A practical look at Workflow


We use processes around our work and business all the time. Most of the tasks we perform are much like tasks we have already performed, so we create "recipes" to allow us to cruise through these without much thought and importantly, to allow others to do the same with a similar result.

Follow recipe

Recipe for success ?

Workflow or BPM is the automation of these "recipes" through an electronic or computer-driven system. There are plenty of Workflow products out there, ranging from simple timesheet applications for small practices to help billing based on time spent, to sophisticated  platforms which allow complex processes to be modelled across an entire enterprise.  All workflows share a few common features :

  • There is a trigger - most often the arrival of a document, submission of a form from a website, receipt of a phone call or a date event
  • There is an end - the workflow arrives in a state where it can be considered complete and can be archived
  • There is integration with third parties - all workflows integrate to a greater or lesser extent with one or more people or third-party systems
  • There is reporting - without reporting it would be impossible to get an overview of throughput, problems, bottlenecks or backlog

Today it is crucial for ALL businesses to implement workflow to remain competitive - it has evolved from being the sole province of enterprise-level businesses to an essential part of small businesses and practices. Quite simply, having people do automatic tasks is too expensive, error-prone and boring. If it can be automated it should be. Or should it ?

We give a qualified "YES" to this, the qualifyier being the 80-20 rule - 80% of the pain can be alleviated with 20% of the effort. The remaining 20% will require 80% of the effort, so our strong recommendation is to go for the low-hanging fruit, and treat your workflow implementation as a strictly "agile" project.  

low hanging fruit

What are the low-hanging workflow fruit ? 

  • Simple processes performed often with few integrations. For example end-of-quarter BAS, order-stock-invoice process,  document review, document signing.  
  • Processes which cannot afford error or shortcuts for compliance or safety reasons. For example SMSF Audit, Health and Safety training courses.
  • Processes which are or can be widely distributed. For example offshore data-keying, group document reviews, working-from-home scenarios. 
  • Processes with highly complex decision trees which often lend themselves to human error. For example complicated quotes with distributed components or case management.

Poor candidates to start off with are :

  • Processes with a large number of custom integration points to third-party systems
  • Processes with highly complex interconnected systems
  • Processes which can only be performed by a single person
Agile

What does "agile" mean ?

Agility in software development and also in workflow means breaking large projects into chunks of manageable work, delivering small but robust increases in functionality in a "bottom-up" approach until the desired functionality is achieved. It implies many short iterations (2-4 weeks) of well-defined functional blocks. This reduces the risk of ending up with a white elephant or a never-ending workflow development. START SIMPLE THEN COMBINE TO FORM COMPLEXITY. 

As a rule of thumb, all workflow projects take twice as long as expected. The reason for this is that wherever there are integration points with third party systems, we never assume that they will not work as expected and are surprised when they don't. 

 Most modern Workflow systems let you model your workflow process in a graphical form , for example the below image is the interactive modelling tool for the Webrecs Activiti workflow subsystem . The workflow in question is a medium-complexity SMSF fund audit process.

Graphical modelling is key

Activiti Workflow

 

Webrecs has good integrations with many different systems including Class, Xero, Jira, Dropbox, Sugar and Zapier among many others, which, together with the simple forms and deployment process helps create simple or complex custom workflow processes. And out the box there are ad-hoc task, document review (both pooled and single) and document signing processes. We are continually adding to our library of workflow processes so there is less to develop and more to re-use.

In summary, embrace your workflows but choose small and build upwards. Don't be too ambitious at first. Break complex processes down into automation-ready subprocesses and automate these, then string them together to form complete automated processes. Most of all, realise that your business processes will change as you and your environment do  (legislation, technology, scale) so choose a flexible, scalable workflow product which allows you to easily change your workflow as you do.


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Summary

Implementing workflows (also known as BPM or Business Process Modelling) in your practice or business is an essential part of remaining efficient and cost-effective. This article gives a practical look at the landscape and the do's and don'ts of implementing workflows in your business.

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