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Getting Hard-Nosed About Workflow Automation

(August 2007) posted on Mon Aug 06, 2007

Identify where your workflow could be efficiently streamlined.

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By Stephen Beals

Try this test: Make a workflow chart of how a job is supposed to flow through your company; carefully estimate how long each step of the process will take, and put it in writing. Do this for several different types of hypothetical jobs.

Then, follow some real jobs that fit the "types" from your hypothetical list. Document each real job at every step in the process. If you opt to delegate the documenting process, make it clear that you don’t want any "estimates" or "fudging" of figures; nor should you let anyone see your prior estimated times and steps. If mistakes occur during the real jobs, note where, why, and when. And if the job has to have changes or corrections, put it in writing.

At the end of the test, chances are good that there will be a dramatic difference between what you estimated would happen to a job and what actually happens. Tread carefully here, however: It’s very easy for managers to think that if a job doesn’t go through the plant the way it is "supposed" to, someone simply is not doing the job or pulling their weight. Yes, that’s certainly possible-but it's more likely that the hypothetical workflow you initially sketched out is simply out of synch with reality.

Identifying a 'spaghetti' workflow

Once this process has been completed, make a hard-headed assessment of the situation. Where are errors and bottlenecks occurring? Where and why do communications break down? What redundancies can be eliminated? What takes the most time? How many times does the job change hands? How often is the basic data re-entered? How does the data actually move through the plant and who has access to it? Does everyone who needs information have quick access to correct, up-to-date information?

Don't be surprised if going through this process is a bit disturbing. In fact, if you have the preconceived notion that everything is going smoothly and just needs some "tweaks," it might even be a shock. Once you diagram your "real" workflow on paper, it's likely to look more like a plate of spaghetti than a coherent diagram.