Optimizing Business Processes through Automation

Kimberly Watson Hemphill, President, Firefly Consulting
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Based on our experience working with both large, multi-national companies as well as smaller operations, our recommendation to improve the acceptance and appeal of workflow management is to begin the project with process improvement. The goal would be to make the processes more efficient, before trying to move them into workflow management systems. The investment required for new systems can be extensive, and beginning with an optimized process allows the new system to provide both a better user experience and also to be more cost effective.

  ​Value-stream mapping, or process mapping with data, is a great tool for increasing shared understanding and uncovering improvement opportunities  

Benefits of process optimization prior to system implementation include:

• Improved user acceptance, as the new process is streamlined and efficient
• Increased ROI of the workflow system
• Better process planning up front avoids the need for future redesign
• With upfront process work, we avoid the situation where the proposed new system was really a Band Aid for other problems, and wouldn’t have addressed the real issue anyway

This is especially true when workflow management is supporting customized solutions. In an environment with a high need for customization, the process is particularly important and user input is critical. A need for customization without a focus on process improvement typically drives complexity, high system costs, over-designed systems, and excessive bureaucracy.

An approach to achieving an optimized process is the lean methodology, ESSA (eliminate, simplify, standardize, automate). We never want to automate something that could be simplified, or in some cases, completely eliminated!

To understand what could be eliminated, simplified, and standardized, engage with participants working in the current process. Generally, individuals working in their job know a lot about what they’re supposed to be doing, but they do not necessarily have any detail about adjacent processes either upstream or downstream. Work with a team with knowledge of the end to end process that will be improved. Value-stream mapping, or process mapping with data, is a great tool for increasing shared understanding and uncovering improvement opportunities. In a value-stream mapping session, participants are recruited from across the entire process to provide input on how the current process is working.

Recently we worked with a large healthcare organization to implement a workflow management system in one of their core processes. By utilizing the ESSA methodology, we were able to reduce the process from 288 steps to just 35 steps! The new process had substantially fewer handoffs, eliminating many opportunities for errors and reducing the overall lead time to the customer by 60 percent. When the new workflow management system was implemented, the development time and cost was fraction of the original estimate, and the users, who had been involved in the improvement process, were engaged and enthusiastic about the new technology.

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