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Bad workflows: The hidden time wasters slowing you down

by Brian Wallace
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.

The scenario

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:
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:
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.

​What workflow optimization means in concrete terms: Taking a common, repeatable process and making it more efficient -- or even automating it.


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.
Efficiency isn’t the only consideration either. No one likes feeling like their time or talent is being wasted. Chances are the people in charge of these tasks hate them but are unaware there’s a better way of doing things. Reducing busywork can have a material impact on morale and free up employees to focus on the work they were actually hired to do.

The biggest time sinks are often ancillary to the core business, meaning every hour spent dealing with a frustrating back-office system is essentially an hour wasted. Investing some time and effort to diagnose and address these workflow problems can pay off many times over in the long run.

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Brian Wallace
Brian Wallace is a Senior Manager in Channel Marketing with Ricoh USA, Inc. and an accomplished sales and marketing professional with more than 15 years experience in the office equipment and document services industry, 11 of which have been with Ricoh. Prior to joining the marketing division, Wallace was a District Managing Consultant in the Ricoh Consulting Group. In that role, he crafted innovative solutions and strategic roadmaps for integrating technology and addressing inefficient business processes for Ricoh’s customers. Wallace’s experience with Ricoh customers has given him a unique insight into challenges and needs of both global and SMB customers.