Forty years later, Toyota amended Ford's concept with its own, leaner version of the assembly line (a concept that became the model for future workflow processes). As a result, Toyota increased productivity by 400%, reduced defects from 2,000 to 50 parts per million and cut production costs by 60%.
What Are Workflows?
A workflow is essentially a series of steps, like those applied to Ford's and Toyota's assembly lines, which are required for the completion of a task. The use of workflows helps businesses in several important ways. For example, workflows:
- Identify and delete unnecessary processes
- Assign key tasks to individuals with the skill to complete them successfully
- Free management to focus more on core business objectives
- Reduce costly mistakes
- Save time (by eliminating the need to fix those mistakes)
What Are Automated Workflows?
Although the application of workflows to business processes substantially increased productivity and eliminated costly mistakes for companies like Ford and Toyota, businesses realized that many workflow tasks were repetitive and didn't require human intervention. That meant of course that they could be automated to achieve even more benefits from workflows. As Technology Advice explains:
"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."
Why Are Automated Workflows So Powerful for Business?
A host of recent studies concluded that a surprisingly large number of work activities currently performed by humans could be relatively easily automated to eliminate mistakes, cut costs and save time. A seminal study from McKinsey found, for example, that:
- Of 2,000 work activities across 800 professions, almost 50% could be automated—everything from sales transactions to responding to questions about products
- More than 60% of professions could save 30% of the time spent dealing with work processes—this included paperwork approval, lead generation and document processing
- CEO's on average spend about 20% of their time on work that can be automated, including tasks like preparing staff assignments, analyzing data and reading status reports
- Only 4% of workplace across all professions activities require human creativity
How Should Businesses Implement Automated Workflows?
Of course, every business is different, and each faces different challenges. Generally, however, the lion's share of businesses can successfully implement automated workflows with the following 8 steps:
- Start with small processes: since automated workflows are new to most businesses, it's best not to start with mission-critical tasks. Instead, begin with something small and carefully monitor it and measure the results. Choose initial work activities that are straightforward, repetitive and predictable. This could include so-called "handoffs" (which require human approval of one task completion to trigger a subsequent task), status updates and schedule change notifications.
- Collect metrics for the current work process: you can't know if (or the extent to which) automation has helped your business unless you first measure the way things are done now. Before automation, for example, how much time does it take to complete the task? How many errors typically occur?
- Assign a process "owner" for each process selected: this individual will be accountable for outcomes and responsible for any necessary workflow changes
- Clearly state your goal: why are you automating a given task? Is it to save time, cut costs, improve reporting, or some other goal?
- Create a workflow diagram: this is the series of steps necessary to complete the task. It's best, at least initially, to diagram the "typical case," then ramp up to exceptions and rare cases later.
- Describe the impact on and benefits for all workflow stakeholders: many work processes straddle multiple teams within your business. Be sure to enumerate how automating the process will affect them—and the ways in which they will benefit from it.
- Run a beta test: before you go live, it's best to set up a test environment. You'll want to run your work process through every potential path to ensure it works the way you expect it to. Be sure to involve all task owners in testing.
- Measure results: compare the work process data you collected in step 2 above as your baseline with those that result from automation. Have they improved and, if so, by how much? This is a critically important step to measuring the success of your new, automated processes.
The implementation of workflow automation can greatly help your law firm be more productive and efficient.
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