No matter the size of the workforce you manage or the type of business you run, employees and managers alike have a tendency to grow accustomed to old processes.
They might be rigid and outdated business processes that no longer suit your organization’s workflow, ones they’ve invented for themselves but shared with no-one, or simply full of redundancies. Without up-to-date management of your workflow processes, your business will struggle to reach its full potential.
Implementing a process solution can streamline business operations, maximize efficiency, harness talent, and transform the whole culture of an organization.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through what process workflow is, the benefits of implementing it, and types of workflows. We’ll also look at how you can move away from more traditional approaches to embed processes that will suit your unique workflows, empower your employees, and ensure everyone is on the same path towards success.
What are processes and why are they important?
Processes are everywhere and are a part of every aspect of both work and leisure. Anything can be a process, even making a cup of tea. Boiling the water, brewing the tea bag, and adding milk would all be part of the process.
Where business processes are concerned, they frequently involve multiple steps, can span departments, and involve communication and regulation. They’re often quite complex, and need to be able to evolve rapidly in response to changes in the industry and customer expectations.
Fundamentally, they should add value to your business—reducing errors, streamlining arduous tasks, and improving efficiency.
What is a workflow and how is it different?
A good example of workflow is employee onboarding. Here, workflows can simplify the job of HR by collecting a new hire’s personal information, arranging appropriate training, and getting everything set up for them to start. The onboarding process is optimized and processes are complete before the new employee’s first day.
Luckily, workflow management systems and software exist to help organizations achieve results and automate processes for better business agility.
What are the benefits of implementing process workflow?
Processes can only achieve your desired end goals when they are embedded in your organization and are a part of its day-to-day operations. By embedding process workflow, these activities become part of as-usual business activities and are actually followed by team members.
This means fewer disruptions in projects and a reduction in workflow bottlenecks, establishing a smooth, predictable, and reliable workflow. Processes that are implemented successfully have the greatest potential to add value.
Process workflows ensure that each employee takes the same approach to tasks and that results are consistent. Once consistency is achieved, managers are also better able to see where changes need to be made to maximize efficiency. With the help of workflow management software, they can observe in real-time the state of business-critical processes and react quickly.
Operating without integrated processes leads to confusion, inconsistent output, and frequent errors—all increasing costs. Leadership will also have to dedicate more time to managing processes and resolving issues rather than focusing on the bigger picture. This means consistent interaction with employee work that can be interpreted as micro-management by employees and erodes trust and creates frustration within organizations.
By implementing process workflow, a paper trail is created so management can audit tasks and work activities without having to observe them consistently. This allows productivity to be measured more accurately and tasks to be planned appropriately.
Implementing an embedded process workflow allows management to focus on work that leads to business growth, rather than dedicating time to fixing issues. If a business is stuck in a cycle of errors with revenue stalling, costs increasing and poor customer experience, workflow and process tools can break the pattern and eliminate the chaos by standardizing business functions.
This gives control back to management, allowing them a light touch in the overall running of the business so they can dedicate themselves to revenue-building tasks.
When an employee, customer, stakeholder or partner sees everything working as it should, they are more likely to want to engage with your business.
Employees in particular are happier and more motivated (and are more likely to generate revenue) when a business is running smoothly. If tasks are inconsistent and confusing, confidence can wane.
Business process management ensures team members are always on-task. Add in automation to eliminate repetitive and tedious tasks, and you have a happier workforce with more time for innovation and creativity.
Four examples of traditional approaches to embedding process
Process documentation is usually the first stage of a traditional embedding process. Quite simply, you document how a process should work, detailing every step that needs to be taken. This could be through lists, diagramming, or flowcharts. These documents are then updated on a regular basis – for instance, annually – or when other things, such as related regulations, change.
In order to be useful, these documented processes need to be referred back to. If it’s simply stored on a shelf or in online file-sharing software, it becomes a burden to maintain, and something that’s undertaken only to meet compliance.
Once a process is documented, it can be taught. Even the simplest of tasks have embedded processes – for instance, showing your employees how to unlock the office and turn off the alarm in the morning. The more complex the process, the more often training may need to be repeated.
Processes that are cross-departmental or involve multiple teams can make training more difficult and can often result in miscommunications. If training is applied inconsistently, teams will carry out tasks based on their own priorities.
For example, a sales team might action a task with a focus on maximizing their commission, and forget to collect data that is essential to other departments. This can result in inconvenience to the client who could be made to repeat information or re-fill documents.
Spreadsheet tracking is usually the next step. It has replaced physical checklists and paper forms, and with good reason. Paper is easy to lose, hard to file, difficult to search, and near impossible to analyse. At most, paper provides proof that a task has happened – whereas spreadsheets can do much more.
Despite these advantages, collaborative spreadsheets come with their own challenges. They can be difficult to manage across multiple processes and departments. Often, they have to be rigidly managed, and teams end up chasing one another for updates. This then becomes a task in it’s own right.
A system (like beSlick!) that can manage teams through process workflow is more beneficial here, using notifications and team collaboration tools to drive productivity.
Checklist software is commonly used in the embedding of processes. It involves using templates to create structured lists of tasks. It is easily changed, but variance tends to creep in quickly, making it difficult to connect what is meant to happen with what is actually happening. This level of disconnection from the processes themselves means it can give the appearance of control, but none of the actual benefits.
While more fully-fledged embedded software can be helpful, they often only offer a specific functionality and need to be managed by employees with a specialized skill set. They are usually complicated to use and take time to get to grips with.
Why do the traditional approaches not work?
According to research, the most common way that SMEs manage processes is with software/ individual systems (41%) or on spreadsheets (30%). 12% of managers admit to staying on top of processes and tasks ‘in their head’, and 6% follow processes on paper.
These disconnected systems mean processes are usually inconsistent, poorly formalised and difficult to manage. In fact, 63% of SME staff that use these traditional methods are not clear about their company’s processes. With this in mind, how is a business meant to improve? With no clear, documented examples of workflows available, automated workflows become impossible to implement.
The best way to embed process and make it part of a business’ core culture is to empower employees and create a scalable platform for growth. This requires a system that is simple to use, with clear visuals, and a way to provide feedback on process improvement.
What is the definitive approach to embedding process workflow that helps businesses grow?
Keep it simple
To begin embedding workflow processes you should focus on keeping things simple. While a complicated process might look good on paper, in reality, a complex business workflow process creates opportunities for confusion and errors.
An incredibly detailed process or multiple sub-processes within a task can also be interpreted negatively by employees, as a form of micromanagement. The best systems will leave some room for self-management. If workers feel involved in the creation of processes, they are far more likely to follow them.
The platforms you employ for business process automation also need to be straightforward to use. The more difficult, the more likely your staff will find workarounds to avoid using them. Not only does this create frustration between staff and management but it also renders your workflow automation systems futile.
A simple platform that is easy to understand and use means greater buy-in of employees and more immediate value for your business. The aim shouldn’t be for greater control over a process but rather to equip employees with the right tools with which to do their job. Processes are a device for employees, not management.
Process is not for you
The best way to approach process optimization is as a method of support to help employees achieve the best outcome for clients.
Instead of thinking of process as a way of controlling how things happen, think of it as a journey to increase staff productivity metrics, as well as the overall enjoyment and engagement of both employees and customers. Process isn’t something for management to tightly control – instead, it’s a tool for your team to do their best work.
Doers need to own
When they wrote about business process reengineering in 1989, Michael Hammer and James Champy stated that, to maximize efficiency, the power to make decisions should be given to the people performing the process. Although the software behind process improvement has been updated since 1989, with workflow diagrams, Gantt charts, integrations, automations, and more, the sentiment itself holds true today.
The doers need to own the process. When an authority has full control over a design or system it is often disconnected from the practical work, misses key steps, or overcomplicates tasks. All this decreases an organisation’s efficiency.
Team collaboration ensures that your staff is involved in process making. They have first-hand experience and can guide processes to make them the best they can be. Where possible, they should also have the authority to implement changes in order to drive productivity and achieve the desired outcome.
Consider altering your process of approval and compliance to allow for small amendments to be made by employees when necessary. This will motivate your staff, improve your process flow, and boost your output.
People are smarter than process
Processes should never be mechanisms that control the way people work. If they feel too prescriptive, people will find ways to avoid them, thus rendering them useless. Tasks in progress might get lost, and errors will creep in.
It’s an organisation’s people that unlock the full potential of processes. Without collaboration between the process and the people that do the job every day, frustration is created for both management and employees.
Instead, your processes should allow flexibility in how goals are achieved. They should evolve and improve with the contribution of people within your organization. Coupled with a system that understands and measures the flexibility of workflow processes, a people plus process approach can offer valuable opportunities for improvement and success.
Process is about change
Small changes can lead to significant results when it comes to business processes and empowering employees to become a part of that change often sparks innovation. As James Champy observed, “People must know that their ideas will be listened to and, if they have merit, acted upon. If they do, it is possible to mobilize individual creativity on a very broad scale.”
In this digital age, defined by rapid evolution, harnessing the talent and inventiveness of your team can determine your market position. A static business that fails to keep up with rapid changes will, inevitably, die.
Traditionally implemented processes tend to create a rigid and established structure that is difficult to alter. They can slow business growth and stifle employee engagement. Instead, businesses should put in place process platforms that facilitate employee feedback and encourage change. They should ensure that ideas are listened to and implemented, and that processes can be altered as needed. Processes function at peak efficiency when they are reviewed and amended frequently.
Embedding workflow process means making it a core part of your everyday business functions. It means that processes are second nature and that employees choose to follow them.
The only way that a process can provide consistency in output is if they are followed, repeatable and replicable. This means that they have to engage employees and be simple to understand, so much so that new staff can grasp them quickly.
However, with traditional approaches, embedding workflow processes as part of your daily operations can be tedious, liable to errors, and prone to failure. Methods like documentation, even alongside training, can’t achieve the combination of reliability and flexibility that an embedded process should have.
In comparison, modern methods of process improvement are simple, scalable and centralize everything. This means you can remain consistent, empower your employees, and free up management to focus on business growth.
Fundamentally, to embed a process in your business effectively you need to make people a part of the process. Employees should be on the journey alongside management. They should be able to feedback collaboratively and be motivated, engaged, and excited to implement changes. A platform that supports all of this is critical to success.
Steve Mace has decades of experience in senior management positions at global technology companies, and has seen firsthand what can happen when process goes wrong. A firm believer that for a business to succeed empowerment, autonomy and creativity are vital to company culture.