From a local independent grocer to a multinational corporation, all businesses have processes and as a result, all businesses have workflows.  In its simplest definition, a workflow is a series of activities necessary to complete a task.  Whether it is labeled as such or not, sending an intern to pick up coffee for the Monday morning meeting is a workflow.  This is of course less critical than the workflow followed by the accounting team to distribute invoices and collect payments, however one could argue that the presence of caffeine on a Monday morning also directly impacts the productivity of a business.

Establishing and adapting workflows across all areas of business and not limiting the efforts to the core functions of each department will result in a multitude of improvements across the organization as a whole.  There are a few key best practices to consider when undergoing a workflow establishment and improvement initiatives.
Baseline the process before moving forward.
When analyzing a process you are already familiar with, it may seem like a waste of time to map out the current state when improvements are already apparent.  Creating a baseline state will help you track future efficiencies without the difficulty of comparing moving parts to other moving parts.  Additionally, the visualization of a process may aid in locating improvements and gaps more efficiently, especially in cases where a workflow may be interdependent on a separate process and collaboration between departments is required.
Rely on technology, but not IT.
Technology makes most processes more efficient, and utilizing a digital workflow system is an important step forward in improving business processes.  The challenge emerges when the software is too complex and not customizable, and relies on IT to do heavy lifting when creating or updating a workflow.  Utilizing a system with a flat learning curve that offers easily customizable templates that can be used by the layman will ensure that processes do be not become delayed or static due to a disconnect between the process owner and technology owner.
Develop workflows using input from employees, customer, suppliers, and all other involved users.
Consider the entities that operate not only internally, but also influence the process inputs and outputs.  Aligning with all users will eliminate the risk of a process improvement in one area leading to a delay or inefficiency in a separate area.  For example, if the first step in a process is for Employee A to place invoice data in a specialized excel template, however Supplier A could easily run their invoice report to fit that template without the need for manipulation by Employee A, a full step could be avoided simply by opening the lines of communication.

Actively seek emerging best practices.
While IT needs can be a common cause for stagnation, shunning best practices and market intelligence is equally as problematic in maintaining workflows.  As technologies, training, and business practices improve, the workflow should be updated to take advantage of these opportunities and avoid antiquated practices that prevent growth.  This will also give users insight into a workflow becoming obsolete and needing reconstruction.
Utilizing these principles across all business segments will lead to both hard and soft improvements in processes.  To further explore just how transformative workflows can be to an organization, keep an eye out for Part II of this blog series Advantages of Workflow Applications across an Organization.
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Jennifer Engel

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