The optimisation of workflows – essentially the elimination of wasted time and resources, reducing costs and increasing productivity – is one aspect of workflow management that is essential if you intend to stay ahead of your competitors. Doing so will also help to create an environment in which your team will work to the best of its ability, thereby further contributing to business success.
Investigating and improving workflows should be regarded as an investment. Often such activities take place retrospectively, organising workflows only when processes have become complex and difficult to manage. By tackling such matters in advance, before they become problems, will result in a better experience for your customers and clients, improve employee morale, and result in more manageable costs and improved collaboration between individuals and departments. Importantly, it will enable an organisation to rise to the challenges of a growing business.
First we will take a general look at workflow efficiency and improvement potential, then suggest a structured approach that can be adopted to optimise workflows.
Inefficiencies manifest themselves in many ways, some unique to the business sector in which you trade. If you are aware of one or more of the following, this may suggest that now is a good time to dedicate some resources to the investigation of workflows.
Excessive time spent on repetitive manual tasks: often this would suggest that there are better ways of doing things, especially by making use of the latest technological developments, including hardware and software solutions.
Increasing costs: arising for any number of reasons, such as scaling inefficiently, requiring more human resources to handle existing tasks, and deteriorating production efficiency. A detailed financial analysis will reveal the source of any increase in costs and give an indication as to the areas in which action should be taken.
Challenges in scaling: if it currently proves difficult to meet increasing demand with existing resources, this could be an indication that inefficiencies exist. An investigation of workflow efficiency throughout an organisation should be a prerequisite to anticipated growth, both to optimise the use of existing resources as well as give a better insight into what additional resources may be needed.
Reliance on spreadsheets: often used by many for holding critical data, analysing that data and then making projections about the future, spreadsheets whilst being very useful, can have a detrimental effect on both efficiency and accuracy. For an insight into the pros and cons, see our article “Spreadsheets are great. Aren’t they?“
Price competitiveness: if your competitors are reducing their prices and being able to match them (if that is the chosen strategy) would be challenging, this may be an indication that they are operating in a way that is more efficient than your own.
Dated systems/software: hardware and software advances show no sign of slowing down, and using outdated technology will cause a deterioration in efficiency and result in competitive disadvantage. Taking a look at what you currently use then comparing it to what is now available in the market, possibly solutions being used by your competitors, is something that should happen on a fairly regular basis. Also ask yourself, do your existing software providers have a policy of continuous development and, if not, are we falling behind as a result? See our articles “Should you be moving your software to the cloud?“, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?“, “Changing Software Part 1 – “Do we really need to change?”” and “Part 2 – Choosing the right software“.
Missed deadlines and targets: a good indication that current workflows are not working as they should do, i.e. in such a way that delivers an optimal result for the organisation.
Losing customers/clients: this may be a sign that your processes are not operating in a manner that best suits your customers or clients.
What is workflow efficiency and how is it measured?
A workflow is a set of tasks that when combined together form a business process. Whilst this in itself sounds ordered – a series of activities conducted in a pre-defined sequence – complexity can soon come into play and then it becomes very easy for productivity to suffer.
By measuring workflow efficiency a baseline can be established from which improvements can be made, and after that, the same metrics used to monitor subsequent progress.
The simplest metric is what is termed “flow efficiency” being, for a given process, the ratio of value added time (where work is performed directly towards a given target) compared to the total time required to complete the process. In other words, it is the ratio of active time to total time.
An example of this in the context of Sale and Purchase broking would be the process whereby a vessel for sale is matched to a purchase enquiry. The real value creation comes once the requirement is understood and available vessels that satisfy the requirements of the enquiry are identified. To get to this point however requires, inter alia, processing the incoming enquiry and maintaining a vessel database that reflects accurately current vessel availability and vessel characteristics for comparison to the enquiry.
Improving the efficiency ratio will come from increasing the time spent on activities that create added value and/or reducing the total process duration, time that will include non-productive or less productive activities.
CompassPulse, our suite of products for SnP brokers that make use of artificial intelligence, will improve the efficiency ratio by immediately detecting purchase enquiries, then understand and record them. That is to say the process is automated, reducing manual intervention (along with the likelihood of errors), reducing the total process duration and allowing the broker to focus on those tasks where maximum value can be created.
CompassPulse can also automatically identify and process commercial advices that show vessel availability, update the vessel database with this latest vessel status and then, importantly, match advices to enquiries, thus again having an immediate profitable impact on efficiency.
Numerous other workflow metrics exist that can be monitored depending on your business sector. These include production capacity and throughputs, operating costs, lead times, and, measures of quality, such as the number of finished products rejected by quality control in a manufacturing environment.
Areas on which to focus
There are, of course, an almost infinite number of ways inefficiencies can arise, some of which include the following:
Repetition: the same steps in a process are duplicated by different individuals or departments, often occurring when there is poor communication between them.
No longer needed or unnecessary tasks: where non-value added steps exist these can probably be eliminated, thus reducing the total process time as well as reducing wasted resources.
Decision makers: too many decision makers in a process will lead to inefficiencies. Limiting the number to only those that are necessary will help reduce delays that arise for example from getting permissions and approvals.
Employee morale and skill levels: low morale, not understanding or being fully committed to the objective of a given process, will all result in inefficiencies. When investigating workflows it is therefore important to get accurate feedback on how things currently work as well as recommendations for improvements from the individuals actually involved at each stage in the process. Ancillary benefits of doing this will include being able to gauge the mood of the team as well as identify training needs.
Obstructions: this is where processes are held up for some reason or another, maybe the result of delaying the introduction of new technology, or work flowing unnecessarily through a particular department or individual (e.g. inessential approvals). The existence of bottlenecks may also reveal recruitment needs. More generally, look out for where things can go wrong.
Manual tasks: the objective here is to establish whether valuable time can be used on more productive tasks by making use of automation wherever possible.
Silos: here the process flow is interrupted, for example, by data not being shared or by systems not talking to each other. In maritime, we often see vessel data being kept by individuals in spreadsheets, thereby presenting a whole host of challenges (see our article “Spreadsheets are great. Aren’t they?”). CompassAir makes use of a single vessel database, thus ensuring all team members have easy access to the same, up-to-date data.
Understanding of processes: by not appreciating how a process as a whole should flow, there is potential for team members responsible for individual steps to waste time. Hence the importance of documentation and communication.
A structured approach to improving workflows
Any attempt at optimising workflows will benefit from adopting a structured approach, the first stage of which being to define the goal of the workflow, namely the overall objective of the process. Using the previous example, for an SnP broker the goal for this particular set of activities might be arrived at as follows:
The essential components of a workflow consist of triggers (i.e. what causes the process to start), the goal (i.e. what is to be achieved by the process) and actions (i.e. the steps required to achieve the goal).
Assuming we are looking at an existing workflow, before attempting to make improvements the current workflow processes need to be fully understood, documented and analysed. Committing workflows to writing will not only provide a reference point against which future progress can be compared, it will also ensure that there is a common understanding between everyone involved at each stage of the process.
Having a visual representation of a process is probably the easiest way to ensure it is understood. A common method used for visualisation is the so-called “Kanban Board”, a tool that has its origins in lean manufacturing. Whilst there are many soft versions of such boards, the easiest and cheapest solution consists of “Post-it” stickers on a white board. In the following example, working from left to right will aid the understanding of a particular workflow and start to suggest ways for streamlining. Other methods that could also be adopted include a simple list of steps, a flowchart or a table in a spreadsheet.
It is probably worth mentioning at this stage Gantt Charts, which are quite different to flowcharts. Gantt Charts are used in project management and display the timing of tasks that are required to complete a project or process, and are particularly useful in identifying the order of tasks and their interdependencies. Flowcharts, on the other hand, are a visual representation of the logical sequence of steps in a process and are particularly useful for understanding a complex process. Hence, the latter would be used when initially investigating a workflow.
Every one of the steps currently necessary to go from the trigger to the goal needs to be identified and noted, along with who is responsible. Ensure tasks are broken down into their individual components – grouping tasks together will hide opportunities to improve efficiency – thus fully deconstructing processes into manageable steps and then seeking to improve each one. In particular, look at the points at which work transfers from one person to another, one department to another. This can often be the source of workflow inefficiency caused by delays, poor communication or unecessary steps in a process.
Having looked at individual steps, the objective is then to eliminate wasted time, duplicated or unnecessary steps, and remove manual tasks by introducing automation.
Communication is critical, both at the documentation stage – getting accurate feedback on how things currently work as well as recommendations for improvements from the individuals actually involved at each stage in the process (which serves to avoid errors) – as well as eventually conveying to all participants the revisions implemented. Everyone must know what is required of them, and they will need to be given training where appropriate.
Once everything is in place, regular reviews should occur to ensure that not only are processes running smoothly but also to identify further potential improvements.
In summary, the stages are as follows:
1. Establish the existing workflow, its triggers, actions and goal
2. Understand how efficient the workflow currently is by considering costs, duration and, for example, calculating the flow efficiency ratio referred to above
3. Identify obstacles to the flow, and understand what is causing them
4. Identify changes that have the potential to improve efficiency, testing each to see whether they will achieve the desired objective, and at the same time get feedback from the individuals involved so that fine tuning of the proposed changes can take place
5. Implement the changes, ensuring everyone at every stage is fully informed and trained as necessary, and finally
6. Monitor the results on a regular basis and fine tune where appropriate