All businesses deal with business workflows.
Some might involve only one straightforward workflow, but other businesses might apply intricate, interconnected workflows in their day-to-day operations.
Nevertheless, how efficient these business workflows are will directly dictate how productive and profitable a business will be. All workflows will always have some form of inefficiencies, and some may severely impact business performance.
Thus, managing and optimizing business workflows is very important if you want to improve your organization’s productivity and efficiency.
Trying to find ways to optimize your workflows but don’t know where to start? You’ve come to the right place. Here, we will discuss all you need to know about optimizing business workflows, and let us begin right away.
What are Business Workflows?
A business workflow is a set of tasks, typically sequential, that, when completed, will accomplish a specific business objective.
These sequential tasks will either:
- Process raw data into a processed format, or
- Process raw materials into a finalized product
The term “business workflow” is often used interchangeably with “business process,” but although they are indeed related, they aren’t the same.
To explain this, we have to understand that there are three different types of business workflows:
- Process: when the workflow is repeatable with predictable steps, it is a process. In a restaurant business, cooking the signature dish is a process.
- Project: the workflow has predictable steps but is non-repeatable. With the same restaurant example, renovating the restaurant’s interior is a project.
- Case: the workflow’s steps aren’t predictable, although the workflow can be repeatable. Again, with the restaurant example, taking a customer’s order is a case; the steps will only reveal themselves when you get more information about the order from the customer.
When discussing business workflow optimization, typically, we refer to optimizing a business process, but we can also apply the same principles to optimizing a project management workflow.
The Benefits of Optimizing Business Workflows
Now that we’ve learned about the concept of workflows, as well as the different types of business workflows available, why do we need to optimize business workflows in the first place?
Here are the top benefits of identifying, mapping, analyzing, and ultimately, optimizing business workflows:
- Improved efficiency and productivity
An organization’s efficiency is dictated by how efficiently its workflows are executed.
Workflow analysis as a core aspect of optimizing business workflows is performed continuously to identify bottlenecks and redundant tasks that add no value, allowing the organization to eliminate these efficiencies.
By ensuring important workflows and documented (mapped) and optimized, we can improve each of these business workflows’ efficiency, which in turn will improve the organization’s overall productivity and efficiency.
- Standardized workflows to eliminate errors
Before we can optimize the workflow, a workflow must be mapped and documented into an accurate workflow diagram.
This workflow diagram will provide a standardized roadmap for all stakeholders involved in the workflow, so they can all have the same vision on how to execute the workflow. This will help in eliminating confusion and reducing the risks of errors.
Accurate workflow documentation can also help to identify errors as quickly as possible, and when errors occur, they can be more easily traced back to the source.
- Reduced micromanagement
It’s no secret that micromanagement can be destructive both for the manager, the managed, and the company as a whole.
Optimized business workflows effectively eliminate the need for micromanagement since the workflow documentation will allow managers to accurately map all the tasks and steps required to execute the workflow, educating the employees about their specific duties. So, employees can effectively execute the task accurately without needing to be manually instructed by the managers each time.
- Data accessibility control
It’s common for organizational tasks to require employees to gain access to confidential data and information before they can do their job. However, it’s also crucial for the organization to only provide access to confidential and sensitive information when it is absolutely required. Not only giving access to unnecessary information can add vulnerability to the confidential data, but it can also cause additional delays and confusion.
By mapping and optimizing business workflows, we can know for sure who is responsible for which task and which information is required by different stakeholders. Thus, data accessibility control will be much easier to manage. When data is required for a specific task, we can give access quickly, and similarly, we can revoke access to unnecessary data as quickly as possible to avoid additional risks.
- Enabling automation
Implementing automation to tasks within the workflow or the whole workflow can certainly improve the workflow’s efficiency and reduce the risks of human errors. Automation can also free up valuable employee’s time from doing redundant tasks so they can focus on more crucial tasks on the workflow.
However, it’s crucial to understand that automation should only be implemented on workflows that are already efficient. Automating inefficient workflows will only end up amplifying its inefficiencies.
So, only after we’ve optimized business workflows should we think about implementing automation, not the other way around.
How To Optimize Business Workflows
We can optimize business workflows in three basic phases:
- Business workflow mapping: visualizing business workflows in the form of a workflow diagram.
- Business workflow analysis: analyzing the workflow diagram to identify inefficiencies and develop an optimization plan
- Business workflow optimization: based on the results of the analysis process, we can optimize the business workflows
In practice, we can execute these three phases in just five basic steps:
Step 1: Picking a business workflow
This step should be pretty straightforward if your business only involves one business workflow. If you have more than one business workflow, while the ultimate goal is to optimize all workflows, we should start with one.
You can either:
- Pick a workflow with apparent issues and inefficiencies so you can fix the problem ASAP.
- Pick a workflow with the highest potential impact for your business in the long term.
- Pick a workflow that will directly help in improving customer satisfaction (i.e., fixing your product’s flaw, shortening queue time, etc.)
Also, consider your business’s overall objectives when picking a workflow you’d prioritize to optimize.
Step 2: Data gathering
Once you’ve picked a workflow to optimize, the next step is to gather as much information as you can about this specific workflow.
Observe the business workflow when it’s being executed, and interview key stakeholders involved in the workflow to identify the following information:
- The start and endpoints for the business workflow
- All the steps and tasks involved in the workflow
- Who’s responsible for executing which tasks
- The sequence tasks must be executed
- The deadline for each task
- The information and resources required to accomplish each task
Step 3: Business Workflow Mapping
Once we’ve gathered enough information about the workflow, the next step is to visualize the business workflow in a workflow diagram.
We can map the workflow with various techniques, but the most popular way is to use an ANSI standard flowchart.
In a flowchart, we’ll use different shapes and symbols to represent the various actions in the business workflow.
here are the most important ones for workflow mapping:
Terminator: the oval shape represents the start and end points of a process
Operation: rectangle represents a specific task that is performed
Decision: diamond represents a point in the process where a decision must be made (i.e. Yes/No) before we can move on to the next step.
Arrows: connecting different shapes in the process, representing the direction and flow of information
While you can start with a pen and paper to draw your workflow map, it’s best to use a workflow builder from your business workflow management software, so you can also perform the next steps in the same application.
Step 4: Workflow Analysis
Once we’ve got an accurate as-is workflow diagram, the next step is to analyze the workflow by considering:
- The objective of the workflow and the purpose of each task
- Whom is the workflow supposed to benefit/serve?
- The requirements for success for this business workflow?
- Whether all steps are needed, or some can be replaced/eliminated?
- Whether there is an opportunity for automation
- Whether everyone has enough information to perform their task and make their decisions
- Whether there are any bottlenecks and inefficiencies
Step 5: Optimization
Based on the analysis, we can optimize the business workflow to eliminate its inefficiencies. It’s crucial to remember that the optimization won’t be initially perfect, and we’ll need to go back to step 4 and re-optimize the business workflow continuously.
Involve the employees and stakeholders to review the improvement. Again, gather as much data as possible on how we can further optimize the workflow.
Optimizing business workflows should be the concern of all businesses who’d like to improve their productivity.
While it might seem complicated at first, business workflows can be optimized in just three phases: mapping the workflow, analyzing the workflow diagram, and implementing changes.
By following the step-by-step guide, we’ve shared above and our actionable tips, you can start optimizing your business workflows right away.