive sales analytics

HR, Admin & Legal Workflows to Automate

Administrative automation can mean digitizing all paperwork and syncing them to the cloud, eliminating manual processes. Files and forms can be shared by whoever needs access at all times remotely, sometimes even on mobile devices.

Some specific processes that are prime targets for workflow automation include:

  • Payroll processing
  • Travel reimbursements
  • Contracts and onboarding documents
  • Expenses

Project Management Workflows to Automate

One area that can apply to all aspects of the workplace is project management and communications. If you’ve ever been at a loss as to whom to contact about a specific task, how to reach someone or communicate faster, you understand how automation can be useful.

Using an automated workflow for project management means giving people access to the important documents or information they need, such as:

  • Who’s responsible for this task?
  • Where are we with this project?
  • Have we talked to the client yet?
  • What’s the due date for this assignment?

Purchase Order Management Workflows to Automate

Do you deal with purchase orders and requisitions on a frequent basis? If you’re manually keeping track of your goods and products, it can quickly become messy and overwhelming. Word documents and Excel sheets aren’t the most effective way to keep your documents organized. Manually emailing them for approval takes time. 

All this makes purchase order processing the perfect target for automation. Using workflow solutions that create forms and email them automatically for quick digital signatures can save you a lot of time and keep costs accurate and updated at all times.

How to Calculate Automation Cost Savings

Everyone’s priorities and costs will be different. But a good rule of thumb is to start by seeing how much a process costs you today, and how much eliminating hours from that process will save you.

For example, if you currently pay an assistant $15 an hour and they spend 15 hours a week just to manually process invoices, this process is costing you $225 a week or roughly $11,700 a year. 

Now let’s say you convert this manual process to an automated workflow with software like Frevvo, which lets you create and approve invoices digitally. Now the assistant reports that she’s spending five hours a week to process the same number of invoices, costing you $75 a week, or $3,900 a year.

Manual Process: $15 (pay rate) x 15 (labor hours) x 52 (weeks per year) = $11,700

Automated Process: $15 (pay rate) x 5 (labor hours) x 52 (weeks per year) = $3,900

Total Cost Savings: $7,800

That’s just for one specific process. You can apply this formula to any process you want to calculate savings for.

Business Process Automation Ideas for Different Industries 

All industries have existing manual processes that can be automated. The specific workflows and benefits following automation may be different though, as well as the number of activities that are technically feasible for automation.

Activities for automation fall generally in the low, mid, and high-range categories based on the complexity of the task. A McKinsey study categorizes the following types of activities:

Most susceptible to automation: Predictable physical labor, data processing

Less susceptible to automation: Unpredictable physical work, stakeholder interactions

Least susceptible to automation: Managing people, decision-making, creative tasks

Based on the above, here are some scenarios for automation across several industries. 

process automation in different industries

Healthcare

McKinsey estimates that overall, about 36% of the healthcare sector could be automated. Everything from gathering patient data to administering drugs has the potential for automation. The industry would benefit greatly by the resulting cost savings as hospitals and clinics need a constant supply of resources to operate. More accurate, up-to-date health records have the potential to save lives. The same goes for precision in drug administration and surgical procedures. 

Potential Processes to Be Automated:

  • Collecting patients’ health data
  • Simple medical/technical processes
  • Administering medicine
  • Reading scans
  • Billing
  • Supplying drugs
  • General hospital administration

Retail

According to the Visual Capitalist, about half of the activities in the U.S. retail and trade sector are likely to be automated. The predictive nature of retail work makes it highly susceptible to automation, from stocking and inventory management to self-service check-outs. 

If these processes can be automated, retail businesses can save labor costs, increase efficiency, and ultimately focus more of their efforts on good customer service by reducing stressful in-store interactions and activities.

Potential Processes to Be Automated:

  • Stocking, packing, and distribution
  • Inventory management
  • Barcode scanning
  • In-store checkouts
  • Providing information to customers

Food and Hospitality

McKinsey gave the food and hospitality sector the top spot in automation potential across diverse industries, saying up to 73% of current activities can be automated. Major franchises are already moving toward automated food ordering systems and even robotic delivery. 

One newer example in hospitality is the Fly Zoo Hotel in China, which is testing a robot-centric location that eliminates the hotel reception and delivers food with robots. But even without robots, automated systems to check inventory, room temperature levels, and other factors can offer big cost savings in the sector.

Potential Processes to Be Automated:

  • Ordering & delivery
  • Inventory and equipment management
  • Temperature regulation
  • Energy monitoring

Manufacturing

Estimates from the Visual Capitalist suggest 48% of today’s manufacturing hours are spent on manual tasks. However, that is set to drop to 35% by 2020. The repetitive nature of a lot of manufacturing processes makes it easy to automate.

One example is Tesla, which has taken this concept to the extreme by automating 95% of its Model 3 assembly line. But robot arms aren’t the only processes that can be automated. Storing manufacturing data in the cloud, using sensors to monitor equipment conditions and schedule predictive maintenance are all activities that can help manufacturers increase productivity and save costs.

Potential Processes to Be Automated:

  • Loading and packaging
  • Assembly
  • Equipment maintenance
  • Welding and cutting
  • Safety procedures
  • Order processing
  • Quality assurance

Transportation

Self-driving vehicles may be the first to come to mind. But while the technology is still being developed and tested, other manual processes in transportation make good targets for automation. These include remote fleet management that gives you real-time data on vehicles, drivers, and routes, and digitally processing shipment orders and delivery notices.

Potential Processes to Be Automated:

  • Remote communications
  • Fleet management
  • Processing shipments
  • Delivery tracking

Finance

The finance sector deals with a lot of numerical data, making a majority of the workflows candidates for automation. The primary benefit of automating data collection and processing is improving speed and accuracy. Payroll, financial analysis, and accounts payable are all perfect examples of time-consuming processes that would be better off automated.

Potential Processes to Be Automated:

  • Applications processing
  • Data verification
  • Compliance
  • Accurate recordkeeping

How to Automate Business Processes

Creating a digital workflow is a step-by-step process, consisting of the following––or similar––stages: 

  1. Perform a workflow audit.
  2. Create a roadmap.
  3. Design and deploy.
  4. Evaluate the experiment.
  5. Rinse and repeat.

(For more on how to create a digital workflow, read our post here.)

By examining your current processes, you’ll be able to identify pain points and bottlenecks. Prioritize the inefficiencies that are costing you the most resources, then plan a roadmap for how to transition to an automated workflow.

It’s important to involve your team and any other key stakeholders to come up with the right KPIs to track your ROI on automation. That way, you’ll be able to calculate the exact savings and more importantly, the precise benefits of automation for your organization.

Read our whitepaper to learn more about visual forms and workflow automation.

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