You’ve Kicked Everyone Out of the Office. Now What?

Process Improvement in the Virtual Workplace, Part 1

Organizations implement telework programs for various reasons, from saving real estate costs to improving employee satisfaction.  However, very few think about how processes may be affected once employees are dispersed or working from home.  There’s an opportunity to leverage the virtual environment to improve old processes and make things more efficient and effective if leaders take the time to understand what is really going on in their business and search for ways to do things better.

Let’s take a quick example.  I used to work for an organization that had a very manual check request process.  An employee had a need for money, say to reimburse a job candidate that recently came in for an interview.  The requester had to fill out a paper form then get several signatures on it for approval before accounts payable would print and send the check.  Simple, right?  Now imagine what happens if everyone is working from home or remotely and a requester can’t walk through the process or get physical signatures.  This could severely slow down the process.   How do you prevent this?

 First, understand all the steps of the process.  If the process is not already documented, map the process in detail, including all the steps (even the rework loops and steps that don’t add any value).  Process aficionados will no doubt be familiar with process mapping software like Microsoft Visio but I have created it below using pen and paper to illustrate how easy this is (and yes, I do know how bad my drawing  is).

A couple of quick notes about the process map: I have created a cross-functional process map, or “swim lanes,” to show the major players involved and the handoffs between them.  I have also annotated the manual workflow (the envelope icons) and where we might have metrics or policy issues (more on that later).

When you map the process you may be surprised at how many steps and people are actually involved.   Just going through this exercise can be beneficial because it teaches you a lot about what’s really happening.   The paper form needs 2 to 3 approvals, it travels 3 to 4 times through company mail (if everything goes right), and there are 4 opportunities for rework or for the form to get kicked back to the requester. 

Next, measure the process.  You may have existing metrics or identify where you would like to collect some data (annotated by the “M” on the map).  You may be interested in things such as the average number of check requests, the overall cycle time of the entire process, the number of times a request is rejected at each approval, and/or the quality of check requests (number of requests forms filled out correctly vs. what’s rejected by accounts payable).  Once you know how the process is performing you can set targets or goals once the process goes virtual.    

Third, look at your organization’s policies or industry regulations.  This will provide potential constraints or limitations on the new process design once you begin to build it.  On the process map above, I have highlighted some areas with the letter “P” to investigate further.  For example, is there a policy or regulation requiring a hand signature or would an e-signature suffice?  What are the thresholds (i.e. check amounts)  that require additional approval?  In other words, do I need this many people to approve a check??

A word of caution: don’t rush this discovery process.  The more you know about the process can save you lots of time when you build the new, improved version.  In Part 2 next week, I will cover how to take the next step by using what you learn to create the virtual process.

– Jason

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