Large scale workflow automation deployments do pose significant challenges, leading to delay or abandonment of the strategy, but there is a viable alternative using Lean BPM’s Emergent Design Approach. Workflow automation delivers significant business benefits, and it is not difficult to see these reflected in the bottom-line numbers, but there are challenges to implementation. The push for workflow automation has traditionally been coming from the vendor side, but increasingly we are seeing customers taking the lead and seeking to deliver innovative solutions for work management.
A significant barrier to deployment of a workflow solution is time and cost, however where you are operating in such tightly constrained environments where budget and resources are not available, this should not pose a deal breaker. We have continuously advocated against “Big Bang” deployments of Lean BPM, task management, and workflow automation solutions using our own solution, HighGear. This is because it is capable of being deployed at speed and in bite-sized chunks. The simplicity, speed and agility of Lean BPM tools means they can be immediately placed over your existing workflows and processes without requiring IT involvement.
We have covered the principles of Lean BPM in an earlier post, so I won’t go into detail here on this.
The key to understanding why you should be deploying workflow automation using a Lean BPM solution, is due to low-code and no-code BPM technology developments. The ability to corral a part of a business process, and bring it from the realm of shadow processes into the light is now possible, desirable and feasible. Small investments of time and resources are required to deploy HighGear as a workflow platform to tackle problem areas, however it leaves open the door to scaling the solution across the whole enterprise as you bring subsequent parts of your business processes under its umbrella.
We call this an Emergent Process approach and it has significant advantages for bringing business workflows under control. For instance, the traditional approach is to map out your existing processes, which may be problematical, particularly if there are poor controls in place, however a workflow solution employing Lean BPM techniques does not require this.
How can non-technical, business people do this?
Lean BPM tools do not require specialist coders, developers, expensive consultants or your IT team to manage them. Instead, they they are designed to be used by the business person working with the process, e.g. a business analyst or team supervisor, plus they are agile, fast, and cost much less. We have written about the rise of the Citizen Developer in the past and you can read more about this concept here. Gartner defines a Citizen Developer as someone with business skills, as opposed to IT- or coding-skills, who is able to create and manage workflows themselves, within a secure environment sanctioned by the IT department.
This means the people responsible for existing workflows and processes are now able to be the ones who “map” them within the Lean BPM tool, effectively mapping the real world whether the production workflows are working well or not.
You will probably be familiar with the situation of team leaders, process professionals and your staff being thrown into a white board room to work out what the business workflows and processes actually are. Typically, these sessions uncover the depth of misunderstanding that exists within the organization, as managers fail to understand what is actually happening down on the ground to get work done. This problem is then amplified the further removed managers become, with senior management and the C-suite unable to grasp any granular vision of how work actually gets done.
Using HighGear, your whiteboard is the Visual Workflow Designer, which is familiar to anyone who has used Visio, and your existing workflows can be drawn using drag-and-drop directly into the user interface.
But what makes workflow functionality within a Lean BPM tool differ from a process mapping tool?
Where Lean BPM workflow tools differ from the likes of Visio and process mapping tools, is that they are also capable of pushing the ‘mapped’ workflow into a live, operational state. This includes the creation of associated tasks, QA loops, reporting, resource utilization, staffing availability and more. In addition, the door is now open for you to start introducing measurement and establishing KPIs, precisely because you now have visibility on the actual workflow itself.
In practice, your workflows and processes gradually emerge from the shadows, and even where the existing process is not mapped accurately, it is simple to make the appropriate changes. With Lean BPM tools, they are designed to be used directly by the business user, and making changes within the Visual Workflow is performed as easily as moving Post-It notes around on a white board (remember, no technical skills are needed to use it.)
Once you have part of your workflow and processes under control, measurement indicators may be put in place, and now you have opened the door to process optimization. Beyond this well-worn pathway to process optimization, there is the issue of adding further chunks of the workflow, or other processes into the tool. I would argue that this is a more significant aspect of Lean BPM, because until you have visibility on your processes, it is extraordinarily difficult to measure and therefore improve upon them. You may be able to improve part of a workflow upon which you have gained visibility, but there are frequently instances where making improvements in one part of a process may give rise to negative results somewhere else.
All workflows and processes are joined in some fashion, but the connections are not always clear to either senior management nor to the people working with them. By identifying related adjoining or parallel workflows, these too can now be brought under the workflow management platform using exactly the same approach as was done initially. Slowly, workflow component by component, or process by process, more of the work activity in your organization can be replicated within the Lean BPM Visual Workflow. Not only do the intricacies of an individual workflow component become visible and controllable, but so too do the relationships with other workflows, and eventually those workflows themselves.
Eventually, you will create a holistic view of your workflows and processes, though done in an incremental way which allows you to start small, and think big from there.
What this means in a business sense is that you do not need to marshal the resources and big budgets for a traditional workflow solution to be deployed. You can start small and grow from there as the obvious benefits of workflow automation start making themselves apparent.
How Workflow Automation Supports a Lean Approach
Applying Lean in practice typically means an external team of highly paid consultants, or an internal team, with no direct experience of the actual work involved, is dropped into an operation or department. They spend a lot of time getting to know the work, with the well intentioned hope of being able to identify areas for improvement in an objective and documented fashion. They may or may not be welcomed as providers of business workflow salvation, or more likely, will probably meet a good deal of resistance from people who think, “This is the way we always did it, why change now?” or are just plain obstinate for a variety of reasons. The Lean team come up with changes, that may or may not be implemented well within the target operation, and then they leave.
For a while, the workflow changes may be followed, but quickly or slowly, there is almost always degradation of the new process approach and a reversion back to the old way of working. I wrote about this very issue with the DMAIC approach, and how there is a desperate need for effective control to be in place once the improvement specialists have gone.
This is where a Lean BPM workflow tool like HighGear can really make a difference to the application of a Lean approach to work. For instance, HighGear not only takes the workflow created by your team and pushes it into a live, operational state, it also acts as the compliance, reporting and notification tool.
A good example of this in practice is that tasks may not be closed down or marked as completed unless certain mandatory actions are completed. Mandatory actions may include simply marking a checkbox off, or may require changes to a source document which is following the work piece through the process, or indeed it may require the uploading of a digital artifact, such as a photograph, to show and evidence the state of a work item. This means you are able to bake-in your compliance and policy rules directly into the workflows themselves, such that the workflow automation tool not only shows you work passing through a process, but it is also acting as the boundary lines within which work must be conducted.
Furthermore, notification functionality means that where exceptional situations occur, the appropriate person is notified immediately, but Lean BPM workflow goes further. Once identified, an issue can either be routed to an appropriate manager or team, trigger additional workflow to document the exceptional instance, or simply generate a management or compliance notification text, email, or sophisticated report.
Workflow Automation as the Basis for Digitization
One of the major benefits of workflow automation is that the information regarding your processes is now maintained digitally, which means you can apply advanced reporting and Business Intelligence (BI) techniques to your data. More than this, you can access information and data much faster, leading to actionable recommendations being created and acted upon much faster. Opportunities can be identified more quickly and risk impact can be minimized or avoided altogether.
In keeping with a Lean approach, all of these workflow automation benefits can be achieved without imposing additional burdens on staff, and indeed they themselves can be automated while requiring a fraction of the time and resources to perform. In other words, we can eliminate much of the waste associated with compliance, notification and reporting activities, which is in addition to the usually advertised workflow benefits of standardization and so on.
A Lean BPM tool will also simply and easily integrate with other business systems, which means we can eliminate the wastes associated with managing and using multiple business systems. It is a common issue with any workflow geared towards knowledge workers that in order to complete a task the worker must access multiple systems and work documentation to complete even a standard task.
Imagine if you will, the harassed worker who must have four, five, six or more screens and applications open on their work station in order to complete a task. They are typically identified by their constant demands for faster computers, a larger PC screen or multiple monitors and a swivel chair that doesn’t squeak!
Now imagine the same worker needing to open only one application, a workflow automation platform, which automatically accesses the appropriate information needed to complete a given task. The workflow platform accesses the disparate business applications and systems behind the scenes, without user intervention or a constant opening and closing of apps. The worker now focuses upon exercising judgment and completion of work, not a constant juggling between business systems and all done at a much faster pace.
- Workflow automation delivers significant benefits, however there are significant challenges with large-scale deployments, which means many organizations have delayed or cancelled work automation altogether.
- HighGear adopts an emergent design approach, which means you can deploy in a piecemeal fashion, bringing workflows and processes under control incrementally.
- Lean BPM technology developments mean that non-technical people can now wield business tools, such as Visual Workflow tools, to map their workflows directly into a platform that can then push them into a live, operational state (with zero or minimal IT or coding support).
- HighGear’s workflow automation functionality includes Visual Workflow, task management, custom form designer, resource utilization, staff resource allocation, contact management, compliance and Audit Trail, notification, collaboration and advanced reporting, notification and BI capabilities.
- HighGear supports a Lean approach by eliminating much of the waste associated with deploying a traditional workflow solution, speeding up workflow mapping and design, and ensuring an effective control is put in place after any improvement efforts are made.