Since the last half of the 2010s, workplace or workflow automation has been the primary focus in various industries, thanks to the advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics enabling automation in both knowledge and physical work.
The basic idea behind workflow automation is pretty straightforward: reducing or eliminating human involvement from executing workflows. This way, we can free up the valuable workers’ time from repetitive tasks to use their time for the tasks that matter.
If your business is still executing your work manually, it’s time to consider automating at least some of your workflows. Besides, workflow automation is also more affordable than ever, so there’s simply no reason not to automate your workflow to stay competitive.
Here, we will discuss all you need to know about workflow automation, and let us start by discussing the workflow automation concept and how it benefits your organization.
What Is Workflow Automation?
First, what is a “workflow”?
We can define a workflow as a sequence of tasks that will achieve a specific objective when completed. This sequence of tasks typically involves either transforming raw materials into a finished form (i.e., processed goods) or raw information into a processed form (i.e., an excel sheet to a completed report).
In a business environment, there are three types of workflows to consider:
- Process: a workflow with predictable steps that is also repeatable. When given the same input, it will produce the same output with minimal variations. (i.e., cost estimating process in an advertising agency)
- Project: the steps are predictable, but projects are typically one-off or non-repeatable. (i.e., developing a client’s advertising campaign in an advertising agency).
- Case: the steps are not predictable at first, and only after more information or more input is gathered, the steps will reveal themselves. (i.e., brainstorming a campaign concept with clients).
Next, what is “workflow automation”?
Automation, simply put, is how a workflow is executed automatically to reduce or even eliminate human involvement.
Workflow automation is implemented with the help of activity-based workflow management software, and typically the reduction/elimination of human involvement is performed with three main objectives:
- Lowering costs of human resources since we can replace human workers with machines or software
- Reducing risks of human errors, which is crucial in ensuring the quality of deliverables, maintaining data security, and ensuring compliance with regulations
- Freeing the time of valuable employees so they can use their core competencies on tasks that matter more
How To Implement Workflow Automation
There are two main concerns before implementing automation to a specific workflow.
- Automation is only feasible when the workflow is already efficient. Or else, automating inefficient workflows will only amplify their inefficiencies.
- Not all workflows should be automated. In some cases, there aren’t any available technologies that are capable of automating the workflow. In other cases, probably automating a workflow is too expensive. Assess the feasibility of automating the workflow before making your decision.
With these two concerns being said, we can perform workflow automation in five main steps:
Step 1: Picking a workflow to automate
The first step you should do is to pick a workflow you’d like to automate.
In general, you can pick a workflow based on three different approaches:
- Strategic: picking a workflow that would make the most impact strategically for your business
- Reactive: picking a flawed workflow (inefficient, with clear bottlenecks, etc.)
- Customer-centric: picking a workflow that will directly affect customer satisfaction (i.e., faster delivery, shorter queue)
Then, we should determine the technical viability of automating this workflow. As discussed, a workflow might be an ideal candidate for automation, but it might not be technically or financially feasible.
Step 2: Data gathering
Once you’ve picked a feasible workflow for automation, the next step is to gather as much information as you can about the workflow.
Observe how the workflow is currently executed, and interview stakeholders/team members that are directly involved in this workflow to gain information such as:
- The start and endpoints of the workflow, triggers of starting the workflow, and requirements to finish the workflow
- The exact steps required to complete the workflow
- The reasons behind each step
- Who’s responsible for each task
- Information required to finish the tasks and/or make any decisions in the workflow
The more information you get from the workflow before we move on to the next step, the better.
Step 3: Workflow mapping
Once you’ve gathered enough information about the workflow, the next step is to visualize the workflow in a workflow diagram. You can use various methods for this purpose, but the basic ANSI flowchart remains the most popular method to use.
You can start with a pen and paper to draft your workflow diagram. Still, we recommend using a workflow builder tool from workflow management and automation solution like Aproove, so you can also optimize and automate the workflow directly from the same platform.
Step 4: Workflow analysis
Once you’ve mapped the workflow diagram, we should analyze the diagram to ensure it’s as efficient as possible. Consider:
- The objective(s) and purpose(s) of the workflow
- What is the aim of optimization and automation? Minimizing error, speeding up the process, or both?
- What are the criteria for an exemplary process for this specific workflow
- Are the steps/tasks needed to fulfill the objective?
Identify bottlenecks, inefficiencies, redundancies, and develop an optimization plan for the workflow.
Step 5: Optimization
Based on the optimization plan, we implement the changes to the workflow and test whether it’s now optimal. Involve stakeholders and team members to monitor the changes whether it’s indeed more efficient than before.
Again, make sure the workflow is already as efficient as possible before automating it, or else you might need to repeat steps 4 and 5.
Step 6: Automation
Once the workflow is optimized, we can now finally implement automation. Monitor everything you’ve implemented to refine the workflow automation process.
Remember that workflow management and automation are not a one-off thing but rather a continuously improving process.
While workflow automation can undoubtedly help businesses reduce labor costs, lower the risks of human errors, and other benefits, automation will only be beneficial when the workflow is already optimized.
This is why it’s crucial first to map, analyze, and optimize the workflow to ensure it’s as efficient as possible. Only then can you implement automation to improve its efficiency further.