Regrettably, workflow is often seen as a narrow technical opportunity or discipline. Something that will allow processes to flow more smoothly, or reduce elapsed time. In reality, workflow is one of the biggest opportunities you may have to invest in speed, flexibility, efficiency, and great customer service.

However, this will only be true if your workflow design goes further than helping you manage the baton-passing from one function to another. It must also provide you with a rich source of insight on what is really going on within your own operations.

How does workflow provide insight?

Well, imagine that today you are responsible for a process whereby customers can apply for a service. Currently one department receives the customer call, another checks the application to ensure all the details are correct, another checks that the basic infrastructure is in place to provide the service, another books the resources to do the work, and only then does another team start the value-adding work.

Let’s also imagine that you have noticed a disturbing growth in the backlog of service requests. Furthermore, your complaint numbers are not looking pretty, largely because of slow service. Even more concerning is that you do not really have the information needed to identify the causes of these problems.

You need to know at which steps of the process the issues are occurring, with which teams, and for what reasons, i.e. you need to be able to understand where the bottleneck/s can be found in your process.

All of this requires information: a specific class of information that arises from data related to work management and tracking. Yet you seem to be suffering from data that arrives late, is incomplete or of dubious accuracy. And this information provides little visibility or insight about what is really going on.

How to design a workflow system

If you have this problem, the chances are you probably have a number of associated difficulties. However, as I am not trying to depress you we will keep it simple for now. Moreover, now may be an appropriate time to cheer you up with a solution. To start with, there are two pieces of good news: you are not alone; and some simple workflow-based information gathering will get you on the right track.

From a basic solution, you can grow your workflow system into something more sophisticated. A workflow solution is simply one that helps you manage the flow of service from one step to another, while capturing important management information.

So, what are the attributes of this simple workflow solution? Essentially it needs to measure every time a staff member picks up a task, and then completes that task – one step in the process. There are variations to this, but again, we're keeping it simple.

What it boils down to is this: if you know which staff member, from which team, did which transaction, when it started, and when it finished – then you already have enough information to revolutionise your service levels.

What's the value in workflow data?

Some of you may be suspicious that there is a little bit of exaggeration in this claim. However, if you know this information then you can identify bottlenecks by finding out which part of the process is taking the longest. That will allow you to investigate each bottleneck individually, and address that problem.

Furthermore, if you know which teams are performing best, then you can investigate what they are doing, so that the other teams could learn from them. There are many other uses for such information, but this should be enough to give you some indication as to its value.

So, workflow is far from a dry subject. It is a source of invaluable information, and a means of directing improvement activity. If your company has a workflow system that does not give you the information you need to manage business operations, then you might begin to question whether you have the right solution.