Automate your business #4 – What’s next?

Once you have decided which processes you’d like to automate, it is time to build your application. There are several ways to do this: you can deliver it all at once or break down the process into short time intervals, completing small steps every two or three weeks. No matter which route is right for you, at some point you will be ready to launch the first version.

In this blog, we’ll tell you how to go about it – and we’ll explain what’s next.

Going live: from first version to perfection

It is recommended that you launch the first version for a small number of preferred customers or suppliers who are thoroughly familiar with your company culture. By processing their feedback, you will eliminate major hurdles and inconveniences.

After doing so, you can make the application available to a larger group of users that continues to grow over time. Such a ‘phased launch’ is always preferred, as it avoids peak loads (which may occur when you receive all user feedback at once) and allows your organization to gradually switch to a new way of working.

Next steps: one idea leads to another

You are likely to notice potential connections to other systems during the development and launching process. Of course, you can try to incorporate these immediately, but often, it is wise to ensure that the application runs properly first.

Once it does, employees – even those who were initially skeptical about automation – will actually experience the benefits. For example, your application probably speeds up efficiency and eliminates the need for completing tedious manual tasks.

As a result, they will be on board with it. They might even come up with some fresh ideas for your next automation steps. And in this stage, it is easier to start new initiatives or make adjustments to your existing application, which is now running smoothly.

In conclusion, we’d like to repeat what we’ve said throughout this blog series: start small, so you’re able to show tangible results quickly. When selecting a process that will benefit from automation, opt for a department that adopts a welcoming attitude towards it.The rest of the organization will follow once you can show them the advantages of your application in practice!

Automate your business #3 – Make a good start

Now that you’ve discovered your own processes and have a clear idea of processes that can benefit from automation, it is time to roll up your sleeves and get something tangible off the ground. In other words, it is time to automate your business. Answer these four questions and you’re off into the right direction.

1. Can you sketch an overall picture of your processes?

Many people don’t know much about company processes that extend beyond their own department. However, it is paramount to familiarize yourself with processes at the overarching organizational level. Only then, you will know who should do what at which time in a process.

Once you’ve acquired this information, you need to focus on the so-called happy flow: What do things look like when everything is going the way it should? Don’t focus on incidents that hardly ever occur. The effort and money spent on automating these incidents can cost you more than it saves.

Users are often happy with less and simpler options if it results in easier use of the system. Ask your stakeholders the question ‘how often does this occur’ and ‘how much time does it cost you to solve this by hand’, to really estimate the value of automating the step.

2. Why do people perform certain actions (and should you rethink these)?

If a process is carried out in a certain way ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ you might be holding on to an inefficient flow of actions. Try to track down and rethink such processes early on, because translating analogue or ineffective processes to digital versions is often a waste of time and money.

Sometimes, it is wise to eliminate certain steps or reverse the order in which things are done. A question like ‘Wouldn’t it be more efficient to do this much earlier in the process’ can be very helpful in optimizing the process. Be flexible in this regard, so you can truly benefit from automation.

3. What are your acceptance criteria?

What should the outcome of a process look like? As with the first question, it is important to leave out any details and focus on the big picture. Define a broad yet crisp-and-clear answer to this question to ensure that everyone involved understands the ultimate goal.

Of course, to achieve this, several smaller goals can be defined, for instance for each of the stakeholders.

4. Can you create a simple design to test it with stakeholders?

To explain your plan to all the stakeholders, break down your process into five to six steps (at most) and summarize it on a single page.  At this point, however, you don’t know what your application will look like, so make simple, tangible sketches to add further details to the steps.

This will allow stakeholders and/or key users to visualize the process and ask for any clarifications right away. For example, ask why a form field or button is at a certain place or stage in the application blue print. Not only is this a great way to test the waters with them, you also involve them from the very start, ensuring that they’re on board.

Automate your business #2 – Benefit from automation

Last time, we wrote that discovering processes is an essential first step if you want to embrace automation. Once you’ve gone through the three-step plan that we described, you’re ready to answer the next question: Which processes will benefit from automation?

In this blog, we have listed five processes that commonly require automation!

1. Repetitive tasks

Every company has to deal with tasks that are repetitive in nature. For example, you probably have an on boarding process in place for new employees. This might encompass a variety of actions, such as setting up a new email account, creating a personnel file, and providing a new employee with company regulations.

If you create an application that takes care of, or reminds people of all these steps, including a check-mark list for must-do tasks, you will work more efficiently and save a tremendous amount of time.

2. Increased insight for customers and suppliers

Whether you’d like to increase the efficiency of your customer ordering process or your contact with suppliers, automation provides the answer. You can build virtually everything: from a web portal which always shows customers the current status of their shipment to an application providing suppliers with all parcel requirements (including codes and dimensions), which smoothly leads them through the shipment process.

3. Manual data entry work

Optimizing your customer service is always a good idea. If customers email you certain information, it is very inefficient and time consuming to manually enter it into your own system. It would make much more sense to provide customers with login data so they can register their questions, remarks, or complaints in a system, which allows you to respond faster.

Another benefit of this method, is that you automatically have a log of old items and it’s exchangeable between employees.

4. Focusing on people’s interests

Your employees are more likely to cooperate on automation projects if their own interests are involved. So try to find processes that would probably concern them, such as the submission of receipts for work-related expenses.

If you tell them to upload all receipts to your system by the end of the month so you can process these more easily and pay them sooner, it is a win-win situation: they will get paid on time and your accounting department saves time.

5. Deadline-sensitive processes

Wherever deadlines must be met, automation comes in handy. Suppose your quoting process involves multiple people who need to approve a variety of things, from price to delivery time.

As you don’t want to keep the customer waiting for a quote, you can make an application that sets approval deadlines and sends automatic reminders. This makes it much easier to meet your customer’s expectations!

Automate your business #1 – Discovering processes

Automation: you’ve heard all about it, and as a twenty-first century company, you want to embrace it. But where to start? In this blog series, we will guide you through the process step by step. First things first: you need to discover the processes in your organization. We’ve put together a three-step to-do list for you!

1. Organize a knowledge exchange meeting with key users

It’s important to sit down and ask yourself what you truly want to achieve with automation. Many decision-makers struggle with this question, because they are not the ones who encounter process-related issues on the work floor.

Therefore, you should organize a knowledge exchange meeting with key users on a regular basis – for example, every four to six weeks. These key users are employees who have been with the company for a while and who thoroughly understand the workings of the organization.

Not only will this allow you to obtain the required information on processes; it will also show employees how automation will help them improve their own processes and prevent problems elsewhere in the organization.

Another plus is that employees will not feel overlooked, which makes it easier to create support for change within the company.

2. Keep a list with points for improvement

There are always tedious or repetitive manual tasks that employees wish a computer could do. Additionally, a new product or service may require the implementation of a brand-new process. List all the points for improvement you can find and set completion deadlines for them, so you can move on to step 3.

3. Prioritize based on several factors

Now that you’ve mapped out all processes that will benefit from automation, you need to prioritize some and postpone others. When determining the value of automation, consider two factors: urgency and difficulty. If automating a process would save you a tremendous amount of time, do it.

However, you should always give precedence to an easy-to-automate process. If changing it is simple and saves a little time, give priority to it over a highly time-saving, but very time-consuming process.

Keep in mind that you are trying to improve customer and/or employee satisfaction. If you can show people the pros of change instantly and approach this change step by step, they will adopt a more welcoming attitude towards it.

Want to step up your game? Listen to fresh voices!

Of course, you need to listen carefully to seasoned employees who know your organization from the inside out. However, you should also take fresh voices into account. New employees often provide a unique look at your processes. They are not stuck in old habits and may spot things that no one else has thought about. Acknowledge their value by allowing them to share their perspective.

Wondering about the next step? We will tell you all about it in part 2!

Embrace innovation: the importance of future-proofing your organization

Most organizations have plenty of forward-thinking people who want to innovate. Getting initiatives off the ground, however, is a different story. Oftentimes, it requires taking a leap into the unknown, and there is a good chance you will only achieve the desired result after several attempts.

Moreover, you will be held accountable if things don’t go right the first time. Sticking with your old ways or implementing internal alternatives can feel safer. Nevertheless, it is a shame if you don’t innovate, because you won’t improve.

Choosing a different route can lead to many new insights. True, it requires more time and effort. But once you succeed, there are ample benefits to reap. In this blog, we will list the three main reasons why an organization should embrace innovation. Hopefully, it will set you off in the right direction and help you unlock your company’s potential!

1. Future- and millennial-minded

Today’s young talents are the employees of the future. Therefore, it is not only important to attract them; you should also offer them a work environment that allows for growth and development.

Especially well-educated millennials want to contribute their bit and like to be heard. When they present their ideas, you should not make them feel as if they run into a stone wall. Allow them to help you change and improve, and they will.

 2. Continuous improvement

‘How can we do things in a different and better way?’ It is a question you should be asking all the time. Only then, you will be able to organize your processes in the most efficient and effective possible manner. Co-creation can be very fruitful in this context: by involving your customers or suppliers in your innovation process, you can work on securing your organizational future while strengthening your relationships.

Incidentally, don’t forget to make participants in an experimental project sign a document which states that you may not yet meet all requirements during this stage. At the same time, tell them you firmly believe that your efforts will be advantageous in the near future.

 3. Team and company culture with adaptive power

The world is innovating at a rapid speed, and management can’t afford to lag behind. For example, when flex working found its way to offices all around the globe, many organizations quickly redesigned their interiors to welcome the concept.

No more office booths or assigned desks: even CEOs should sit randomly at any desk available at the moment. It sounded great, but in many cases, management had claimed its ‘own’ corner within a month. The result: work processes were not adapted to new ways of working, and nothing improved.

In our other innovation blogs, we will discuss how you can recognize and eliminate such innovation killers!

Innovative initiatives: how do you realize them?

In our last blogs about innovation, we discussed the importance of embracing innovation and explained how to recognize and eliminate innovation killers. Now, it is time to look at the requirements for innovative ideas and the way you can realize them.

Every process of innovation follows a pattern of trying, failing, learning and trying again. So before you can innovate, you actually have to realize the ideas you have been thinking about for awhile. What does it take to get a good initiative out of one’s head and into reality?

 1. The speed of trust

Innovation is about letting go of the obsolete – and, therefore, about loosening control. It is about trying out new things, that can lift up and boost your organization – or make everything a little less great. You never know what’s going to happen.

Many organizations struggle to make those courageous decisions, as this increases the risk that things could go wrong. It is, however, important to trust your experts if you want to get something innovative off the ground.

For example, before the 2007 launch of the very first iPhone, Apple employees were granted trust and a certain amount of freedom to develop a device that was completely different from any cell phone ever released.

No one knew what was going to happen, but they went for it anyway and it turned out really well for the company. Your innovation process asks for the same courage – and trust.

2. Failed attempts? No problem!

Innovation comes from the Latin word ‘innovationem’. Until the 16th century, being a ‘novator’ wasn’t a good thing. They were treated very carefully and were not to be trusted, as a ‘novator’ was a heretic or a disbeliever.

That’s right, innovation comes from people who didn’t feel comfortable with the established religion and came up with their own ideas. If you want to be innovative, come up with your own ideas, even if not everyone’s immediately on board. Because although it turned out well for Apple, sometimes it takes a long time before innovative processes bring any benefit to your organization.

It is crucial to realize from the beginning, that innovation processes hardly ever go right the first time. While trying out new things, you discover what works and what doesn’t and this way you learn by trial and error. Apple did, Triggre did, and so will every other organization.

At the same time, it is important to take damage control into account so you (and your employees) are well prepared. For example, explain to your test group what you are trying to accomplish and have them sign a document stating that you are at an experimental stage. Also, pick the right process to experiment with – not all processes are suitable!

3. Leading with a compass (not with a clock)

When you are planning an innovative move, it all starts with the ‘why’. Ask yourself why your organization is making changes and create a goal before you start. After awhile, you can check the progress your organization has made, by asking if you are getting closer to the ‘why’.

‘Are we heading into the right direction?’ is the key question in innovation processes, and it should be one of the few you are (re)answering along the way. If the progress gets you closer to fixing the reason why you are innovating, your organization is on the right track.

When implementing innovative initiatives, it is essential to lead with a compass, rather than a clock. After all, you don’t know how long a process will take. You take steps forward and you take steps back, and the project plan will most likely never be on schedule.

Still, every move will get you closer to innovating and being better than before. You can only determine at regular intervals whether you are still on track towards your final goal: innovation!

Innovation killers: how to recognize and eliminate reluctance

In our other blog about innovation, we discussed why it is important for organizations to embrace innovation. Today, we would like to help you tackle a related issue: innovation killers.

Many organizations have employees who want to innovate, but who cannot seem to get their initiatives off the ground. The majority tends to cling onto the ‘safe’ status quo, which makes it risky to pursue innovative ideas. After all, if it goes wrong – and it often does the first two or three attempts – you will be held accountable in an innovation-unfriendly environment.

This is a shame, because sticking to old habits inevitably means that you won’t improve. Below, we will list three common innovation killers. If you can recognize and address them, it is easier to eliminate reluctance and take your first steps towards innovation!

1. Being swayed by the issues of the day

Most companies are always busy organizing sales, delivery, and transportation. Oftentimes, innovative initiatives have to make room for such urgent matters. However, if you think about it, organizations with this mentality are fighting a losing battle.

After all, they can’t improve their efficiency. It is only sensible to take a moment to consider why your processes are organized the way they are. Only then, you can spot the gaps and make improvements.

 2. Compliance-related concerns

There is an ever-increasing amount of laws and regulations that you need to comply with. Consequently, many decision makers leave the green-lighting of new initiatives to their IT compliance experts.

However, experience shows that the answer completely depends on the individual handling a proposal: many people reject initiatives because they are afraid to make a compliance-related mistake.

Due to the associated fear of things going awry, compliance can be a real innovation killer. Therefore, a change in mindset is crucial: organizations and their employees need to realize that compliance can actually assist in setting up innovative initiatives.

 3. The widely dreaded bureaucracy

Many organizations are hindered by the seemingly countless departments a proposal needs to pass through before any action can be taken. Employees with innovative ideas are often scared away by such drawn-out processes. They give up before they have even tried.

One way to break through this cycle of bureaucracy is to take calculated risks. On a case-by-case basis, try to determine whether it is acceptable to opt for a faster-than-usual route when it comes to an innovative initiative.

If so, you could try it out among a small number of end customers. Have them sign a contract stating that they are aware of being in a test group upfront. This will reassure the legal department and ensure that your end customers are involved in your innovation process!

3 Tips to Rethink and Greatly Improve your Business Processes

Together with our customers we have made quite some interesting process changes over the years. I wanted to share some of the most important insights we have gained and give a few examples that might help you rethink your processes.

#1 Simplification

It may seem superfluous to say, but many processes can be simplified. Many companies are doing things the way they do just because they have always done them this way. A good way to start, is at the data that is used in the process. Look at every field of data used in the process such as for example employee number, customer social security number, etc. For each of these fields find out why you need it. If you can’t find out why, simply cross it out.

We have noticed that many times data is used in a process that is needed by law. However, laws change and it is easy to then forget that the data in a process is linked to it. One of our customers was once still storing customer’s identity information while that was no longer needed by law. We changed the process to a much simpler one, which got rid of everything related to the customer’s identity information.

#2 Automation and exceptions

One of the most interesting changes to make in a process is to automate it so that it becomes manageable by exception. This means that most of the times the process is executed, it can be handled completely automatically. Only if there is an exceptional case should a human employee intervene. This may sound a little bit abstract so let me give you a real world example.

A customer had a process where they hired external people on a regular basis to supervise exams. Those supervisors would declare their travel costs and time they spent. All this information was sent by regular mail. The information was then typed into SAP after being checked. Before paying the amount the entire declaration was checked again. This took a lot of time obviously and was seriously error-prone.

What we designed together with our customer is a process that is almost fully automated. From their online exam booking system we get all the information needed to determine the declaration; home address of the supervisor, address of the exam location, the duration of the exam and whether the supervisor was present and the financial information to transfer the money to the supervisor. With this information we use an internet service to automatically calculate the travel expenses. The duration of the exam is used to calculate the declaration for the exam.

All declarations for a month are combined for the supervisor, who can then simply download the declaration for his administration. The declaration is automatically transferred to the supervisor, who has an option to file a complaint if he thinks something is wrong (which is an exception, because most information is provided by the supervisor in the first place through the online exam booking software).

In this example the success rate is higher than 95% which is a good rule of thumb to aim for when designing such processes. You want to be able to achieve as close to 100% automation as you can, but certainly not lower than 90%. The process in this example eliminates a lot of copying of data manually, almost fully automates the process and provides time saving for both the company and the supervisor. Win-win.

#3 – Responsibility and self-service

A final tip on automating and rethinking processes is to take responsibility into account. Some processes require some input from a customer, supplier or employee. It helps enormously if you can design it in such a way that the person who has most to gain, is the one responsible for supplying the information. This creates a natural pressure to perform, which can then be further helped by sending a reminder if the data is not yet supplied after a certain amount of time.

One example of such responsibility is when we designed a process for an educational institute where the participant could indicate his company would pay. In this case, we would send an email to the company asking them to sign off on paying for the education, which would expire after 7 days. This places the responsibility to make sure the employer will sign off right where it is best put: at the participant who wants to take the course.

This step greatly reduced the amount of time spent handling requests, both because the educational institute no longer had to call after the employer, but also because there were far less issues with people trying to get a course paid by their employer without permission.

How the Rolodex was digitalized and what you should learn from it

There used to be a time, which I hope many of you have forgotten about, that the Rolodex ruled the desk of every manager around the world. Being in someone’s Rolodex and having important contacts in it, was a sign of accomplishment in the business world.

Since then, this analog way of storing contact information has moved into the museum as digital alternatives have completely taken over. The process of how the Rolodex was digitalized, provides important lessons we can put into practice today when digitalizing our business processes.

What first came to mind…

The first version of a digital version of a Rolodex I used was Outlook 95. It allowed to save contacts, along with the same information that people would put on their contact cards such as their address and telephone number. And of course their e-mail address, although almost no-one had an e-mail address back then.

At the time, I thought it was brilliant. Searching for contacts digitally was much easier than physically.

Looking back, being honest, it really wasn’t an improvement. I had to type over all the information on every card I got, instead of just sticking the card in the Rolodex. That lead to typos, which meant I had to call the company the person worked at to get the correct information.

Also, this process took way more time than simply adding a card to a Rolodex. And while we’re being honest … searching digitally was cool, but back then not really much faster than the Rolodex…

Digitalizing analog processes

The problem with digitalizing a process in a straigh-forward way, like the example of the contacts in Outlook versus the Rolodex, usually leads to less efficient processes. There are inherent differences between analog processes and digital processes. These differences can either be good or bad, depending on how you utilize them.

Analog Digital
Paper is hard to copy Digital data is easy to copy
Easy to secure Hard to secure
Hard to access data Easy to access data
Hard to scale up Easy to scale up
Easy to change process Hard to change process
Hard to ensure compliance Easy to ensure compliance

Let’s take a quick look at some of the aspects and how they can be used in a good way and a bad way. For example, paper is hard to copy. This can be an obvious weakness when we are trying to provide information on a contract to a different location of the company for example. Digital information can easily be copied, for example simply by mailing the document to a person that works at the other location.

But you can also leverage this aspect of a paper process. Things being hard to copy, means they are harder to steal or leak for example. A signed physical document is much harder to falsify than its digital equivalent. Similar arguments can be made for accessibility and security.

Even compliance being hard can be a positive. Paper processes are notoriously hard to comply with simply because there is not a real restriction on executing the process. No matter how specific your paper form is, someone can scribble something extra on the paper or fill out a field completely incorrectly.

For digital processes, these steps can be made in such a way that only the exactly correct information can be entered. In many cases this is a positive, but there are cases where this leads to edge cases not being possible. When the process is very strict, it is easy to comply with, but it loses flexibility.

What today’s digitalized Rolodex looks like

Today’s version of the Rolodex completely leverages the advantages that can be achieved by going digital. However, it also has some weaknesses that come along with going digital. Weighing the pros and cons though, I would say that LinkedIn is a huge improvement over the analog Rolodex. But it works in a completely different way.

LinkedIn leverages the fact that digital information can easily be accessed and copied. Instead of relying on every person to maintain their own copy of someone’s data, LinkedIn simply allows you to link to the data of a person.

This means that when the person’s phone number or address changes, it is effectively copied into your contact list. Much easier than the digital Rolodex example I gave earlier.

Because LinkedIn is digital, it is very easily accessible. This means I can access my digital Rolodex from home, work, while on the road, and via any device that I am using at that particular moment.

Accessibility is one of the most powerful aspects of digital processes. But it becomes even more powerful when combined with the ease of copying data, as the LinkedIn example shows us.

A big downside of digital, is that it can be hacked. People can steal your password, or they can hack into the system (after all, it’s easily accessible), and get your personal data out of it. This is a big downside, admittedly. That is why we are always stressing security so much when considering digitalizing processes. And security is hard for businesses, as witnessed by the many data leaks we are confronted with every week.

Digital is better

All things considered though, I wouldn’t want to go back to my old Rolodex. LinkedIn has many benefits added to my old Rolodex that were simply impossible in the analog age. Perhaps you found this article through LinkedIn because I or someone else shared it. Or you found a new employer, business partner or customer through your 2nd line or 3rd line connections.

These are all advantages that were impossible before the Rolodex went digital in the right way. So when it comes to digital processes, always remember to leverage the correct aspects of digital to make sure your new process blows the old one out of the water!

How to draft a plan of improvement

In our previous blogs, we discussed the importance of determining the happy flow and addressing the bottle necks. Once you’ve asked all necessary questions, you can take concrete steps towards creating your own application. Key to this process is a nicely timed series of ‘what ifs.’

Alternative scenarios, subsequent steps

What if we would leave these process steps out? What if we would add another step? What if we would create an application that sends text messages in addition to emails? Such questions allow you to broaden your horizon and come to an actionable plan of improvement.

However, it is essential to write down all subsequent steps, because one single change in your process will likely cause a so-called ripple effect: many other steps will be affected by it. Therefore, you need to check if this change will not result in any problems later in the process and if it will create a desirable overall outcome.

By way of example, let’s have a look at the above mentioned text message solution. Suppose an employee with a commercial position receives tons of emails each day, which often causes new account requests to end up on the bottom of the pile. This, in turn, leads to unwanted and unnecessary delays.

So, you could try to create an application that first sends out an email, but that also sends text message reminders at set intervals. And if said the employee does not respond to the latter, the application may ultimately send the request to an authorized co-worker.

Now, it is important to ‘tell’ yourself the subsequent story: write down exactly what would happen next, taking the smallest steps into account. That way, you can see if the application you have in mind will work in practice!

Making decisions, drafting a plan

If all the steps lead to a desired result, you can definitively opt for a specific solution. When writing down your plan of improvement, be short and concise: in most cases, one page will suffice. Using this plan, you can create the first version of your application, which you will continuously improve.

The reason why it’s important to make something tangible quickly is that once created, your application will allow you to make improvements by trial and error. If it does not yet yield the hoped-for result, you can easily go back to your series of ‘what-if questions’ and adjust the application where needed!

Keep in mind that changing a lot at once can make your improvement process very slow. You’d want to offer your users new features as soon as possible, so it’s recommended that you divide this process into phases. Keep an eye on our blog to read more about this subject!