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The word “workflow” is ubiquitous in the business world. We’re always talking about how to optimize it, but what does that actually mean?

Workflow optimization can be defined as improving an organization’s existing workflows through a combination of: 

  • Reducing costs
  • Improving efficiency
  • Workflow automation

If necessary, optimization could also include adding new tasks to the workflow that help move processes along more easily or efficiently. But before we go too much further into how to optimize it, let’s dig into what workflow is. 

What Is Workflow?

A workflow is a structured, repeatable set of actions that are designed to bring about a result or achieve a business objective. Every workflow is made up of a series of individual but interconnected tasks assigned to certain people at certain points in the process.

Say you’re creating a new brochure design for a retail company. Before the design is finalized, there’s a chain of events that need to be completed, including conceptualizing and approving the design, building the pages of the brochure, review, editing, and sign-off by the client.

Workflows are implemented across different levels of an organization, from teams of technicians all the way up to the C-Suite. Without them, communication breaks down, work bottlenecks, and everything falls behind. 

Learning to identify and optimize workflows, as well as where new ones are needed, increases the metrics for long-term success. Let’s take a look at ways you can find and implement more efficient workflows, then make them stick. 

Optimizing Your Organization’s Workflow

Communication is key to making nearly every aspect of your enterprise work more effectively. However, it’s common to see departments within a company become closed off to other areas, only passing information among their own people. 

One of the first steps to optimizing your workflow is breaking those information silos open. All of a business’ processes are interconnected, and it’s important that everyone understands the need to communicate across departments. 

Below we’ll explore different steps you can take to optimize organizational workflows. This includes: 

  • Clearly defined roles and leadership oversight
  • Upgrading your technology
  • Implementing better processes and training

These methods work best if they are used in unison, although some of them take more time than others to fully implement. For example, adopting new software can make your technician’s jobs easier and faster, but full workflow automation might need to wait until your organization is ready for the leap. 

Regardless, it always starts with clearly defined roles to help avoid confusion and direct tasks to the people best suited to take them on. 

Clearly Defined Roles and Leadership Oversight

A critical part of your workflow improvement strategy is making sure everyone knows who is responsible for which tasks, and where those tasks fit into larger organizational processes. You can achieve that by assigning each step of a workflow to an owner, but in order to make assignments, you must first make sure that you define the roles within your organization. Knowing who has ownership and responsibility for which step of the workflow makes it easier to identify bottlenecks when they happen, and prevent your workflow from deteriorating.

Consider this example: one of your mid-level managers is falling behind on their work. When you ask them why they say it’s because there’s too much of it for them to get through. Turns out, multiple directors were giving this person assignments without conferring with one another, and this manager got overloaded. If communication channels were better defined, and people’s roles were common knowledge, the problem could’ve been avoided altogether. 

Once workflows are established, it’s leadership’s job to make sure they actually get implemented. Directors and C-Suite level leaders need to hold themselves and their people accountable or nothing will actually get done. It may be difficult at first, but committing to workflow improvements means greater efficiency and reduced costs in the long run.

Even if you create a workflow and document it, that doesn’t mean it’s successful — it just means it’s there. Accountability should be built into the structure of the workflows themselves to ensure they stick. Tying performance metrics to workflows is one way to accomplish that. When people are expected to take processes seriously as part of their job, they’re more likely to follow through. 

In our long experience consulting, we’ve found people typically have one of three responses to this kind of oversight: 

  • Insistence: Early adopters who see the benefit of new workflows and insist to others that they’ll help.
  • Persistence: Those who might not understand it at first, but they persist and work at it until they’ve grasped the new processes.
  • Resistance: The people who refuse to adopt the change. 

Every change within an enterprise will have pushback. It’s up to leadership to determine whether that resistance has a valid reason or whether someone is simply being contrarian. If it’s the former, you can examine and change the workflow for the better. 

Those who take the “insistence” route, the early adopters, can be encouraged to persuade others who might be on the fence. Since people are more likely to see the benefit of something when it’s explained to them by a peer instead of a manager, “insisters” might be able to bring “resistors” over to your side. 

Upgrading Technology

People often believe one of two things when it comes to new technology: either it will solve all their workflow problems by itself, or it’s too time-consuming to bother with an upgrade at all. Neither of these is true. 

New software isn’t a cure-all. People still have to learn the program and there will be a period of trial and error while they work out the kinks. But that should pass once they learn the ropes if the software is truly something your business needs. Not every software selection works, but it’s critical to evaluate options before you try to implement them. In the world today, there are hundreds of options. “Today’s next thing” is not necessarily the best option. Take some time to review your requirements and what the software can deliver.

Helpful workflow software will usually be able to save time by automating some kind of manual task. Take email, for example. If you’re running an online retail business, programming an automated email series can save hours of time spent composing and sending messages like welcome emails or transaction confirmations.

While it does cost time and money to purchase, install, and learn new software, the short-term lag is almost always vastly outweighed by the long-term benefits. It won’t happen in a week, or even a month, but using technology to streamline your workflow does help. According to a recent Salesforce survey of IT engineers, people can save between 10 and 50% of the time they used to spend on manual tasks by automating them with software. 

If the software is useful and people are given the time to learn it, they’ll be able to use technology to do better work. That translates to greater efficiency, cost savings, happier employees, and happier customers. 

Implementing Better Processes and Training

Workflow optimization usually starts with an audit of an organization’s existing processes to see where there are gaps, then builds from there. 

Mapping your workflows will usually involve:

  • Identifying where the workflow starts and finishes
  • Listing the steps in the workflow
  • Finding decision points
  • Identifying and assigning roles and responsibilities
  • Mapping the timeline for each task

When revamping your organizational processes, involve everyone in the discussion. Get all your workflow owners in a room together and have them walk through the new workflow to see if it’s actually effective, or if they see areas where it can be improved. That kind of direct feedback will allow for workflows to be much more refined before they’re implemented in the real world. This is also a good time to bring on the “insisters”, who can later help you convince other people to adopt the change. The fresh perspective they bring to the discussion can be valuable as well.

>> Related: When Is It Time For Your Company to Hire a Consultant?

New employees should get a thorough rundown on both their role in the enterprise and what workflows they’re responsible for during the onboarding process. This will give them a structure to adhere to and set expectations they can align themselves with. 

Let both new and old employees know that they can come to you with questions if they notice something that concerns them. Doing so creates a culture where everyone has a stake in making things better. 

Make It Stick

Workflow optimization is about connecting the systems of your enterprise and improving the processes that run within those systems. It’s also about your people. You can have the latest software and still not get a thing done if people don’t use it. Documented workflows also need oversight and enforcement to make the changes stick and benefit your organization down the line.

All this work to improve your processes might seem daunting, especially if you already have a certain way of doing things. But reviewing your business and searching for ways to improve is an ongoing process. Let it go for long enough, and you’ll get left behind. 

At Bellewether, we work with our clients to make sure their business is optimized. We don’t just correct the issues you have, we help you make a plan to keep improving. Contact us today to learn more about making your business better.