The Value of a Workflow

Everyone needs to know that they’re working on something of real value.

In the early days of a process automation project, it can be very tempting to jump in and start building the workflow immediately. It can certainly be a fun way to learn the software, and I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you did, but you may be missing a valuable opportunity. Everyone has colleagues they need to get onboard, or a client who has to approve a budget, so you’ll likely need to present more than just a working prototype – you’ll probably need to present your project in terms of the real value it will add to the bottom line.

Define the Business Objectives

No matter how humble you think a workflow is, it’s important to clarify the business objectives. Keep checking in with them throughout the project and use them to judge the success of your project when it’s over. This is especially important if you’re working on a workflow for a client because the value to the client will affect how much you get paid. Whether your customer is internal, external or your own business, it’s always good practice keep the objectives at the forefront of your mind.

A business objective might be, for example:

  • Save time or money
  • Reduce turnaround times
  • Monitor and improve performance or response times
  • Gain a clearer vision of what’s happening at each step in the process

Businesses processes can nearly always be improved. Remember that automated workflows will often replace chaotic ad hoc systems based on email or spreadsheets. Sometimes they’ll replace an inefficient system implemented using a proprietary software package that’s too expensive to maintain. Either way, the value generated by a well-thought-out and well-implemented workflow can be relatively enormous and users are generally extremely grateful and relieved to receive the improvement.

Calculating the Return on Investment (ROI)

The true value of a workflow is always a lot more than the tangible sum of its parts but sometimes it’s necessary to calculate the estimated ROI for a business case or budget. Even if you’re building the workflow for yourself, it’s still a great process to go through because it can give even more ideas for improvement. It’ll also help refine the requirements and mitigate risks before you get started.

It’s surprisingly straightforward to estimate the ROI. Once you’ve identified all of the people involved in the process, find out how long each person takes to perform each task. You can do this by sitting next to them with a stopwatch or, more realistically, just ask them for their best estimate. Break down their tasks and identify the parts which will be improved once the automated workflow is in place.

For example, even a simple process such as vacation request approval can be fairly painful process if it still involves printing out a form and getting manual signatures. Even if printers are strategically placed throughout the office to minimise walking time there’s still a significant amount of time and money involved in the whole process of printing a document – think of printer driver and authentication issues, waiting for your document to get to the front of the queue and printer maintenance (time lost due to paper jams and toner replacement; you could dig out technical service invoices and calculate a sensible proportion). Once you’ve got your printed document you need to arrange to get it signed. This often involves meeting time or further administrative burden. The paper will then need to work it way to HR ready for processing and then archiving. For a single vacation request it’s easy to dismiss the cost – but multiply it over the total number of vacation requests across the organisation, over the period of a year or two and it really builds up – it’s a significant cost which only increases exponentially over time. All this is quantifiable and actionable information.

I’ve seen entire rooms, floors and even buildings dedicated to paper storage – space that was eventually freed up for productive use or let go. I’ve seen turnaround times reduced from weeks to days resulting in a significant impact on the bottom line. I’ve witnessed productivity improvements that have led to people upgrading career paths (never let go). I’ve received delighted emails from customers who’ve finally managed to free themselves from expensive proprietary systems that were difficult and cumbersome to maintain. I’ve also seen the operations of online businesses based entirely on automated processes.

The ROI can sometimes seem so enormous, and so obvious, that the business case is a no-brainer, just common sense, but it may not always appear that way to everyone, especially at first. If you sit out and work on some numbers, the value will be clear long after the initial excitement starts to wane. Once the users start taking the workflow for granted it will become an integral and vital part of the way your organisation does business. Of course, that’s when the real ROI starts to kick in.

If you have any questions about how business process automation can improve your organisation, please get in touch.

Steve Henty

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