The Most Important Question to Ask Before Automating Your Workflow (and Two Bad Answers)

Neil Miller

July 3rd, 2017 Workflow Automation  

Having automated workflows sounds like a sexy thing. And it is. It feels pretty awesome to be able to initiate a process with a button and forget about it while the work gets done.

But that doesn’t mean you have to automate every process in your office. I mean, I think people can take care of replacing the copy paper on their own, right? Right? Come on, people.

Because automation shouldn’t be blatantly applied to every corner of your business, it’s good to start with a very basic question before you begin.

Why?

There are a lot of ways to improve your business – why are you looking to automation? What do you hope to get out of it?

Here are some good and bad reasons companies automate their processes.

Before Automating Your Workflow

Good reasons:

  • I want to save time. Automated workflows help you spend less time following up on requests, matching data with a request, setting the context, and explaining to people how to follow the process.
  • I want to save money. When you automate your business processes correctly, you allow a system to perform most of the work. You save money by not needing to hire additional personnel and allowing your existing team to focus on more important work.
  • I want to track items better. Manual processes make it hard to track when requests were submitted, what stage they are in, and where they are getting hung up. Automation creates a clean data trail that can be used for auditing later on and following up on items.

OK reasons:

  • I want to eliminate paper forms. While automation usually includes digitizing your forms and data, that’s not its primary benefit. Just digitizing your forms doesn’t mean you’ve automated a workflow. Automation is much more than just trying to achieve a paperless office where now your digital folders and just as messy as your desk used to be.
  • My office is in chaos. Let’s be honest. Your chaos is coming from multiple places, and automation software can’t fix all of them. Automation can help you rip off a hunk of that chaos and beat it into submission. But you’re on your own for the rest of it.

Bad reasons:

  • It’s cool, right? Yes it’s cool, but in a very geeky way. It’s not something you brag to your friends about or bring up on a first date with someone. If you are automating just for the sake of automating, you probably aren’t going to see the benefits of it.
  • I have a lot of money laying around and don’t know what to do with it. I have an entirely different investment plan waiting for you. I’ll have my people call you.

Remember The Why

Understanding the motivation behind your automation is extremely important and you should keep it in front of you at all time.

One small organization wanted to automate its leave application. The CEO had been approving every request through email and then forwarding it on to the Office Manager who recorded it and marked a paper calendar. The main motivation for automation was to limit the amount of time the CEO spent approving requests and to reduce the manual record keeping duties from the Office Manager.

When the organization started automating the workflow, they began with the employee handbook and built into its form all ten types of leave requests including things like jury duty. However, it soon became clear that the automation wasn’t serving its purpose. Because of all the leave types, the form was complicated to fill out and employees soon found workarounds to ask the CEO directly rather than using the system. Instead of creating a streamlined leave request, they had merely digitized their employee handbook and created more chaos.

So they went back and reduced the leave types to only the things the Office Manager actively tracked before. Employees found the form easier to use. The CEO approved requests with a single click and the Office Manager only had to keep an eye on the process to make sure it was running smoothly.

Why are You Automating?

Before you start automating any process, make sure you identify your main reason for automation. Validate it to make sure automation is the right answer for you. Then keep your main reason in mind throughout the entire automation process.