man jumping over the middle of the road dividing line
PHOTO: Thien Dang

Processes are the building blocks that make up an organization’s end product. But they’re often so baked into operations that it can be easy to overlook the need to continuously optimize them.

And yet the need is there — 62 percent of employees observe broken processes in their organization, and 67 percent say those broken processes prevent them from maximizing their full potential.

Naturally, leaders are setting out to optimize their business processes in hopes of seeing stronger outcomes. But understanding next steps can be hard. From choosing which processes to optimize to figuring the exact improvements that need to be made, leaders can quickly feel overwhelmed.

So how can you know where to start and how to take action when overhauling processes?

Related Article: Why You Should Approach Robotic Process Automation With a Critical Eye

The 3 Breeds of Processes

One of the most overwhelming elements of the process automation journey is the sheer volume of processes an organization owns, and grasping the automation potential. To understand which are best for optimizing, we can sort them into three definitive categories.

The Moonshot Processes

These processes present large and abstract problems that plague entire industries and offer high ROI if they can actually be improved. But because these problems are so high-level, they’re risky to pursue, and success can be uncertain. Large consulting firms and tech giants tend to dedicate themselves to fixing or developing these processes. 

For example, Google wanted to create a process for improving pixelated, low-resolution photos. It brought AI into the process hoping that neural networks could produce a clear image out of unclear pixels. But its end solution wound up creating distorted, monstrous-looking images. While working toward solutions for these far-reaching processes is admirable, it may not be the right focus for everyday leadership teams seeking to enact fast and measurable value through process automation.

The Day-to-Day Processes

On the other end of the spectrum, small processes drive daily productivity and collaboration for the individual office worker. Luckily, many tools have emerged over the years to help refine and automate simple workflows. With low-cost and user-friendly tools at your disposal, daily collaboration processes don’t require much attention from automation teams. Their optimization is already largely taken care of through the simple application of a cloud-based tool.

The Middle-Ground Processes

The broad middle ground of processes offers the richest opportunity for applying process automation. Projects fall behind thanks to hiccups in these often-overlooked processes, from form submissions to approval processes to resource allocation. The good news is these processes are easy to automate without heavy lifting, and they offer quick ROI. Consider a manufacturing workflow: A request for a custom-build product comes in, and a team has to manually check on which materials they need and which they already have in stock. A team leader then needs to provide sign-off on the order for the new materials, but they’re out for the next week on vacation, and the request sits on a desk as the project goes nowhere. Bringing in automation capabilities allows a team to cut out the delays and route a project through the workflow much faster.

Related Article: Automating the Digital Workplace

How to Approach Middle-Ground Automation

Middle-ground processes may offer the best opportunities for automation, but the prospect of getting started can cause paralysis. Teams can focus on a few defining steps to put them on the right path to process automation.

Approach the Problem Holistically

Some leaders tend to approach broken processes from a tech-only perspective. But the business side is equally important. Rather than simply seeking a tech-based solution that can be applied to the broken process like a band-aid, teams have to work backwards to understand what kind of productivity gains they want to see from the process. Once those metrics are defined, construct a new process that cuts out the inefficiencies, then seek the right tool to help you do that.

Document

Tracking process inefficiencies over a period of time provides strong context and increases the likelihood of buy-in from others in the organization. Provide evidence of how current processes are dragging down operations and create projected metrics of how a solid process can fix those inefficiencies. 

However, don’t get hung up in the documentation phase. Some leaders find themselves in an endless cycle of documenting and digging deeper into their problems without proceeding to the next stage of fixing them. Your documentation means nothing if you don’t do anything to solve the issues you uncover.

Don’t Be a Perfectionist

Leaders should also strive to find a balance between defining the correct solution and moving on to implement it. It can take months or even years to iron out every detail ahead of rolling out a new process, but that’s valuable time lost when you could troubleshoot a new solution in real-time, ultimately arriving at greater productivity faster. Be bold enough to implement a new, almost-perfect process and smooth out the imperfections as they present themselves. Your organization will undoubtedly reap the benefits.

As organizations identify their processes requiring automation plans, they should focus on the middle-ground workflows and seek the right balance of reflection and action when defining their new processes. In developing a well-planned workflow and implementing it in a timely manner, your previously overlooked processes will smooth out operations and provide a newly optimized end product.