Workflow 101: A Framework for Business Process Automation

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When I mention that I consult on work flow automation for a living, I get a number of questions. What does work flow automation mean? Do you have to be an expert in all industries to be a work flow consultant? How do you do that?

I will start by addressing what work flow automation is. Work flow automation, simply put, is the reviewing of steps in a business process and streamlining the process through the use of advanced computer technologies, including work flow applications. With that in mind, I will answer the how-to questions by going through, step-by-step, a hypothetical work flow automation project. This hypothetical project will provide an outline that can be used to begin a work flow analysis.

Step One: Determine Project Objectives

Just like any project that you are asked to do, you need to figure out what it is the employees are supposed to be doing. In work flow analysis, the intended goal is typically one of the following: streamlining the business process, eliminating wasted effort, or performing more work with the same people. Once the end result is established, a mission statement can be written for the project. The mission statement will serve as a framework for future analysis, and need not be shared with employees or management unless required.

For the sake of this discussion, I will assume that the task at hand is to streamline the quoting and ordering process for a hypothetical manufacturing company named Bubba Inc. The company’s stated objective for this project is to reduce the amount of time required to generate a competitive bid.

Step Two: Collect Business Process Information from the Affected Departments

Once the project’s mission statement has been developed, conducting a walkthrough of the current business process is an invaluable means for documenting the existing processes. So, for this project, I will conduct a walkthrough with the order department at Bubba Inc.

The walkthrough begins with identifying and interviewing key decision-makers. At Bubba Inc. that includes the director of the order department. The goal of the decision-

maker interviews is to discuss management objectives for the project. Begin by carefully listening to management’s thoughts, concerns, and goals.

After the management interviews are completed, a walkthrough of the department should be conducted. Be careful to observe physical work flows, including paper movement and routing, copy machine activity, fax transmissions, and general activities in the department.

During the walkthrough, talk to the employees who are doing the actual work in the department. These interviews serve two purposes:

• Giving you an overall understanding of what the detailed work is for staff members

• Providing staff members with an opportunity to participate in the development of the improved processes

Step Three: Hold an As-is Process Documentation Session

After the conclusion of the management interviews and the walkthrough, an as-is session should be conducted. This session will bring together representatives in the department to identify and sequence the steps in the current business process. It is vital that representatives from every area participate in this session. Often, the best ideas for automating a business process can come from the people that do the work on a day-to-day basis. Their insight is imperative; with a little coaxing by an experienced facilitator, the synergy from this group can be powerful.

Develop an agenda for the session to maintain order and facilitate discussion. The agenda can be very simple or quite detailed depending on the group. For the Bubba Inc. project, the following agenda will be followed:
1. Hold introductions
2. Establish rules and parameters for the meetings
3. Explain how the session will run
4. Discuss the current order and quote process
5. Discuss the bottlenecks in the current process
6. Conduct product and platform selection
7. Develop a new process without technology or cost limitations
8. Develop a realistic new process

The first item on the agenda is to hold introductions. It is useful to have the executive sponsor of the project begin the process by briefly explaining the purpose of the meeting. Afterwards, control of the session should be turned over to the work flow consultant who will serve as the facilitator. The facilitator should go around the room and request that each person introduce himself by stating not only his name but also his job description (not title, but tasks) and provide additional information, such as length of service. These introductions will provide participants with an understanding of the expertise that the other team members are bringing to the meeting.

Next, the rules of the session should be established. These rules, which are by no means mandatory, help to solicit feedback from the group and lay out a construct for the team. Some typical session rules can include the following:
• Check titles at the door. Every employee’s opinion is the same, from president to janitor.
• Silence is consent. If you don’t speak up, you agree with what is said.
• Any tangent conversations should be limited to 5 minutes.
• There is no dumb question. The best ideas come from the synergy of the group, so ask anytime you do not understand.

• Ask only one discussion at a time. Respect others when they are talking.

Step Four: Diagram and Document the Current Process

This phase entails creating a diagram or chart of the existing process. One approach is to create a flexible work flow charting system by covering the walls of the meeting room with white paper applied with a spray-on adhesive. This adhesive, available in most office supply stores, allows participants to stick index cards directly on the white paper and move the cards around if need be. All meeting participants are given index cards. These cards are used to document individual steps in the current process.

At this point, the facilitator begins by asking a participant to go through the entire process as it exists today. Each of the identified steps becomes an index card placed on the charting system. See Figure 1 (page 34) for the existing order and quoting process for Bubba Inc.

Step Five: Document the Bottlenecks

After discussing the steps of the current process and documenting the entire scenario with index cards and white paper, the next step is to discuss the bottlenecks in the current environment. At Bubba Inc., a few of the bottlenecks and inefficient processes include the following:
• Manually writing down the customers’ contact information
• Manually retrieving the paper file
• Returning the phone call to the customer to begin getting details
• Manually retrieving the fax
• Manually copying and delivering the sketch and information to the art, accounting, purchasing, and manufacturing departments
• Manually contacting the three bidding companies and placing the follow-up calls to them
• Manually coordinating all of the information back into a quote sheet
• Manually print and fax the quote information back to the customer

Step Six: Develop the Proposed, Streamlined Business Process

After the current process is documented and the bottlenecks identified, development can begin on the new business processes. The goal throughout the redesign phase is to determine where technology can be used to alleviate the bottlenecks.

Figure 2 (page 34) depicts the revised order and quotation work flow for Bubba Inc.’s business process.

Step Seven: Develop Work Flow Process Design Document

The new business process looks quite different from the current system. With the addition of a few advanced technologies, a lot of phone calls and a ton of walking around (or sneakernet) can be eliminated. At this point, the view of the new process is used to develop a design document. This document will be used not only as the blueprint for the new process, but also as a way to communicate the new system to management.

The outline for the design document can have the following sections:
• Executive overview—Provide a one-page high-level brief of what is being done and why.
• Current process—Document the as-is process.
• New process—Explain in detail the proposed new process.
• Any advanced technologies to be used—Define things such as image, work flow tools, automated fax, Computer Output to Laser Disk (COLD), and groupware.

This design document should be developed to a level of detail that the project team can begin developing the system from it. Ensure that database interfaces, program modifications, and new applications are discussed in enough detail to keep the project going.

A Note About Work Flow Product and Platform Selection

Work flow automation, or knowledge management, tools have changed a lot over the last few years. The products required to build an automated work flow system used to be sold as separate components, including imaging, COLD, document management, and work flow. Now these tools are being packaged as software suites for use as an integrated toolkit. Knowledge management packages are now bundling imaging, document management, work flow, and COLD technologies into an integrated solution.

There are thousands of companies that provide knowledge management products. Your company has to select one that will best fit its needs and long-term goals. This choice is never easy, but once the decision is made, embrace the technology company and focus on making it work for you. The following is a list of a few criteria for selecting a work flow automation product:
• How long has the company been around?
• Does it provide services to help during installation?
• What support options exist?
• Does it identify a list of success stories in my industry?
• How many installed customers does the vendor have?
• Who is the vendor’s biggest customer, and how many seats does that customer have?
• What are the typical “gotchas” in implementing a work flow project with this product?
• What platforms, both server and client, does the company require?
• Does it identify a list of features and functions of the product?

Client Server vs. Application Server—The Big Debate

In the earlier days of work flow, late 80s and early 90s, knowledge management products had a similar two-tier technology architecture. The server would house all of the database information while the client would have a large, resource-intensive client application running on it. This approach required extensive installation, configuration, and support to bring the application online. The hardware requirements for the client software were extensive. Client software updates usually required an evaluation of each user workstation to ensure that the newest release was installed and functioning properly. The emergence of application server technology has reduced some of these burdens.

Application servers currently use a three-tier technique: a database server, an application server, and a thin client. In this scenario, the application is actually hosted and run from the application server and the client workstation merely runs a Web browser. While at a cursory glance this seems to be a better solution, the application server needs to be maintained and handled with care. In the two-tier approach a single client can be down, and production of just one person is lost; with the three-tier approach, if one is down, all are down.

Both approaches have their inherent limitations. Choose the approach that best fits into your overall information technology plan.

Step Eight: Develop the Automated Work Flow

After the design document is completed, this work flow automation project begins to look like most other projects. By acquiring the right resources, you can begin to build the new system based on the new process designs. The key to success during the development phase is to get the right resources for the job.

Step Nine: Train, Train, Train

Business process automation often results in dramatic change, including the elimination of paper shuffling, photocopy activity, and sneakernet delivery systems. These changes can be somewhat intimidating to users. Do not skimp on the training.

The users who do not have a PC on their desks will require additional training. In this situation, one approach is to set up a PC in the breakroom a month ahead of training and allow those employees without PCs to explore it. Be sure to include applications that

invite exploration (perhaps including Solitaire). This may seem simplistic, but think about the skills that can be developed from playing this game. Access to this community PC will permit the PC nonuser to learn to use the mouse to click, drag, and drop in a nonthreatening environment—facilitating PC training later.

With the fear of the PC eased, the work flow application training can begin. Work flow automation training is unique to the company and its application. When developing training materials, keep your user population and its current skill set in mind. Remember that these applications and processes are new to your users, and the users will need to understand how the applications and process works. While simply taking the paper out of an employee’s hands and providing electronic document and work flow routing seems simple, these changes dramatically affect the way employees work. Take time to explain every step of the process. Do not use the silence-is-consent rule during the training phase. Instead, treat silence as a request to explain the process again.

Roll Out and Monitor

After the system is built and tested and the users are trained, the new system can be rolled out into production. You can improve your success rate by having sufficient support resources available for the actual launch date. Many companies have a help desk to field support calls from users. If so, try to have help desk people at the site if at all possible. A quick response to a question can eliminate bad experiences and user frustration.

Finally, keep these points in mind for any work flow project.
• Always get firm commitment for the work flow project.
• The users are the experts in any business process.
• Train, train, train.
• You can never provide too much support during rollout of a new work flow project.

1. A customer calls a customer service rep (CSR) and asks for a quote.
2. CSR takes the customer name and contact information and concludes call.
3. CSR researches paper files in file cabinet system and locates the old customer folder.
4. CSR calls the customer back.
5. CSR asks the customer to send facsimile sketch, collects customer information, and concludes call.
6. CSR retrieves the facsimile from the machine and compiles quote request form for customer quote.
7. CSR places the sketch along with the quote request into a paper-based quote request file.
8. CSR makes a copy of the quote request file for the art department.
9. CSR walks a copy of the quote request file to the art department.
10. Art department manager reviews the sketch.
11. Art department employee walks the quote request file to accounting.
12. Accounting department employee reviews the quote request file.
13. Accounting walks the quote request file to purchasing.
14. Purchasing department employee reviews quote request file to determine material requirements.
15. Purchasing department employee contacts three companies for competitive bids for materials.
16. Purchasing department employee makes a tickler note to follow up with the three supplier companies in a couple of days to check on status of the bids.
17. Purchasing department employee calls the supplier companies back (can happen several times) to get quotation data.
18. Purchasing department employee alerts manufacturing of potential order.
19. Purchasing department employee calls vendors again to follow up on the bids (finally getting an answer).
20. CSR collects data from art, accounting, purchasing, and manufacturing for quotation.
21. CSR creates a quote from all of the gathered information.
22. CSR calls and sends the quote to the customer by facsimile.

Figure 1: Here is the order and quoting process for Bubba Inc.

1. Customer completes an online form from the Bubba Inc. Web site, or calls a CSR who can complete the form.
2. CSR electronically pulls all supporting documents, including faxes.
3. The online form initiates a work flow.
4. Past files are pulled from optical disk and attached to the electronic folder.
5. Art, purchasing, and manufacturing departments receive information online.
6. A quoting spreadsheet is created automatically.
7. Online parameters drive the direction of the work flow.
8. Vendors automatically send a bid request via email.
9. Work flow is pended as Awaiting Reply From Vendor.
10. Vendors are automatically emailed every few hours until reply sent.
11. Meanwhile, if the order is complex, a query is sent to other company experts for input.
12. Vendors return quotes via email or Web site.
13. Data is compiled and quote is completed automatically.
14. Quote is automatically emailed to customer.
15. Customer responds with an order.

Figure 2: This is the revised order and quotation work flow for Bubba Inc.



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  • Inside the Integrated File System (IFS)

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericDuring this webinar, you’ll learn basic tips, helpful tools, and integrated file system commands—including WRKLNK—for managing your IFS directories and Access Client Solutions (ACS). We’ll answer your most pressing IFS questions, including:

    • What is stored inside my IFS directories?
    • How do I monitor the IFS?
    • How do I replicate the IFS or back it up?
    • How do I secure the IFS?

    Understanding what the integrated file system is and how to work with it must be a critical part of your systems management plans for IBM i.


  • Expert Tips for IBM i Security: Beyond the Basics

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

    Don't miss this chance to take your knowledge of IBM i security beyond the basics.



  • 5 IBM i Security Quick Wins

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn today’s threat landscape, upper management is laser-focused on cybersecurity. You need to make progress in securing your systems—and make it fast.
    There’s no shortage of actions you could take, but what tactics will actually deliver the results you need? And how can you find a security strategy that fits your budget and time constraints?
    Join top IBM i security expert Robin Tatam as he outlines the five fastest and most impactful changes you can make to strengthen IBM i security this year.
    Your system didn’t become unsecure overnight and you won’t be able to turn it around overnight either. But quick wins are possible with IBM i security, and Robin Tatam will show you how to achieve them.

  • How to Meet the Newest Encryption Requirements on IBM i

    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption



  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.



  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access




  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.


  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.



  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.



  • Node Webinar Series Pt. 1: The World of Node.js on IBM i

    SB Profound WC GenericHave you been wondering about Node.js? Our free Node.js Webinar Series takes you from total beginner to creating a fully-functional IBM i Node.js business application.
    Part 1 will teach you what Node.js is, why it's a great option for IBM i shops, and how to take advantage of the ecosystem surrounding Node.
    In addition to background information, our Director of Product Development Scott Klement will demonstrate applications that take advantage of the Node Package Manager (npm).
    Watch Now.

  • The Biggest Mistakes in IBM i Security

    SB Profound WC Generic The Biggest Mistakes in IBM i Security
    Here’s the harsh reality: cybersecurity pros have to get their jobs right every single day, while an attacker only has to succeed once to do incredible damage.
    Whether that’s thousands of exposed records, millions of dollars in fines and legal fees, or diminished share value, it’s easy to judge organizations that fall victim. IBM i enjoys an enviable reputation for security, but no system is impervious to mistakes.
    Join this webinar to learn about the biggest errors made when securing a Power Systems server.
    This knowledge is critical for ensuring integrity of your application data and preventing you from becoming the next Equifax. It’s also essential for complying with all formal regulations, including SOX, PCI, GDPR, and HIPAA
    Watch Now.

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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.