Using Workflow Analysis to Improve Business Processes

What is workflow? In the simplest sense, it is the daily routine we follow to perform from the simplest to most complex tasks. It can involve a single task by a single person or multiple complex tasks completed by various individuals or teams across geographical locations. For the complex transactions, workflow is built into enterprise systems such as SAP, PeopleSoft, and the many Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems. Each transaction has a defined flow for information to go from one desk to another desk based on defined rules.

On an individual and personal level, workflow can enhance a worker’s productivity. Many sites, such as lifehacker, and books, such as David Allen’s “Get Things Done,” provide recommended workflows to enhance productivity.

Workflow analysis also provides a further opportunity to hone and tweak current processes. Let’s take a common task and go through a workflow analysis: Responding to an e-mail.

A Workflow Analysis

Here is a potential workflow for responding to e-mail. While it’s complex and broken into many steps and processes, the reality is that we respond to e-mail without putting much thought into it. When we do break the processes down into individual steps, we can determine if there are duplicate efforts or processes that can be incorporated.

  1. E-mail arrives in inbox.

  2. Determine if requires action.

  3. Determine level of effort required to respond.

  4. Delegate, defer, or respond.

  5. Determine if the response need to be sent to other interested stakeholders.

  6. Develop initial draft.

  7. Quality assurance process.

  8. Send.

  9. Determine if additional steps are required.

  10. Close out processing.

The gist of my e-mail response workflow is determining if a response is needed, the level of risk involved, and effort required before sending the response. In all instances, I perform close out procedures, such as archiving the conversation, flagging it for additional follow up, etc.

While this may seem like overkill, it’s actually a useful technique to map out our daily tasks and determine if it’s redundant or if certain steps can be avoided.

motion gears -team force
Creative Commons License photo credit: ralphbijker

Lesson learned

While this example yielded a very basic analysis, it provides a visual explanation on workflow mapping. Advanced software tools, such as Ravenflow, can provide better mapping of processes. In my example, I use OpenOffice presentation tool. When work tasks result in flaws, mistakes, or failures, a workflow analysis can identify holes that may cause or lead to negative results. For example, if you constant forget what happened at meetings, develop a workflow for initiating the meeting, confirming invitees, setting the agenda, and recording and distributing the minutes. On a more micro-level, if the meeting minutes are not accurate, perhaps a process can be included to vet the minutes to the participants before formal distribution.

Who else can workflow be used to enhance your work?

Published by Daniel Hoang

Daniel Hoang is a visual leader, storyteller, and creative thinker. As an experienced management consultant, he believes in a big picture approach that includes strong project leadership, creative methods, change management, and strategic visioning. He uses a range of visual tools to communicate business challenges, solutions, and goals. His change strategy is to build "tribes" of supporters and evangelists to drive change in culture and organization. Daniel is an avid technologist and futurist and early adopter.

3 thoughts on “Using Workflow Analysis to Improve Business Processes

  1. very informative! i may be taking a position where i will be creating workflows. i think the only added twist is that the company wants the workflow to reflect the time allotted to each step in the work flow. any input on software that would facilitate illustrating time constraints/expectations would be apprciated. ~lloyd

    1. I personally like to get tools out of the way. I typically whiteboard or write on large paper the process and then all the things that go into that process. What are the things that affect that process. Indicate time constraints and hard limits (e.g., must be done within 2 hours). For every estimate, include a low, medium, and high range. Avoid focusing on extremes (cases that happen once a year). Focus on what happens most of the time. Once you have everything documented, then go put it into software like Visio.

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