Many organization still struggle with the strain of manual processes that touch critical areas of the business. And these manual processes could be costlier that you think. It’s not just profit that may be slipping away but employee moral, innovation, competitiveness and so much more. This article will outline the reasons and approaches for business process improvements.

By automating routine tasks you can increase workflow efficiency, which in turn can free up staff for higher value work, driving down costs and boosting revenue. And it may be easier to achieve productivity gains simpler, faster, and with less risk that you may assume.

Most companies with manual work processes have been refining them for years, yet they may still not be efficient because they are not automated. So the question to ask is, “can I automate my current processes?”.

Just to be clear, let me add my definition of manual processes: These are processes where human intervention is required at every step.  It does not preclude the use of technology such as electronic forms, spreadsheets and collaboration tools. But it relies on a staff member to make decisions at each step.

So what might an automated process look like versus a manual process? The automated process will route work to the right staff member based on predefined conditions. The movement of work can be time tracked and escalated if required. Integration with your systems and databases can retrieve required information and also push data to other systems. Valuable work metrics can be captured to provide meaningful reporting. And the initiator has complete visibility of the entire workflow at every step. Think of it this way - if you can flow chart the process, then it can be automated.

Let’s look at some areas where manual processes are still likely to exist. Some of these business processes can be substantial in size as well as importance within the organization. Here are some common examples:

  • New product development
  • New employees on-boarding
  • Credit checks and approvals
  • Engineering change requests
  • Custom sales quotations
  • Product customization
  • Resource management
  • QA testing
  • Employee performance reviews

Commercially available packages, such as ERP (Enterprise Resource Management) have many key features built in based on your industry. Simply put, they are automated business processes defined by specific steps, actions, sequence, conditions and most importantly, they are repeatable.

Yet most business have these ‘other’ processes as in the examples given above. They typically have many unique attributes and as a result have evolved over time as manual processes aided with the injection of standard technology such as spreadsheets, email, electronic forms and other end user tools. They may also abide to certain methodologies, for example a ‘New Product Development’ process may follow a ‘Gated Review Methodology’. The urgency here is to make that ‘go/no go’ decision as early as possible.

But they may still have weaknesses; prone to errors and inefficiencies. When this happens a logical recourse is to initiate some sort of review using either internal or external experts.

But this often leads to reapplying tools and procedures that you are already using and may result in adding more checks and balances which only adds to the inefficiency. There are more direct approaches to provide fixes, but first, let’s look at where issues arise with these systems.

There are multiple sources of issues that arise in these manual or semi-automated processes and are often the problem areas that don’t get addressed or fixed. Examples include:

  • Human failure - errors aren’t identified/validated at the source or the ‘right’ staff is unavailable (sick, away, other priorities).
  • Lack of visibility - what stage is the workflow at any given time.  
  • Redundancy of data entry - often the same data needs to be reentered at different times adding effort and possible errors. Data may end up being stored in different locations and out of sync when changes are made.
  • Lack of training - less automated system require more staff training.
  • Key metrics aren’t recorded - creates a lost opportunity for reporting of resources, costs and/or material usage.
  • Exceptions - everything can run fine until there is an exception when options aren’t clear or understood.
  • Missed deadlines - accountability for meeting required dates. Critical when there are other dependencies on a specific action.
  • Conflicting priorities - Employees with specific roles can get distracted with other actions and ignore important task based operations.
  • Undefined and unmeasured activities - how long do you wait for a critical action to be completed. What are the consequences of a missed task date.
  • Resources - How does team A compare with team B to do the same work. Track activities and results versus tracking just time.
  • Missing information - can result in stalled activities.

If you have good procedures but find you are prone to these types of issues and errors then there is help available. And there are ways to automate processes without changing what works. Today you should be able to track documents requiring additional information or a simple approval. Exceptions should be managed with the same efficiencies as any regular task. Rerouting of work when it is stalled for any reason. Escalation of critical activities before the work implodes.

Nextide has been helping clients automate these manual systems for over 10 years. Our expertise is aimed at helping clients so that these processes can be defined and automated. Our initial approach with clients is always to see if we can fix what is in place today. It can be that simple and inexpensive.

I will be adding more to this subject line over the coming months and to delve into more specific examples of application areas that we help automate and some of the tools used.

Contact Nextide if your want to talk about how we can assist with improving your business processes.