Making Workflow Work and Flow for You

Workflow isn't rocket science, but it isn't magic either. While workflow can make major improvements in the way an organization runs, it achieves that goal only when its principles are applied correctly. We explain the success factors and the benefits that the process can provide.

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Cameron cites the example of a customer, a major Australian bank, that wanted to apply workflow to the process that some of its divisions used to order large amounts of hardware. "They needed to go through all these checks and make sure that the right people had signed off on it," Cameron says. "So we implemented a system to do that."

Which was fine until the other divisions of the bank found out about the new process. "We found out later we'd only created a system for three or so of their teams and suddenly another 15 or so teams wanted to be involved," Cameron says. "Instead of having to do a complete restart, we're extracting what we've already done and cutting and pasting it into a new system. Then we hit a button to create the end user interface."

Where Do You Start?

Since workflow is a process-at-a-time process, there are two schools of thought in picking your first workflow project. One school is that you start with the largest ""safe"" project that will give you the best ROI. The other suggests starting with the simplest project and taking the others in order of complexity.

NOTE: In this context, "safe" means a process with a high probability of success.

"The process with the biggest ROI is the one it is most important to get right," says Quask's May. "If you're doing it in-house, do the simplest thing first. You'll probably get a better ROI and get it quicker if you do it the right way."

May points out that the advice is less applicable if you're using a consultant or vendor to implement the process. Since the highest ROI project is the one you most want to get right, May thinks you should tackle it after you get experience on smaller projects. Obviously, if you're hiring the expertise in the form of a consultant, this doesn't apply as forcefully.

Beyond that, there are several important things common to all successful workflow implementations.

  • Start right.
  • "A workflow implementation should be as simple and robust as possible," says Ederyd. "A complex solution often indicates you are trying to support goals other than those defined, and this will add risk to the project."

    Identify an individual who is capable of analyzing what needs to be done. Someone within the organization has to analyze the process.

  • Talk to all the people involved to make sure all aspects of the process are fully understood.
  • Ederyd adds, "Active user involvement is a key to success. You really need to sit down with the users and watch and question how they perform their tasks in order to identify the scope for the solutions."

    ZyLAB Technologies's Scholtes, whose company includes a workflow consulting practice, recommends getting use cases from users. "The only way we've been successful is to talk to the end users and try to get some use cases on paper," he says. ZyLAB typically starts with standard use cases from its library, and then asks users to point out how their way of doing things differs.

    "Once we've got that, we make a flow chart or a UML diagram and try to find agreement with the end users," Scholtes says.

  • Define the process.
  • "The biggest problem is knowing what you want," says Scholtes. "People often do work differently from how they think they work. With workflow, you're going to really pin people down."

  • Draw pictures.
  • In the world of workflow, these are known as "visual process models." They represent the process and the roles of the various affected groups in a simple, easy-to-understand format.

    "Diagrams are critical," says May, even if the process is trivial. "What a diagram does is basically prove you've thought about what you're doing. The temptation is always to say 'I know how this works.' More often than not you don't, because you haven't taken the time to analyze the process."

    Don't be afraid of the white board. "Users, especially management types, find it a lot easier if they're given a graphical representation," says Web and Flo's Cameron.

    According to Scholtes, UML diagrams and flow charts produced in the early definition phase are useful for outlining the process. But, he cautions, they're not ideal for communicating the process to others. "Only a few people can read a flow chart," he notes.

    "We show diagrams to the end user but we also show implemented workflow," Scholtes says. "We show them how the process works and we show them the diagram." ZyLAB supplements the graphics with screen shots of the process in operation.

    "As systems become more complicated," says Cameron, "and workflows start flowing into each other, it's a lot easier just to click through the maps."

  • Pay attention to exceptions.
  • It is in the nature of processes that users judge them more by what goes wrong thant what goes right. In workflow, the term is "exceptions.;" Yyou need to make sure that the inevitable exceptions are handled smoothly.

    "A lot of customer dissatisfaction is based on how clumsily exceptions are handled," says Ederyd.

  • Pilot and test.
  • Make sure the process works before you rely on it. Some organizations run the old and new methods in parallel until they are satisfied with the workflow implementation.

Workflow isn't rocket science, but it isn't magic either. While workflow can make major improvements in the way an organization runs, it can only do so if the principles are applied correctly. Fundamentally making workflow work for you comes down to understanding the processes that make your business work.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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