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In today’s world, documents, whether paper or electronic, must be routed through an organization to trigger action. Although email is perceived to be superior to paper, it has caused significant issues, including the time for a worker to review large daily volumes of email and to sort emails based upon subject lines, which are often too vague or detailed.

These issues are further compounded by emails being:
  • Routed incorrectly, as some workers reply to one, reply to all or don’t reply at all—which impacts an organization's ability to make decisions and measure a process.
  • Deleted too early or kept too long—a violation of organizational retention/disposition rules—resulting in possible litigation or audit penalties.
The core issue is that email was never designed as a workflow or document management tool.

Today, one solution is to replace or complement email routing with workflow technology, a software tool that allows for improved routing of documents (sequential, parallel), automation of decision-making (if, then else) and measurement of processes, and to replace email/shared network drive document storage with electronic content management (ECM) software to control document versions, indexing, search and retention/disposition.

However, a significant challenge in the deployment of workflow is that processes supported through email many times are not well defined or are inefficient. So, how does an organization properly deploy workflow? In my experience, processes should be properly baselined and cleaned up/improved previous to workflow automation.

One process improvement method to explore is the Toyota Production System (TPS). This method is based upon continuous process improvement (CPI) and is geared towards elimination of all waste in a process by:
  • Stopping a process immediately when a problem occurs, preventing defects from being produced (jidoka)
  • Only producing what is needed by the next process (just-in-time)
Typically, wastes addressed by TPS include overproduction (classically, the largest waste), time on hand (waiting), transportation, processing itself, stock at hand, movement and production of defective products/services.

These wastes, also defined as lean thinking, are a valuable way to look at a process, previous to increased workflow automation, to improve quality, efficiency and services. Of course, to apply TPS or lean thinking, it is best to do so after processes are baselined (defined), measured and analyzed so that in a process redesign (previous to workflow automation), they can be improved (i.e., waste reduction) and controlled to support continuous process improvement.

George Dunn is the founder and president of CRE8 Independent Consultants and is a worldwide recognized consultant, speaker, instructor, contributing editor and author on business process innovation and improvement, paperless technologies and complex computer system replacement planning. He has over 25 years of experience in the advanced technology and process improvement industry. Follow him on Twitter @CRE8consultants.

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