Thursday, 21 May 2015

Taking the Wank out of Workflow

Workflow is the latest buzzword.

So what is this new phenomenon that has people all excited? Perhaps the best way to answer is with some examples.

Printers have traditionally placed the customer's documents into a brown paper bag, with the job processing stages printed on the front. Each stage was signed off by the operator and the job passed to the next stage. They have been doing this almost since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440.

Assembly lines organise the workflows in factories. They were doing this even before Henry Ford introduced his conveyor belt driven model in 1913.

My mechanic is a sole operator, who issues handwritten invoices, which list all the steps required to service the car. Mechanics started using this type of incoice soon after Ford built the first Model T.

These are all workflow management systems.

If you have ever worked in an office, you would be familiar with the Policies and Procedures Manual, even if you only ever used it as a doorstop. It is just another workflow management system.

What is Workflow?

It is, “The automation of a business process, in whole or part, during which documents, information or tasks are passed from one participant [human being or machine] to another for action, according to a set of procedural rules. “(e-Workflow). In plain English, it is a set of standard procedures which ensure that all steps in a job are completed in the right order and moved on to the next stage.

This is exactly what’s been happening in factories, workshops and offices since the industrial revolution. But it hasn’t always had a trendy name. In many work places, it hasn’t even had a name. They just got on with the job and followed well established practices.

Any job, which has more than one step, must have some kind of workflow management system, even if the whole job is done by one person, who has the system in their head.
Even a subsistence farmer has a workflow system.

Why has workflow become a buzzword?

The "new" part, which causes the buzz, is the proliferation of software tools to manage workflow.

Businesses outside the IT industry have traditionally used manual methods to manage their workflows but modern technology makes it easier for more types of businesses to replace their manual systems with software.

Cloud technology has put workflow management (WFM) software within reach of even more, and smaller businesses. The Cloud has reduced costs, reduced the amount of equipment needed and increased security.

The buzz is caused by the new and potentially exciting possibilities which have developed in the last few years.

But there is a problem with buzz words.

People have become conditioned to look for a new, magic bullet solution whenever their business needs a boost. The shiny object syndrome takes hold and they often jump from one buzz to another, looking for easy answers.

Meanwhile, they fail to see old fashioned, but obvious, solutions. Or they just assume that ‘old school’ solutions don’t work any more, so they don’t even try them.

Start at the start

You shouldn’t start your conversation with a discussion about the Cloud and software. That is trying to cross the finish line before you start the race. You don’t jump out of an aeroplane before you strap on your parachute, and you don’t choose your WFM software before you do a lot of equally important preliminary steps.

The first of these is knowing what you want to achieve.

The second is knowing where everything is.

Like a lot of planning, workflow management requires you to start at the final result and work backwards. Once you have identified what you want to do, you can then work, step by step, back to the beginning.

You also need to know where all your resources are. If you use physical resources, like in manufacturing, you might even need to relocate some of them, to make your workflow more efficient.

These decisions need to be constantly monitored, regardless of whether you use manual or fully automated tools.

The job will be a lot easier if you commit this analysis to writing and unless you are a wiz with graphics software, you probably need paper or a whiteboard.

The next step is to work out costs. You need to know what you are spending now, and to identify savings you can make without reducing efficiency. See my article, WorkersWasting Time, for a discussion about improving efficiency.

Only after you have done all these preliminaries, can you make a meaningful decision about what type of workflow management system will best serve your organisation.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Pardon the cliche, but it is relevant.

If your monitoring shows that your current practices are the most efficient way of doing things, then why would you change, even if you are a printer and still using the brown paper bags?

A major problem with new technology is that people get caught up in hype surrounding it and think that they must adopt it to survive. This hype is often fuelled by vendors,whose only concern is to sell as many systems as they can.

You wouldn’t buy a high tech pencil sharpener, and then try to persuade all your workers to throw away their ballpoint pens in favour of pencils, just to fit the pencil sharpener.

WFM technology is the same. It doesn’t make sense to install new technology and then try to fit your business to it.

Each enterprise is unique and if new technology won't give you any advantage, then keep using your tried and true methods.

This doesn’t mean that it's OK to just sit on your hands and say, "We’re OK. This new technology is no good to us." You can only say this if you have strong, supporting evidence. And you only get the evidence by constant monitoring.

In the real world

In reality, most organisations could find some efficiencies by tweaking some of their workflow management.

It is easier than ever to find technology which fits your business, thanks to The Cloud, open source applications and bespoke software.

You have the flexibility to pick and choose the technology which will give you an advantage, regardless of whether it 
  • manages your entire operation 
  • or only manages selected parts.
Bespoke software enables you to develop applications which exactly fit the way you work. Open source gives you the security that you can update it whenever you need, because you own the code. You, not a software vendor, will always be in control. This combination makes it worthwhile for most businesses to at least consider a software workflow solution.

Cloud technology is generally more secure than local networks, often less expensive and gives greater capacity. This puts WFM software in reach of most businesses which need a formal system to manage their workflows.

Nubuilder is open source, bespoke software. You can develop your applications yourself, employ an IT specialist or engage the team at nuSoftware to do it for you.

If your workflow management is not working as well as you'd like, visit the nuBuilder and nuSoftware websites. You will most likely find the answers you are looking for. And there will be no wank about workflow, nor any other buzz word. Just a thorough analysis of your needs, and an open source, bespoke solution, which fits smoothly into your unique way of doing things.

Picture Credits: Jack Snell, 1914 Ford Model T Touring Car 2 
                         Rod Waddington, Single Tyne Plough, Arba Minch
                         George Armstrong, 31st January 2011
 

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