Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I've done everything I can to fix my business and it's still broken...

You know that parts of your business aren't working as well as they should. Workers are crying out for help (or if they are not, you have even bigger problems). You want to do better. The problem is finding out why things aren't working. Like most problems, those related to business processes only become clear when you find a way of observing them differently.

Here is a real life example of how a fresh viewpoint, and some simple changes made a big difference to a business. A large credit union in the US thought it was doing all the right things to make the business more efficient and serve customers better: scanning correspondence, application forms and supporting documents; integrating customer information into an online portal; capturing reports directly from the mainframe into a searchable database. Despite these efforts, the back-office employees were still overloaded with work and the Customer Services workers couldn't always answer customer inquiries without having to phone them back later. With so many documents stored electronically, it seemed that there was not a problem with the availability of information, so what was the problem?

This credit union, like many organizations, thought that making everything that was paper into electronic media would solve all their problems. What they had missed were the elements of time and flow: how soon was the information getting into the system and where did it go once it was there? The challenge was that although scanning paper documents and application forms made them available at a moment's notice, there was often a delay of several days from the time that a customer or agent dispatched the paper to when it was actually captured into the system. Then once it was in the system, how did anyone know it was there to be acted on? The employees resorted to sending out summary emails every hour, informing their colleagues of the existence of new documents.

Although it appeared that there was a problem with a lack of workflow (and this was certainly one aspect of the problem), the bigger issue was that many of the documents started off life as paper, with all the delays, errors and inefficiencies associated. Many important customer requests would take days to enter the system, during which time Customer Services was blind to their existence.

The solution was easy - bit by bit common application forms and requests were made available to agents over the Internet and to customers through their portal. This was not a matter of creating PDFs that looked like the original paper, but instead was a set of more useful forms that captured the key information directly in the web browser, submitting a form's data directly to a system that could store it and inform employees that a new request was available. No printing, faxing or scanning required.

The advantages were suddenly obvious:
  • the scanning of paper documents was reduced to a manageable volume; requests were available to Customer Services immediately
  • common errors on application forms were caught before they were submitted
  • the information was presented in a form that was far more useable than a mere image of a paper document
  • simple workflows could be put in place to remove the need for constant email work summaries

What made this all possible for this credit union? An alternative view of the way the organization was working and moving its information (stemming from a short consulting engagement), a solution that made it easy to configure and present secure forms on a website or Intranet without huge software development projects, and a simple workflow to push work to the right people as soon as it was available.

Some business problems are simpler to solve than they appear. There is often not a need to consider huge re-engineering exercises, just to identify the true source of a problem and use tools that help you fix it without introducing complex technology. Business process improvement is well within the grasp of any organization willing to look at what they do a little differently.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit www.consected.com

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