CIO

Workflow Gone Wrong

If you're planning to implement workflow management software -- or to create a solution of your own -- you need to learn about the most common mistakes.

When implemented incorrectly, applying workflow to processes actually reduces efficiency, increases costs and generates a lot of internal friction in the company. Here are some trouble spots to look for.

  • Who's going to bell the cat? "It's a mistake to buy a product without thinking through who's going to carry out the implementation," says Freddy May, CEO of Quask. The actual implementation can be done in-house, by a consultant or even by the vendor.
  • Lack of process definition. By definition, workflow applies to a process. But a process is not a collection of random business activities. It is a single stream of activities connected in a specific order. If what you're trying to improve with workflow isn't an actual process, you'll end up with a dysfunctional mess.
  • Also, make sure the process is amenable to workflow. "You should not try to automate activities that are too flexible or too poorly structured," says Wilhelm Ederyd, a technical project manager at Bonver, a major Scandinavian distributor of home entertainment products. "If you do, the solution will be useless to the end users, since the workflow is too rigid and does not allow them to perform their job tasks."

  • Thinking too big. Size your process to your resources and tackle the problem from the bottom up. Almost all processes are composed of smaller processes. The best strategy is to break the process into bite- sized chunks.
  • Striving for perfection the first time out. "Don't try to implement a 100 percent solution in the first place," says Michael Cybala, director of program and product management transactional solutions for Open Text Corp. in Waterloo, Ont. Canada. "Cover 85 or 90 percent of the business requirement and then learn where you can get better."
  • Ederyd agrees: "Do not try to implement the perfect process from the start or you will get bogged down with the complexity and users and management might lose interest in the project."

  • Improving the wrong thing. It's easy to waste money applying workflow to the wrong processes. "Wrong," in this case, means processes that return minimal or no value for being improved. It's vital to pick your targets carefully -- especially in the beginning.
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  • Failing to get buy-in. As with any change in an organization, it's important to have the key players on board with the plan.
  • Ignoring the human element. Almost by definition, implementing workflow means combining systems and people. If the people don't understand the process, and its benefit, they aren't likely to cooperate enthusiastically.
  • Re-engineering the whole organization at once. While some approaches to improving an company's function, such as ERP, have to be applied to the entire organization essentially simultaneously, workflow is process-based. That means it's inherently bottom-up and it's easy to implement one process at a time.
You may intend to improve every process in the organization, and as you gain more confidence you may work on several processes at the same time, but starting small and building block by block decreases risk and improves chances of success.

"If you start with 20 or 30 processes you're missing out on the opportunity to learn on the job," says May.