A Guide to Streamlining Business Processes and Workflows in 2022
Every business is looking for ways to become more efficient and agile, especially as the pace of digital transformation accelerates. Streamlining processes and workflows is one powerful way to accomplish these goals, particularly when pursued as a strategy of continuous improvement (or, as Japanese business leaders refer to it, kaizen). Here's what streamlining is, what it means to streamline workflows, and the advantages and disadvantages of doing so. Then, we'll share strategies and tools companies can use to successfully streamline business processes.
What Does Streamlining Mean?
Streamlining a business process makes it more efficient. It can reduce the amount of time an employee needs to carry out the process, minimize the possibility of errors, and win back precious productivity that your team can use to accomplish higher-priority goals. When done well, streamlining can even improve employee satisfaction, enhance collaboration, and improve customer satisfaction.
At a time when more employees are working remotely than ever before, a streamlined process can make it easier for colleagues to collaborate and fulfill their job responsibilities from their home offices or wherever they happen to be working. Streamlining also makes your organization more resilient and capable of continuous change — a quality essential for every business in the era of digital transformation. Analyst firm IDC predicts that by 2022, 70 percent of all organizations will have accelerated their use of digital technologies, transforming existing business processes to drive customer engagement, employee productivity, and business resiliency.
Why Is It Important to Streamline?
Business processes that consume too much time or are unnecessarily complicated drain employee productivity, particularly if those processes require hands-on attention from multiple people. As your business grows, old processes can end up using far more of your internal resources than you might assume. Not only do unwieldy processes waste one of the most valuable resources you have — your employees' talent and ingenuity — but they can ultimately limit your organization's agility.
Although it's human nature to avoid changing business processes because they're familiar and sometimes even comfortable, it's important to give them a fresh look every so often so your organization runs as efficiently as possible. This is especially true when it comes to processes that involve technology in some way (which, at this point in time, includes nearly all of them). Because technology is ever-changing, it's essential to keep the workflows that rely on it up to date. Otherwise, your organization risks unintentionally investing too much time and money in routine tasks instead of pursuing higher-level initiatives that advance the business.
Outdated processes create inefficiencies that have a way of compounding over time, sometimes before anyone realizes it has happened. If a competitor streamlines their way of doing things while your company continues to keep legacy workflows in place, you might find yourself lacking crucial capacity when you want to innovate or grow your market share.
The Impact of Streamlining
There are many benefits to periodically reviewing and revising your business processes. Employee productivity is a big one. With more time available to focus on their core responsibilities, employees can get more done and manage their time better. More productive employees are often happier, which can also boost collaboration and improve the customer experience. Efficient processes are often more transparent, which enhances communication and working relationships between colleagues and teams.
Simplified processes can also improve organizational resilience. When they are transparent and well documented, workflows don't rely on institutional knowledge that lives in a single employee's memory. That way, if someone is out sick or suddenly resigns, the process can continue autonomously or be carried out by others. By streamlining, you can also reduce the likelihood of manual errors and mitigate potential risks to the business. In cases where you're digitizing formerly paper-based workflows, you may also be able to reduce the costs associated with creating and storing paper documents.
Streamlining processes can be easier said than done. According to recent research from Boston Consulting Group, 75 percent of transformation efforts don't produce the intended results. When revising a process, it's essential to follow the principles of good change management. If you attempt to streamline a way of doing something without fully understanding it — rushing the project without taking the time necessary to confirm that your strategy will produce the desired outcome — you could end up with an even more inefficient process that creates more work for employees, causes aggravation and distrust, and potentially frays working relationships.
Some employees might even become resistant to other changes in the future after a difficult streamlining experience. This is especially likely to happen if the employees feel a change that disrupted their ability to carry out their core job responsibilities was imposed on them rather than implemented in collaboration with them. What initially seemed like a worthwhile endeavor to streamline a process could actually set your organization back if you don't invest the time and care required to do it well.
What Is the Best Way to Streamline Processes?
Given these significant challenges, you may be wondering how you should tackle streamlining. First, make sure you understand what the process is intended to accomplish and exactly how it currently works from start to finish. Document the existing process before you change anything so everyone involved has a shared frame of reference. It also must be a collaborative undertaking involving anyone who touches the process in some way, and everyone should feel empowered to offer frank feedback about what works well and what could be improved. By giving your stakeholders a measure of ownership over the project, you are much more likely to earn their support for the changes.
Focus on Outcomes, Not Technology
Although technology will almost certainly play an important role in your streamlining project (more about that in a moment), remember to focus on how the process should work and the desired outcome your organization wants to achieve. This is much better than choosing a technology solution first and then trying to shoehorn your existing workflow into it. That approach rarely accomplishes its goal and can cause unintended frustration as well as cost overruns. You'll have much better results if you map out your ideal process first and then look for the right technology to support it. As you would with any important project, estimate the return on investment you expect to get from your solution over the next five years at a minimum.
Project Leaders and Executive Buy-In
Determine who will be responsible for leading the project to a successful outcome, and make sure they have at least one executive sponsor. Your project lead will likely have to convince some reluctant managers or line of business employees that this process improvement is worthwhile and will benefit the organization, which is one reason why buy-in from senior management will be important. (Executive buy-in will also be necessary when it comes time to approve the budget for the project.) It's also essential to take a long-term view, considering whether the streamlined workflow might affect any strategic initiatives the organization has planned for the next several years.
If the person leading your process improvement project is a technology professional, they should take extra care to collaborate closely with the line of business employees who actually carry out the process in their day-to-day work. Otherwise, the employees might not get an accurate or complete understanding of what the process is, what it is intended to achieve, and how it works. In addition, employees might incorrectly assume that the streamlining initiative is actually a technology project that doesn't require their involvement and won't affect their working conditions. Without their input, your project lead will not be able to correctly design or implement the process improvement.
Strategies for Streamlining Processes and Workflows
From the beginning of the project, it's important to use a strategic approach to streamlining processes and workflows. Here are seven steps to help you:
1. Assess Current Processes and Workflows
Take a holistic look at your existing processes and workflows and identify which particular ones might benefit from streamlining. Ask the employees who are involved with each process what it is for and exactly how it works. Document how the workflow currently runs as well as key information, such as the people involved, how much time it takes each person to complete their part, and the end result. Also consider how important the process is to the organization as a whole.
2. Evaluate the Costs
As you're documenting these processes, pay special attention to the cost involved with each one. How much of your organization's resources do they consume, for example, in terms of employee time, supplies, and technology? Once you have a sense of the budget required to carry out these processes, you'll be better prepared to determine which ones should be prioritized for streamlining.
3. Consider What Can Be Automated
Organizations use automation to streamline a variety of core business processes, including things like invoicing, expense reports, employee onboarding, and employee requests for paid leave. Automation can also streamline industry-specific processes like insurance claims adjustments and patient billing. Many organizations pursue workflow automation as an iterative process, reinvesting the time and resources saved streamlining one process into updating another. As you review your list of current processes, consider which ones would most benefit from becoming automated.
4. Look at Your Skills and Expertise
Consider who will be responsible for executing the process improvement once you've picked a task to streamline. Make sure to assign a project leader who will own primary responsibility for improving the workflows, and ensure that they have at least one executive sponsor. If you're streamlining workflows for the first time, then you may not yet have the full internal skill set necessary to successfully execute this project. Decide how to bring in the skills or experience you need for the project, whether that involves partnering with a technology solution provider or engaging a consulting firm.
5. Do a Cost-Benefit Analysis
Once you know the rough costs of each of your existing processes, consider the investment you will need to make in order to streamline them. This will likely include employee time, and it could also involve technology expenditures and consulting fees. Once you have this information in front of you, it will be easier to compare the cost of streamlining versus the cost of doing nothing. Then, estimate the benefits your organization expects to gain as a result of the process improvement so you can do a cost-benefit analysis.
6. Rank and Prioritize Processes
Now it's time to organize your process changes in order of priority. At this point, you may have discovered that some of the processes you evaluated are either interrelated or redundant. The information you collected earlier, particularly when it comes to the amount of time each process consumes, should help you determine which ones should move toward the top of the list and which ones can wait.
7. Select a Process to Streamline First
Depending on what you've learned about your existing processes and what it would require to streamline them, you may decide to go for the low-hanging fruit first before proceeding with a particularly ambitious or mission-critical process improvement. Organizations often find that it's wise to set themselves up for success the first time around. Once you've streamlined one process, you can then use the positive momentum to take on a larger or more complex process.
Tools That Help Streamline Processes and Workflows
As you're pursuing the seven strategies above, it will also be helpful to think through which tools can help you accomplish the streamlining. Here are four that may come in handy, depending on the process you're revising.
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)
APIs are incredibly helpful for streamlining business processes in numerous ways, especially when it comes to securely integrating existing systems with one another. For example, a communications API can help you automatically notify customers about pending appointments or delivery attempts via SMS, even allowing them to reschedule on their own when needed. By using minimal coding or software engineering expertise, APIs can empower you to streamline workflows in ways that otherwise wouldn't be possible.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Artificial intelligence is another powerful tool for streamlining workflows. Organizations are already using solutions like Vonage AI for conversational business communication — for example, by building AI-enhanced self-serving interactions that engage every caller using natural language. AI-enabled chatbots allow businesses to streamline workflows and improve the customer experience at the same time, delivering a win-win for organizations and customers alike.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
RPA is another popular method for streamlining time-intensive processes that employees would otherwise have to shoulder on their own. Invoice processing, payroll, and sales systems are prime candidates for RPA. Businesses can also use RPA to extract data from various sources or store information in specific locations, saving employees precious time that they would have to spend on tedious, rote tasks like data entry and management.
Unified communications can streamline workflows, especially when integrated with another business application like a customer relationship management (CRM) solution like Salesforce or an office productivity suite like Google Workspace. With unified communications integration in place, sales professionals can automatically view a customer's record in the CRM as soon as an incoming call comes through instead of having to manually search for it on their own. It can also automatically capture call notes and prevent time-consuming toggling between apps.
Companies That Have Successfully Streamlined Their Workflows
Organizations across a wide range of industries have streamlined workflows using tools and strategies like the ones mentioned above.
Carbyne used Vonage APIs to automatically deliver critical caller information to emergency call agents, reducing the number of first responders who need to be dispatched and saving thousands of lives each year.
Farmers Insurance agency owner LaTasha Baucham integrated her company's Vonage contact center with Salesforce, immediately connecting prospective customers with agents and setting in place several automated, streamlined processes that ensure the customers receive the timely answers and support they need.
ClearFreight paired the Vonage Business Cloud with Microsoft Teams to better support employee productivity in an increasingly remote and virtual work environment.
Other sectors including financial services, retail, education, and even the nonprofit space have similarly benefited from streamlining workflows.
What to Do Next
If you believe your organization could benefit from streamlining processes, then you should be clear about the goals you expect to achieve in doing so — for example, you might want to cut costs, improve employee productivity, enhance the customer experience, build resilience, or create capacity for continuous transformation. Analyst firm Gartner expects that organizations will lower operational costs by 30 percent by combining hyperautomation technologies with redesigned operational processes.
Once you've clarified what you hope to achieve, then make sure you've identified the right strategies and resources (in terms of expertise as well as technology) to carry out your desired process improvement. With strong buy-in from stakeholders and executive leadership alike, you will have the best possible chance of success with your process improvement and the positive momentum needed to steadily streamline even more processes and workflows.