This article is brought to you by Krista Banuelos, Owner & Process Improvement Consultant at Fix My Process, LLC. Starting your workflow automation project with an expert like Krista can help you spend less time with vendors on things that won’t impact your business process.
Making the decision to onboard a workflow automation tool to replace those tedious, manual processes brings many benefits to the table. These tools allow you to focus on the more mission-critical objectives versus those administrative tasks that continue to absorb your resources and time.
As tempting as it is to jump in and start using the first application that you find, you’ll be better off working through these basic preparation tips I’m sharing from experience managing IT projects of this nature. These steps will help prevent stall-out and get you started using your tool as soon as possible.
Change Management & Goals of Workflow Automation
It is extremely helpful to have a change management plan in place, especially if this implementation impacts many (or all) users in your organization. Such a plan includes staff/business unit communication, receiving input on existing processes (this may also help with tool adoption and increased team morale in the end), and having established training sessions in place prior to going live. Set KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) that you wish to be able to measure to determine if you are accomplishing your objectives.
Process Selection & Measuring Cost Effectiveness
Select key processes to automate first before bringing the farm. Start with piloting the least complex ones and those that will initially bring the highest return on investment (ROI). Your tool most likely came with a price tag or subscription fee so have it pay for itself right away!
Every industry will have different business problems to solve (aka inefficient workflows to fix); however, there are many commonalities of ROI in the form of soft and hard cost savings. Although soft cost savings are more difficult to measure directly — I’ve found that in the case of these projects, soft costs tend to turn into tangible hard cost savings in the end. Analyzing trends and reports of how your organization is performing vs. how it performs after the tool is implemented will demonstrate the difference. Here are some examples:
- Improved employee morale = reduction in turnover, re-hiring costs, higher productivity
- Compliance with industry regulations = minimization and/or alleviation of fines
- Better customer response times = higher rate of customer conversion and retention
- Error reduction = savings on problem resolution / customer service involvement
“Ok, that sounds nice but my CFO and budget committees prefer to see examples of hard cost savings upfront.”
Take the inefficient workflow you have and determine the current cost of each transaction. I am referring to the cost(s) associated with every time a process needs to be initiated from beginning to end. For example, variables may include the hard cost of staff members per hour, the duration of the process, and/or any other associated costs (paper, mail, cost of software users, etc). Determine the cost reduction of the portions automated by the workflow tool to equate the hard cost savings where possible. This comparison may be rough but can definitely be stark enough to substantiate the procurement and implementation investment.
Process Definition and Diagramming (Mapping) of Current Processes
Once you’ve established the selected processes to start with, it is crucial you diagram all the activities that exist so you can visualize and analyze what is currently taking place. It is necessary to take granular-view in order to see what tasks will be replaced with the new automation tool and which core functions will remain. This is the key opportunity to identify manual, repetitive work that can be replaced with the new system (as it’s functionality permits). Having a thorough, accurate picture of what happens minimizes risk of missing steps and also can help those processes needing to meet regulatory compliance standards stay in focus.
Interview the key stakeholders in your workflow automation project, especially frontline staff that have a role in managing workloads. Have these stakeholders identify all resources used during a process: communication systems/interactions and notification needs, databases, and applicable system integrations. All of these components are used during configuration of the tool.
Simplify Business Process Details
Map where the process begins and ends, including interactions and system touch points mentioned above. A swimlane diagram is a good diagram format to use when presenting cross-departmental activities but not required. You might find it helpful to outsource this task to someone familiar with process mapping, such as a business analyst or process improvement consultant.
Workflow Automation Project Example: New Employee Onboarding or a Purchase Request
Details to include on the process map:
- Form input on the front end,
- task assignments,
- concurrent activities and their dependencies,
- database records/storage and
- process closure.
Map For Configuration
Next, we want to diagram a high level, replicable workflow of what the selected (or prospective tool if you are still searching) should perform. This is a replicable process that contains the core functions and outputs in order to standardize the deliverables within those parameters. I also recommend having the high level diagram handy if you are still shopping for a tool to ensure said tool has all the functionality you are looking for. There is nothing worse than investing in a tool, only to find out it didn’t meet your business requirements. Based on what tool you select, you can modify the process map based on the tool capability.
Workflow Tool Configuration & Support
Determine who will need to re-configure the workflow if the process changes over time. Is the tool simplistic enough to have a designated staff member make edits or does a dedicated IT rep need to handle these are work orders? Consider the process for adding new user accounts to the tool, if applicable. Communication and planning is very important for continued maintenance. Think about those variants or special handling scenarios that come up that can fall outside of a normal process. Ensure your application is configured to have a path for those to avoid bottlenecks and/or time delays.
Test and Train
Set up training sessions with end users prior to going live. Allow users to go through all the processes to ensure there are no “hiccups” before going live. For larger projects, most workflow automation project service providers will agree to a defined set of testing criteria before the project is considered complete.
Workflow Automation Vendor Assessment Basics
My mantra is: Let your requirements drive your solution (i.e. selected tool) vs. the “trendy” or big box tool in the marketplace.
While you’ll need to add your own criteria that are tailored to the goals of your use case, these universal concepts can help you decide on the best workflow automation tool for your project:
- Usability. User experience on both the front and back end is VIP. Always ask for demos of both if videos not available. If the tool is too labor intensive to configure you might not achieve user adoption. You also don’t want to miss out on taking advantage of all the tool has to offer if you become stuck trying to implement the basic functionality.
- Accessibility and Permissions. Most systems these days are completely cloud-based; however, do have options for on-premise/hybrid solutions. Many users find it helpful to be able to access and/or configure a tool remotely from wherever they may be. Also, organizations may prefer to have certain capabilities provisioned for certain users only.
- Scalability. Can it grow with your needs and handle a myriad of different processes for you?
- Communication & Customer Service Support. Find out what support channels are accessible. Do you have direct phone or email access or do you have to place work orders. Are there community user forums? Also, it is always a good sign if there’s documentation with clear examples of configuration. Get information on scheduled downtime periods or if they have a product roadmap to see where they’re going.
- Accountability and Measurement. Are there reporting tools available to trace activities of anyone initiating processes (i.e. approvals). Additionally, management might want to have dashboards to measure workload transactions or monitor the status(es) of a process(es) at any given time. Can you tell if you’re meeting the new KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) you established at the beginning?
- Backup and Security. Does your tool enable you to retrieve content saved in it’s repository, if applicable? Does your tool have acceptable levels of security for data transactions taking place?
These IT project management basics will help your workflow automation project by spending less time spinning the tires with tools and vendors on ideas that won’t directly benefit the business.