How to Automate a Business Process in 7 Smart Steps

Introduction

In every business there are unique processes that are the essence of the way they solve problems for clients and differentiate the way they conduct their business. These unique processes are what make the business great. In many cases these processes are manual, driven by spreadsheets or lore that is passed on from employee to employee and are stored in their heads. One thing is for sure, human, manual, or complex spreadsheet-based processes are not scalable.

As a business leader, it is a strategic activity to get a handle on manual business processes and improve them, so they eliminate the variability of human and systematic error. As business demand and workload increase, attempting to manage business operations at high levels can put strain on the organization and be frustrating for all involved. It is never too soon to do something about it.

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Businesses from every industry automate their business processes.

While it may have been easy to use the current manual or spreadsheet-based processes in the beginning, consider this:

  • How much more efficient would your employees be if some or many of their tasks were automated?
  • How many human or technical errors have caused your company to miss new sales opportunities or clients who have been disappointed by incorrect product or service delivery because of errors?
  • How often has an invoice been incorrect because of an innocent clerical error?

The thought of upgrading your business process to a new system might open an entirely new set of challenges. Will the employees be ready for the change? What will it cost? Do the benefits outweigh the investment, and how soon will this new business process automation make a difference?

These questions are valid, and as a business owner or high-level manager, it is time to ask the hard question – can you really afford NOT to? In order to fully answer this question, you must understand what we mean by business process automation.

Think about the manual business processes occurring within your company. Are they hindering your employees from communicating with one another? Is there structure to your process that makes repeatable? What about data errors? Every error could have significant financial and operational repercussions. If your clients are being billed through a manual process, could things be done more efficiently by automating it?

How are you solving these problems today? Spreadsheets and paper forms are not scalable, don’t manage the data flow process for approvals, are not shareable, and can be error prone. Business process automation streamlines all these tasks. Automating these unique business processes with web applications will increase your business enterprise value, improve employee satisfaction, improve productivity, and minimize most human error.

It is not uncommon to see businesses still using manual processes. In fact, many organizations only automate 25% to 40% of their workflows. That means more that 50% of all automation opportunities are missed.

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Here are a few ways manual processes cost you money:

Let’s use an example from the manufacturing industry where almost half still use manual processes:

  • Productivity

If you are using manual processes to monitor changes, exceptions, and disruptions to the supply chain, how long does it take to find an error and correct them? How long does the corrective process take? If you are using your manpower for this, planning can become cumbersome because you may not have immediate access to vital decision-making information. If an employee spends about 20% on manual, repetitive tasks, and about 40% on organizing information, that only leaves about 40% for other important value-added activities.

  • Customer Service

Consider the products or services your company offers. The logistics can be a nightmare if good systems are not in place. If your team is using an excel spreadsheet to manage client requests, how often is it updated? If you have multiple spreadsheets across the organization with different people handling them, getting the answer to an inquiry can be time-consuming and tedious. This causes a breakdown in customer service and responsiveness, making it difficult to provide fast response to client requests.

  • Data Entry Errors

In manufacturing, logistics play a huge role in ensuring you have the materials you need to make products, have enough inventory on hand to make sales, and have working systems to keep track of everything in an efficient manner. The truth is, the more manual tasks you have, the likelihood of error goes up. According to a UNLV study, students manually entering six types of data for 30 datasheets made an average of 10.23 errors. Can you afford these types of mistakes?

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Here is a quick example:

    1. Your customer service department receives a large order, but the priority shipment date is illegible. The customer service rep has to stop what they are doing to call the client to get this information.
    2. In the meantime, someone else is entering the order into the system but transposes a number by mistake.
    3. Materials needed to process the order run short due to the clerical error.
    4. Your company has to order more supplies and contact the customer to let them know their order will be late.

Does this sound like an inconvenience? An avoidable costly mistake? Absolutely. An automated system would allow the customer to order what they needed from their end which would trigger the ordering process on your end without human interference.

  • Operational Workflows

Every employee does things differently, but wouldn’t it be valuable to automate processes where productivity would be improved to an all-time high? If Rebecca takes 6 hours to do a job, but Heather only takes 4 to do the same job, not only are their workflows inconsistent, but there is a significant difference in productivity. Business process automation streamlines these tasks for everyone to increase productivity and adds consistency to the process.

These are just a few examples your business may be experiencing. Now is the time to consider the risks of not solving these problems. Could your company afford to scale? What happens if the business grows significantly? Repetitive administrative work takes time away from business-building activities that make the difference.

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Why would I want to automate our business processes?

Let’s calculate the risk of not automating. We have already gone over a few ways you may be losing money from manually handling critical tasks. Your business may be suffering from data loss, inconsistent processes, inefficiency, and incorrect data because you do not have a validation process.

The days of pushing paper are gone. Has your team ever experienced a minor crisis because of one piece of paper? That’s the chaos manual processes can cause. With paper forms flowing from one department to another, anything could happen in transit and while sitting on someone’s desk. Turning these paper processes into a web application streamlines the process flow, improves communication, and alleviates the risk of data loss. An integrated web application replaces spreadsheets being used as databases, capturing, retrieving, and displaying data to provide information to every employee that needs it.

Automating manual processes also helps increase efficiency and effectiveness throughout the company to better manage people, resources, and materials. Management operates more effectively with better tools and reporting to make real-time, informed decisions. Make sense?

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Consider the benefit to employees

With a web-based application, employees can share data, collaborate, streamline the process flow, deliver data with accuracy, and provide better reports. This also helps in automating a complex approval process while tracking billing information for better customer service. The advantage of being able to access, interact, and collaborate on data at the same time saves time and money and is more secure than spreadsheets because information can be retrieved anytime, anywhere. For the executive team, having a real-time reporting on what is happening in the company makes a huge difference.

Counting the cost of automated businesses processes

If you have started looking at automating your business processes, you may have been scared away by the initial expense. The initial investment can seem like a lot but consider that the investment is payed back many times by improved productivity and the reduction of human errors.

Some businesses attempt to build their own business system but fail because of the lack of development experience or having a team large enough to complete the task. Hiring a programmer is only part of the solution. If you are building a business application, it is important to map out the complete process. This requires the skills of a business analyst. The team must also be fluent with the web application technology and make sure it meets the needs of the organization. The programmers must have knowledge of database design and user interface design, which may not be part of their skillset since many programmers do not have experience beyond software development.

Sometimes businesses attempt to use off-the-shelf software that have a subset of the capabilities and features they need requiring the business to maintain important manual processes. It does not seem like it is worth it if you cannot automate the whole process. Off-the-shelf applications seldom meet the business requirements for unique processes. In most cases, you will get something that meets 80% of your needs, but the business-specific functions that make your company unique will be lacking. Most of the time, it is that 20% that is critical to your success. Does it make sense to pay for a workaround when you could get everything you need in one custom solution? You may initially feel as if the productivity from the 80% will work, with the 20% issues unsolved. This creates the need to continue using paper or spreadsheet-based methods that still affect your business processes in the ways outlined. In essence, that 20% becomes the weak link because you do not have all your data in one place. With so many system solutions in different places, you may end up spending more money down the road when you realize these bits and pieces do not solve the problem completely. It is always better to have a comprehensive system designed specifically for the unique way you do business.

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Some businesses attempt to develop a Microsoft Access database application to automate other processes and improve them over a spreadsheet. They generally find that these single user database applications cannot handle the workload and data cannot be shared across the internet. The business remains in the same position because the methods and tools have issues of their own.

Finding and Developing the Best Business Process Automation Solution

Research has shown that businesses automating their processes become more agile, responsive, and competitive. Data is accessed quicker, providing insights that assist in meeting consumer needs and demands. In fact, according to the McKinsey Global Institute’s gallery of disruptive technologies, automation of knowledge work will have an economic impact of $5-$7 trillion by 2025. That means you will always come out better with a custom web application because it is designed specifically for your company. That means all the nuances and layers that make your business unique are addressed to not only automate the business processes you need now, but it leaves room for scalability in the future.

How does this work?

A customized application using web technology allows your business to operate more efficiently by eliminating paper, spreadsheets and single-user applications. By turning manual processes and paper forms into a web application, the design models the process – with improvements. This improves process flow, communication, and eliminates the risk of data loss. If you have been using spreadsheets as a database, a web application can be designed to capture, retrieve, and display data for better employee access. When you can automate repeatable, day-to-day business tasks, share data, collaborate, streamline the process flow, improve the accuracy of data, and use better reporting tools, the benefits start outweighing the costs.

Consider these scenarios:

  • A utility construction firm had a large staff to manage their paper processes. If a staff member was out sick or on vacation, everything came to a halt. By implementing a web application to automate their business processes, they saw a 2% improvement across the company. The business generates $200M a year in revenue, therefore, 2% is $4M worth of savings per year. They also experienced hidden savings because the quality and granularity of their reporting improved. More quality data equals better business decisions.

  • One scenario of using an 80% off-the-shelf software solution and the 20% workaround is a Content Management System called DotNetNuke. The basic built-in features of DotNetNuke can be used to create a web application that has many features right out of the box. Furthermore, 3rd party modules can be purchased for very modest prices. Then an experienced web development team can write custom modules for DotNetNuke that give the application the unique features your company needs. This strategy delivers significant cost savings when compared to developing everything from scratch.
  • Off-the-shelf software often suffers from “feature bloat” where it tries to appeal to as many people it can. These types of applications are written to serve the least common denominator to most people but over time new features were added to increase the capability of the application, making it difficult to learn and use. While this may be an inexpensive option, when you weigh the benefits and features, eventually businesses discover that it is the uniqueness of their processes that holds the most value.

Once you have really given this some thought and your management team has decided to move forward, it is important to note that successful automation and transition of your business processes does not happen overnight. Doing it right takes care, along with the right team in place to ensure it is done correctly.

Leveraging the right experience for a successful development engagement

Your management team may want to assign someone in the office who can easily manage and communicate when building the custom application to ensure transparency of the outsourcing the work.

While you may consider working with independent contractors, an outsourced development team is much better because of their scalability, experience, and diversity of skill sets like business analysis, UI design, QA, graphic design, and database design.

The 7 Smart Business Process Automation Steps

These 7 Smart Steps can help guide you through what implementing custom automation looks like when working with a team to create a custom software solution for your unique business needs:

  1. An initial meeting takes place where goals are determined, and the scope of the project is defined. This gives the team a chance to gather a clear understanding of what tasks are involved, who the responsible parties are, and when and how each task should be executed.

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  2. Collaboration with your team commences to document all business processes and data flows throughout the entire organization to formulate a viable solution by creating a requirements document. This helps to clearly define goals to ensure no steps are missed. In this phase, the stakeholders review the document to affirm the document fully describes what the needs of the system are. A project estimate can be provided after the requirements are agreed upon.
  3. The requirements document is used to create a project schedule, breaking up the project into smaller more manageable chunks called “sprints” using the agile software development methodology. These sprints should typically last for about 2 weeks each, measuring all results in phases.
  4. Once the project begins, frequent communication via email and online meeting tools like Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Microsoft Teams, take place to clarify any questions on the programming end. During these meetings, the development team can demonstrate the work progress to date and get feedback from the client. This also allows the client to modify the requirements to ensure the application meets or exceeds their vision for the solution.

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  5. During the development stage, the team should engage the client early and often. The client will need to test often and enter real data into the application. This helps the team understand pain points on the back end while giving the client time to identify problems. Design flaws in the system are less costly if found early therefore client participation is essential.
  6. Extensive testing must be done prior to going live. The application is typically rolled out to certain segments of users for live testing in production. Invest time in training to make sure all employees know and understand the new system. Factoring in an adjustment period for the new software is key. Once all functionality is approved, the application can go live and be used by the entire organization.
  7. Ongoing support ensures that everything is working correctly and to implement new features as the business evolves and scales. It is very common that once the organization transitions to the new system that the users have a multitude of ideas to improve it even further.

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Get Help Automating a Business Process

Keene Systems has the team and experience to help any business automate their business process. Founded in 1987, Keene Systems custom builds software development solutions to improve business operations. With more than 30 highly skilled .NET developers, we are able to employ web technologies to provide a high-performance solution for your business. Our specialty is writing custom web applications with ASP.NET to make your business more efficient and we have an extensive set of software and web development expertise.

To learn more about how Keene Systems can help automate your business processes, download the eBook: Keene Systems’ Guide to High Performing Business Applications, and schedule a project exploration discussion today.