When discussing how a business operates – how folks in the company go about the business of getting work done – the conversation almost always boils down to a discussion of the problems, conditions and challenges to consistently getting the work right and on time.
Sometimes the focus is on people and other times it is on resources or processes, but the underlying context is that there are kinks in the line which interrupt the flow. When the flow is interrupted, bad things can happen.
The flow in business is the workflow: those strung-together processes which make up the work and form the operation.
The workflow guides workers in the performance of their jobs, informing them about who is supposed to do what when, and sometimes even why.
Structured and managed workflow drives the 3 E’s in business: Efficiency, Effectiveness and Evolution.
In almost every discussion about structuring work and documenting processes and procedures, the terms “efficient” and “effective” come up. In fact, it is hard to have a conversation on these subjects without running into those terms. Most organizations recognize that worker efficiency and process effectiveness are guided and informed by structured workflows, so desk reference guides and operations manuals become the norm. What may be somewhat less obvious is the evolutionary aspect of modeling business workflows, where improvements small and large may be uncovered or identified at any level of work while it is being described and modeled. A solid workflow management system serves to remove any memory impairment in a business, memorializing not just the process but its result as part of the historic record of the business. This data assists in supporting ongoing process evolution, ensuring continued alignment with changing business conditions and goals.
Modeling the operation and applying conditional elements like timing and resource availability can make the difference between useful guidance and a semi-useful handbook of procedures.
As business conditions change so does the workflow. Unlike with printed manuals, the software system that is used to structure workflows and provide worker guidance can also supply data necessary to support change. Using a software solution to manage workflow creates an agility in the business that is necessary to make meaningful adjustments when it matters –prior to or with change, rather than far after.
This article is the 3rd in series, and focuses on how business workflows are supported and informed by the right software solution. Even more, that activity tracking and process controls should be part of the structure and foundation for worker activities, where workers perform their job functions while the systems that guide them capture meaningful information regarding those activities and transactions.
The thesis is that creating structured workflows not only informs workers what is expected of them and when, but the act of creating and updating the workflows helps identify disconnected processes, finds missing process data, smooths cross-functional transitions, and identifies missing or ineffectual policies. There are numerous conversations and interactions that wrap around or influence every activity and transaction. The goal is modeling the business and workflows in a way that not only defines worker activities but also connects those activities (transactions) to the related documents, contacts, policies and other data involved or impacted.
Whether there are a few or many individuals involved in the business, there are tasks and activities which must be performed in particular order and manner.
For a few people to efficiently and effectively manage the work, it is essential that there be clarity in what should happen and when and by whom it is to be done. It may seem that crafting workflow systems to guide these activities could be overkill, where a few people could communicate directly and let each other know what and when. Really, it only seems that way and typically only when things are going just right. Change a factor or condition or make an individual unavailable to perform the work and things can change dramatically. What was once a seemingly straightforward operation becomes mysteriously ineffective when critical players or information are no longer available.
Without structure to guide and support the entire organization, any part may fail to perform when the essential elements holding the process together are removed. The result is dis-satisfaction with the work as well as the result. In the end, it means reduced performance reflected as lower productivity, lower work quality, lower customer satisfaction levels, and lower profits. As with any legend or lore, details in the “tribal knowledge” are lost over time and what was once trusted and workable ultimately fails in the face of progress.
These truths became the focus of a conversation with Jerie Harrell of Small Business Solutions LLC (SBS) based in Huntsville, Alabama. Jerie works with Bob Crook, also known as “QB Bob,” and his team of certified consultants offering on-site and remote setup, training, instruction, and ongoing maintenance of QuickBooks financial solutions for small to mid-sized businesses. SBS prides themselves on forming long-term relationships with their clients. According to Jerie, the team “is always there after the sale; we don’t walk away after a customer buys from us”.
“I often tell clients we are like an Oreo cookie, with the accountant on one side and the client business on the other” Jerie says. ”We’re the creamy center that holds everybody together and makes things work together. The client’s business is more efficient and gets things done faster with our support, and the accountant gets better data”.
Keeping things coordinated with the consultants, supporting clients and managing ordering and other activities keeps Jerie very busy most days. Layer into those responsibilities the added requirement to plan for expansion and train new personnel and the workload gets even bigger. There is a lot of information to manage, lots of procedures to work through, and the regular work needs to be done completely, accurately and in a timely manner or the machine breaks down and customers don’t get the products or services they need when they need them. Just thinking about taking a vacation or maybe even retiring causes chills to run up and down her spine because Jerie knows she has more work to do before that could really happen. This is where the discussion about workflow and process support really started.
Jerie knows that you have to “keep things simple and keep the flow simple” in order to get everyone to participate. Her background in process analysis and improvement is really helpful to the business, because it enforces the understanding that things need to be fully documented and communicated clearly. “If you get things written down.. the processes and procedures, then the staff can be more efficient and effective. They get more work done, production goes up, sales go up, and then you can hire more people. “
Speaking of hiring new people, this is another area that Jerie knows she needs to address and is among the reasons for looking at a structured workflow system. Also, while the idea of retirement sounds increasingly attractive on some days, the challenge is that Jerie’s job has been developed over many years and there isn’t a comprehensive guide to how she does it all. She has created a way of working and a flow that meets the needs of the business, and transitioning all that knowledge is no small endeavor. “Having things structured and documented is the key. I always have procedure manuals on every desk, but that doesn’t cover everything. The workflow, time management, and the underlying processes should be visible to others because even if a key person isn’t available, business still has to go on”.
Looking at CRM and workflow solutions, and specifically at the Synergy Enterprise system from Exact Software, is the next big step in solving the workflow problem and setting up the business to learn more from its activities.
“Transparency in the workflows and processes allows you to analyze them, identify bottlenecks and where improvements can be made” says Jerie.
“It’s like TQM (Total Quality Management) embedded in the CRM: you manage from the bottom up. When I look at CRM, I really see workflow. It’s everything in the business: everyone is a customer… even your boss is a customer, and the goal is to provide great customer support throughout the organization. I try to help inform management about work performance, but there are a lot of issues that are intertwined. How do you measure that without a good system?”
Summing things up, Jerie suggests that implementing Synergy in a business might be similar to using something like Google Analytics to analyze and understand website activity. She asks “why not track the activities performed in everyday business? Why did the customer not buy from you and what needs to happen to change that outcome? You need to know more!”
All three E’s are there, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.