Bad workflows: The hidden time wasters slowing you down
An example of an automated workflow process.
Read time: 4 minutes
The term “workflow” gets thrown around a lot in modern business settings.
Workflow optimization. Document-driven workflows. Workflow automation. Personal workflow management. It’s a popular buzzword, and the tricky thing about buzzwords is that the more popular they become the less meaningful they tend to be.
The fact is most businesses do have very real workflow problems. These time wasters often go unaddressed due to inertia (“it’s the way we’ve always done things”) or because the people in a position to make changes don’t even know there’s an issue.
The phrase inherently means different things to different people, so talking in abstract terms about improving workflows can be confusing. It could be as simple as streamlining PTO requests and expense reports, or as complex as optimizing an assembly line manufacturing process.
In order to illustrate how an inefficient workflow can be improved we’re going to focus on a specific example that just about every business can relate to: accounts payable.
Let’s take a look at how invoice processing works within an example small business, which we’ll call Fake & Sons Furniture, LLC. As a local outfit with three locations in the greater metro area, Fake & Sons sells a lot of furniture—but not so much that they can’t process AP manually.
However, all of that paperwork is incredibly time consuming and tedious. The son who handles the company’s finances spends most of his day dealing with it. What’s worse, he’s got a great mind for business and an imaginary MBA, so all that paperwork is wasting time that he could be focused on improving business strategy and the company’s bottom line.
How the process works now
Finance is handled from the back office in the company’s main location, which means that all AP-related documents (invoices, delivery receipts, etc.) from the other locations must be sent over. This process has actually been modernized somewhat in the past few years—they used couriers before—but it’s still laborious. Here’s how it works:
Employee at location 1 receives an invoice
Scans the invoice as a PDF
Emails the document to finance
Finance prints out the invoice
Manually fills out the rest of the information
Re-scans the invoice as a PDF
Saves a version for record keeping
Sends payment to the appropriate vendor
And finally enters the transaction into the accounting system
Not only is this needlessly time consuming for all involved, it increases the potential for human error and security risk. If the employee makes a mistake or fills in the wrong section, the process has to start over from the beginning (assuming it’s even caught). If a paper copy is left on the printer tray or an email is sent to the wrong person, then sensitive company or vendor information could be exposed.
How the process should work
With a simple accounts payable solution, Fake & Sons could cut out a lot of wasteful steps in that process. Here’s how it could work:
Employee at location 1 receives an invoice
Scans it directly into the accounts payable workflow system
The invoice is automatically processed or Finance is alerted if it requires approval
Finance finalizes and approves the invoice digitally
Payment is sent to the appropriate vendor, a record is saved and the information is automatically reflected in the accounting system
That’s it. No manual entry. No scanning, printing and re-scanning. Just scan the invoice and hit a button. The system is smart enough to identify and pull out all the relevant details like names, PO numbers, dates and monetary amounts. From there it’s all ready for processing, which can be done in just a few clicks.
If it’s under a certain threshold then Finance doesn’t care to see it, so the document is automatically approved and processed. If there’s an issue, Finance can route it right back to the originator so he or she can address it. All of this happens without the time, errors and potential security risks associated with manual entry in the original process.
Find your productivity pitfalls
This is a simple example of what workflow optimization means in concrete terms: taking a common repeatable process and making it more efficient—or even automating it. The challenges and solutions may look different for every business, but every business has opportunities for improvement.
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