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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