What is a Workflow? How do I define them? And how can they help my business?

This is a follow on from our 101 Guide to Document Management. I recommend reading that one before moving onto this guide.

Alike Document Management, I did not really know what Workflow’s were before starting at Invu. This time round I had actually heard of the term ‘Workflow’, but knowing what it was or what it did was another story.

If you are in the same place that I was a year ago and you have been asked to learn how to ‘Workflow holiday requests’ or some other business process, then this guide is the one for you!

Why do we have Workflows?

Making a cup of coffee is a process that is delivered by performing a sequence of tasks. The order and number of these tasks can vary for each individual. Our individual chosen sequence of tasks can be described as our personal Workflow.

We can complete this process consistently, repeating the same order of tasks out of habit each time, without referring to any notes. To complete a more complex process using a consistent sequence of tasks (a Workflow), it is likely we will need a guiding document. This would certainly be the case if we expect others to complete the process using the designated Workflow.

A popular method for documenting a Workflow is a flowchart, a visual representation of the sequencing of tasks. Workflows are also often documented using procedure manuals.

A Barista working at Starbucks will no doubt have a well-established Workflow for making each type of coffee. The consistency of output required leaves no room for individual approaches.

‘Bethany’s Coffee Making Workflow

Not all processes require a Workflow. Sometimes you can “just do it!” Completing the process is sufficient.

For example, I make a cup of coffee by completing the following tasks: get a cup, add the coffee, then add either a sweetener or one teaspoon of sugar (sweetener is the preference), add hot water, and then a splash of milk. This could be called ‘Bethany’s Coffee Making Workflow’ as I apply this same sequence of tasks consistently. However, noting that all down is making a big deal out of making a cup of coffee.

Your brother or sister may use the same ingredients for making a cup of coffee, but they may complete their tasks in a different order. They may put milk in the mug before the hot water (disown them if that is the case, this wouldn’t make a good drink). If I make them a cup of coffee, do I adopt their Workflow, or do I just do it my way?

Just do it

A business can adopt the “just do it” approach and tell each employee to get on and complete each process without imposing a Workflow or even giving any guidance on how it should be completed. The output is unlikely to be consistent and the resources consumed sub-optimal.

Consider the relatively simple process of requesting holidays. A company could establish a set of rules and delegate implementation to managers, and employees, without imposing a Workflow or even providing any guidelines.

The tasks required to apply rules, for example each employee has four-weeks holiday and holidays must be approved by a manager, could vary significantly by manager and employee.

For instance, the sales manager might say to his staff ‘just let me know when you are going to be away and do not take more than four weeks’. While the accounts manager might require completion of forms, sign-off and maintain a spreadsheet by individuals showing which days they have taken and how much holiday they have left.

The balance between visibility (knowing who was off when), efficiency (the resources consumed in managing the process) and control (compliance with the policy) would be inconsistent across the business. The output is unlikely to be consistent and the resources consumed sub-optimal.

A similar “do the right thing” approach to a more complex process, like supplier invoice processing, would have dire consequences.

Manual business processes

Most businesses operating a complex process like supplier invoice processing have a degree of consistency in their process. Be it either documented in a procedure manual or handed down by customs and practice.

The challenges normally involve exceptions and communication of the process.

The core tasks may be relatively simple. So, for example, tasks like data input from the supplier invoice into the ledgers and clerical accuracy checking of the invoices may be consistently applied. However, it is less easy to communicate the process for dealing with coding and approval. The financial controller may understand a chart of accounts but it is more challenging to deliver this knowledge to staff outside the accounting department. An authority register may be documented, but is often not a living document and approvals are signed off according to custom and practice.

In manual environments the more complex the process, the more difficult it is to communicate a set of procedures, no matter how well they are documented.

Automating the Workflow

A McKinsey report found that ’45 percent of [tasks] could be automated using already demonstrated technology’. These tasks tend to be mundane and time-consuming, crowding out the ability to perform tasks that add more value to the business, such as exception handling.

I previously mentioned that a Workflow is the chosen sequence of tasks you follow to complete a process. Automating a Workflow enables you to complete tasks either manually or using software to perform the task.

For example, the accounts payable Workflow can be automated to result in a combination of manual tasks (like invoice approval) and tasks that are performed using software (such as data capture).

This would normally begin with your suppliers submitting their invoices to a designated e-mail address as attachments. The software can then be used to separate the attachments and capture the data from them that you would normally enter into your accounting system. The documents and this data can then be placed into a Workflow that utilises a mixture of automation and human skills to complete the supplier invoice processing tasks. (We will explore this process more in our next guide.)

The Workflow removes the need for staff to know all the details of the process pushing the tasks to them. For example, the invoice approval process may involve first a project manager, then a department manager and finally a company level approval. The automated Workflow will reference the authority register to ensure each transaction follows the appropriate path in the correct sequence.

This does not remove the need for human skill and judgment. The Workflow can push tasks that involve considerable skill to individuals, such as handling exceptions in price and quantity differences.

Conclusion

Any business wanting to improve its productivity should consider the implementation of automated Workflows.

They improve efficiency by enabling mundane tasks, like data entry, to be automated, so employees can focus on value-added activities like dealing with exceptions.

Workflows deliver visibility as it is possible to see where any transaction is within the process. For instance, if a supplier calls to ask about an invoice, it is possible to immediately see that it is with a specific employee awaiting approval.

They provide control to ensure that the process is performed consistently and in accordance with policy. For example, the CEO can be certain that they see all the invoices requiring their approval. They can also be certain that invoices covered by the authorities they have delegated go to the correct employees.

Look out for our next 101 Guide to Accounts Payable Automation! Keep an eye out on our social media to see when it goes live. You can find us at Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.