Workflow automation is the streamlining of processes and removing of repetitive, manual tasks. Many workflows are dominated by simple “if/then” functions, and historically a human had to be involved in approving one function and triggering the next. Today, we have software tools that automate many of these if/then scenarios to free up a knowledge worker’s time to focus on more important tasks than simply moving work through the pipeline.
If you think about it, you’ve already been using automation for years. Every time you receive an auto-responding email, every time you receive an automatic update about a meeting time or location change, whenever you schedule a blog or social post, every time Facebook notifies you that someone has commented on your post, you are engaging with automated processes.
In short, any process that can be diagrammed with a simple flowchart is a suitable candidate for automation. If you haven’t automated many of your existing workflows, you can be sure that your competition probably has.
Potential for Workflow Automation
Studies have analyzed the potential of automation in the workplace and reached some startling conclusions. According to McKinsey’s analysis:
- Out of 2000 work activities (across 800 professions), 45% could be automated, including processing sales transactions, demonstrating product features, and answering product questions
- Among business processes, 60% of occupations could save up to 30% of their time with automation, including the review and approval of paperwork, generating sales leads, and processing large documents. Automation can surface content that is particularly relevant, meaningful, or exceptional, so that professionals are free to focus only on situations that require their expertise and intelligence
- Nearly 20% of CEOs’ time is spent on work that could be automated. Automatable tasks include reviewing status reports, preparing staff assignments, and analyzing operational data
- Finally, just 4% of common workplace activities involve human creativity, and only 29% require a human ability to sense and respond to emotion
McKinsey points out that automation represents a tremendous opportunity to bring creativity and meaning to the workplace by replacing mundane and repetitive tasks with ones that require innovation and emotion.
The potential to free up 20-30% of every single work day for tasks that require intelligence, expertise, creativity, or sensitivity cannot be underestimated. Companies that adopt automation are liberating their employees to work at a higher level every day, and this advanced competency and creativity of the workforce influences every decision. These companies are more competitive, more effective, and connect more deeply with their product and their customer.
How to Automate Your Workflow?
Automation can start small, and doesn’t require sophisticated tools to begin with. Start by mapping the workflow of a given process, and look to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies.
Do not begin automation with mission-critical tasks. Start simply, so that errors can be corrected and results can be measured. You may never want to automate mission-critical tasks anyway. Your goal may simply be to shave minutes off of predictable, repetitive processes, with small benefits adding up over time.
As you examine your workflow, look for processes that are:
- Straightforward if/then scenarios
- Actions that are repeatable and predictable
- Actions that are frequently delayed if no human acts upon them
Functions that are highly suitable for starting your automation journey include:
- Handoffs. The process of approving one task and triggering the next is often subject to delays and unnecessarily cumbersome. Can approvals be managed by a form field in your workflow that would trigger a handoff?
- Status updates. Can those approved tasks also be automatically communicated to stakeholders, so that no one has to request or report on the status of work?
- Schedule change notifications. If you don’t do something similar already, it’s often fairly simple to automate a function that reminds people when a deadline is approaching, or when a deadline has passed.
Once you’ve identified a process to automate, here are the 10 steps you can easily follow:
- Identify the process owner. This is the person with authority to change workflows and clearly define scenarios and outcomes
- Clarify the goal of automating this task. Is it to reduce errors? Save time? Improve reporting? It may not be possible to accomplish all those goals with the same automated process, so identify your primary objective and keep it in mind
- Get the big picture. Does this workflow cross departments? How has it been managed in the past? Has it changed recently? Some tasks or processes have a long (sometimes contentious) history, and that is good information to have.
- Diagram the flow. Initially, don’t worry about exceptions or rare cases. Start by diagramming a typical case and keep it as minimal as possible. You can add conditional cases as necessary, but it’s best to start simply and create a flow that will work for 80% of the volume
- Capture owner requirements. For everyone involved in the process, capture what they want and need from automation. Do they want to see less data overall, but need to review exceptions? Do they need reports? Your new process should give them all the information they require, but no more information than they request
- Measure the current process. Establish metrics for the current process and capture them. How much time does it take per person? How many people are involved? What is the total throughput time? Establishing this information gives you a baseline to compare your automated process to, and track progress toward your goal
- Test your automation. Set up a test environment that doesn’t include any real task owners. Run a test process through all possible paths, branches, or sequences, to make sure it’s working as anticipated. Run a variety of scenarios
- Test the automation with task owners. Run test scenarios with the people involved, to ensure that your test is valid and reflects real-life scenarios and outcomes. This can also act as a training period for the new process
- Go live! Keep a close eye on the process and remain available to owners
- Measure the automated process. Once the new process has been online long enough to gather meaningful data, compare your new metrics to the previous ones and record progress toward your stated goal
In order make this possible you can use some of the online software solutions based on the Kanban method. These tools are powerful and they are built to help teams map their work processes, eliminate waste activities and improve productivity.
Where Can Workflow Automation Be Applied?
Basically, any functional area has work processes that can be automated. This is why more and more companies are using automation to improve efficiency and reduce errors. Common tasks that can be automated are:
- Accounting: Generating invoices, delivering them to the customer, checking for payment, thanking or reminding the customer as appropriate.
- Software development: Coding similar functionality, integration tests, code quality metrics, functional test execution and report generation, alerts for bugs, customer issues, requested features
- Marketing: generating different reports, increasing/decreasing ad costs (digital marketing), recurring tasks (checking website traffic or daily sales stats), warning different team members if there is a task waiting for an action
- Sales: Automated follow-ups, renewal reminders, alerts for staff or managers about the status of high-value accounts
- HR: Automation streamlines hiring and onboarding of new employees, posting job listings, responding to candidates, generating documents, requesting workstations, and licensing software
These are just a few examples. However, the list can go on and on.
Benefits of Workflow Automation
Companies and departments that automate workflows can reap quite a few benefits like:
- Improved communication. When many responses are automated, recipients no longer have to request follow-ups or status reports. Team members can focus on more high-value communication
- Improved accountability. By defining steps and process owners, each team member can be held accountable for their role
- Reduced errors. Automation reduces the risk of accident or oversight and eliminates many of the manual processes where errors can creep in. Your team members spend less time copying data from one function to another
- Streamlined functions. Automation simplifies workflows and reduces human touchpoints to the ones that really matter
Furthermore, the very process of automation itself adds granular insight and clarity into your workflows and processes, revealing time sinks and roadblocks that you may not have been aware of. When you begin to diagram your workflow, asking specific questions about activities, functions, steps, and roles, the whole team or department benefits from a deeper understanding of the workflow and their core responsibilities.
Workflow automation saves time and reduces errors, both of which are tied directly to company costs and overhead. But, perhaps, more importantly, automating functions allows employees and stakeholders to spend their time and intelligence on high-value tasks.
For many employees, removing mundane, repetitive tasks from their workflow improves job satisfaction and may increase retention. Finally, the process of workflow automation reveals previously hidden roadblocks and redundancies, giving you critical insight into areas for continuous improvement and refinement over time.
Automated workflows are key to remaining competitive in the coming years, and aren’t as complicated to implement as they may seem. Start streamlining your processes today, and don’t get left behind.
Pavel is a digital marketing expert at Kanbanize, a modern Kanban software tool that helps teams increase their productivity and efficiency. Previously, Pavel worked at Nestle, AWMedia and others where he found his passion for online marketing. Currently, he authors in-depth articles in various topics, leads link-building projects and PPC campaigns. He is a big fan of cooking and rock music.