With the air seemingly saturated with business automation buzzwords, you may be considering hopping on that bandwagon – a bandwagon that promises increased returns, happier employees, and more efficient workflows. But implementing concepts and buzzwords into a living, breathing, and fast-moving business can sometimes be a little tricky. Many organizations know how to gracefully pull off such “automation.” Let me give you a concept that might help frame your approach:
Consider a cost-line with “Computers” on one end and “People” on the other. Now consider the tasks and workflows performed by your staff every day. You should understand that some tasks are ideally suited to humans; these are tasks that leverage the human brain’s vast capacity to adjust, respond in-time to changing contexts, make “judgment calls,” etc. Other tasks are better performed by software; these tasks typically involve math, data crunching, and repetitive tasks following standardized rules.
It’s a simple rule-of-thumb, but it is one that can fundamentally transform how a business operates. The more you try to apply employees’ labor to problems better solved by software, the more labor-intensive the job becomes – and the more likely it is that errors and inefficiencies will be introduced along the way. The same is true for software. The more you try to force software to solve problems better suited to human attention, the more time and money you’ll spend trying to codify business logic that really doesn’t serve your objective: optimizing your business’s efficiency.
With that in mind, business owners should then evaluate the pain points experienced by their personnel. This is usually a lot easier than one might think – just ask employees about the most onerous things they have to do as part of their everyday workflow. Ask them why these tasks are annoying or feel like a waste of time. You may get a long list of answers, but this is a great place to begin exploring how software might support a better workflow.
Once you’ve identified your organization’s pain points, wherever possible, and to the extent possible, quantify how much time and money you are allocating to these stumbling blocks. Keep in mind less direct costs like training and how difficult it would be to find someone to replace the person currently doing the job, frustrations of the clients you serve, storage costs for historic paper files, etc. If you can put a dollar value on the problem, then you have all the data you need to make an informed decision on a potential software development effort and its benefit to your business.
Advances in software development tools, frameworks, and more can really help companies maximize efficiency, production, and management.
Frequently Cited Areas For Improvement
We’ve found that, when it comes to optimizing business workflows and operations, there are five areas that yield the highest degree of benefit from implementing a custom software solution.
1. Use The Right Tool for The Job
You see this problem all the time, in many different forms and at many different businesses. Usually, it’s an indicator of an organization that grew quickly – or one that, due to budget, resource or schedule pressure, has failed to migrate away from older solutions to a business problem. These companies find themselves using the wrong tool for the job.
Examples include using email in place of an integrated ordering system, or using a calendar application in lieu of a robustly-featured CMS solution. Other examples include leaning on a Windows CE6 solution deployed to aging hardware where a new Android solution would not only increase performance and stability but would open up a world of competitive hardware options.
Another way this concept manifests itself is to look for opportunities to more properly match tools to the way your employees are doing their jobs now. This could mean moving from desktop machines running a desktop application to a web application deployed on the cloud or even creating a mobile solution. Helping your employees work away from their cubicles or in a more collaborative manner can greatly increase efficiency and lower overhead costs. This could also mean moving from paper-based documentation or collateral to digital materials.
2. Connecting Systems and People
Companies often suffer from systems, integral to your business divisions that simply aren’t talking to each other. Is invoicing currently separate from fulfillment? Do follow-up appointments have to be scheduled with your clients separately from their current service experience? Do your reps have to enter information in multiple places? Many off-the-shelf applications have APIs that can be used to connect them into custom solutions, thereby streamlining your workflows. If an API doesn’t exist, it may be desirable to migrate away from your current solution to one that supports customization and/or integration.
3. Data Entry
Across a wide variety of industries, there are many circumstances in which you might use software to ensure that data is cleaner than what a human would collect. Gathering data with drop-down menus and checkboxes will yield more consistent results than entering data with open-field text, Excel spreadsheets that need to be uploaded, or having somebody re-enter a form at the office. You don’t know creativity until you see the multiple ways people can enter the same address or spell a name.
How much time are your employees spending “normalizing” data? These more manual methods introduce tremendous opportunity for variance and discrepancy.
Employees also frequently mention that one of their frustrations is the tedium of filling out the same form over and over again with slight variations. This is an area where human error becomes an issue all the time; something is filled out incorrectly and the forms are kicked back. Or a single box was left unchecked or the math contains an off-by-one error. This is a perfect opportunity for a more automated, software-driven approach.
Finally, a note here about how mobile applications have really transformed the process of collecting and validating data. If you currently use paper forms, consider the benefits of moving just that one aspect to a mobile solution. With the ability to collect the data in-field (and correct errors in real-time), validate that data and store that data in a database from which any number of applications can pull that data for their own use, this one step into a more unified system can have a tremendous impact on your ability to operate in a more lean capacity.
4. Taking Advantage Of Analytics
How long is your company taking to run reports? Would you like to run new reports or run them more often? Is the process of creating a report too time-intensive at this time? If the difficulty of reporting is prohibiting you from doing investigative analysis on your company or clients, that’s a good sign that your organization would benefit from software-driven analytics.
Data can be crunched a nearly infinite number of ways. Besides the obvious analytics you may wish to have access to about your clients (e.g., time between contact or purchasing patterns) you may wish to consider implementing internal analytics.
For instance, you may wish to migrate a current workflow into a web application that would allow your employees to better queue their order tickets and associate the assets generated for that ticket with the client entity. It makes some degree of sense to track how long it takes for that ticket to complete various portions of the workflow. This data can be used to gain insight to workflow bottlenecks, non-performing vendors, or even how long it takes for your company to recover from the slow-down over the holidays. Software analytics make it easier to identify relevant business trends – and make your company more responsive.
5. Streamlining Management
Management of both people and assets can become much more effective with the help of software – and represents the culmination of many of the strategies above. It delivers a high degree of integration and automation while still remaining solidly in the realm of that which software excels.
Certainly, if you need to track where your trucks are, the time of delivery, and who accepted the delivery, all in real-time, software is optimal. If you want to get more sophisticated, integrating a mapping and routing solution that uses traffic data to maximize deliveries and alert your clients of an impending delivery, that can be readily accomplished as well.
But again, the value of a software solution that supports management tasks can be internally focused and provide great value to both your company and employees. Custom software allows you to create dashboards for different levels of management, which allows you to monitor work effectively and drill down into relevant information without getting in the way of your employees. You won’t impede their workflow with the need to constantly fill out reports or check in with you. More passive management through software tracking can empower them – and your organization as a whole – to be more efficient.
This type of management system can also facilitate work-from-home arrangements and more flexible workdays, both of which have been widely reported as practices that yield higher job satisfaction, loyalty, and productivity.
As you consider how you can improve your workflows with custom applications, it’s useful to consider what software is – and what it isn’t.
Software is a tool that can help you identify and address latency in your processes – the spaces where nothing happens and people are blocked and your clients can’t get what they need. It’s a tool to help automate tasks that are highly repetitive or simply inefficient for humans.
Generally speaking, software is not a replacement for your entire workflow or workforce. Software is never going to replace human interaction or the jobs that humans do really well, but what it can do is support those highly valuable people doing those highly valuable jobs to make them more productive and efficient, helping them do more work better. As organizations learn to take advantage of software more effectively in their workplace, they remove barriers to growth and success.