One of the biggest challenges for a startup is to accomplish its lofty goals with limited resources. Finding a way to get from Point A to Point B without crashing and burning can be a tall order for the owner.
There’s no single formula for success, obviously, but one of the central issues you will face will be how to optimize your workflow.
Why Workflow Matters.
You’ve undoubtedly seen and heard the word thrown around -- maybe you’ve even used it a few times yourself, when you’ve talked about your company -- but what is workflow, exactly? And how do you optimize it when you’re just starting out?
“A workflow consists of an orchestrated and repeatable pattern of business activity enabled by the systematic organization of resources into processes that transform materials, provide services, or process information,” according to one definition. “It can be depicted as a sequence of operations, declared as work of a person or group, an organization of staff, or one or more simple or complex mechanisms.”
Traditionally, manufacturing industries and other firms that used assembly lines to produce their goods or services have focused on workflow. As the notion of repeatable processes has come to be applied in other contexts, less traditional industries have seen the value and adopted similar practices.
Digitization of so many functions has made modern workflows easier to track in a variety of companies. Software and applications have streamlined the process and handed company executives fast, real-time ways to measure what’s happening at both the micro and macro level.
If you’re operating from the perspective of a startup, you might wonder about what’s in it for you. Why pour a lot of time and resources (which are both precious commodities) into workflow optimization?
The answers can be fairly broad, but a few of the major benefits include:
- Maintain consistency. There’s much to be said for consistency. When you optimize workflow, you can reduce variance, which means greater consistency and more predictability (in terms of both inputs and outputs).
- Identify weaknesses. When you optimize workflow, you identify weaknesses as well as areas that could be improved. You become more aware of gaps in your processes, and identify loopholes and shortfalls that could use attention. This might not be much fun at the front end, but you could reap substantial rewards in the future.
- Streamline the mundane. Every business includes boring, manually intensive processes that may be critical, but are typically not inspiring for the employees who have to perform them. Workflow optimization might not eliminate the need for such activities, but it might streamline the mundane and allow you to spend more time and energy focused on activities that are more fulfilling and engaging.
- Enhance customer experience. On the back end, workflow optimization improves the customer experience. As Base Technologies explains, “Customers notice and appreciate consistent, expedient responses to their inquiries and concerns. Workflow optimization gives your employees the tools they need to communicate confidence each time they deal with customers.”
When you see workflow optimization through the lens of such benefits, you might begin to recognize the tangible role it plays, and why it matters to your youthful operation as it moves ahead.
Six Tips for Enhancing Your Company’s Workflow.
Whether you recognize it or not, your startup has a workflow. It might not be as process-intensive as it would be for a firm that manufactures complex goods, but you inevitably develop a way of doing things.
An investment in optimization will yield healthy, long-term results. Unsure about where to start? Here are some simple yet practical suggestions:
1. Identify Challenges.
It starts with identifying your greatest challenges … both from a management and operational perspectives. If you aren’t aware of the challenges, it’s difficult to optimize workflow and derive relevant value from the process.
The challenges your organization faces in terms of workflow will depend on the industry you’re in and your current strengths and weaknesses. But here are some of the common workflow problems that have been identified by IDC research:
- Incompatible systems. Did you know that 80 percent of business leaders have systems in place that don’t communicate with other internal systems and applications (let alone those of outside partners)? This is most problematic in the case of document tracking. Companies that addressed a “document disconnect” issue have enjoyed revenue increases of 36 percent and cost reductions of 30 percent.
- Long invoicing processes. If you’re a small startup, you might find it an easy process right now, but invoicing can grow into a time-consuming, resource-intensive activity as your company expands. The billing process involves rounds of approval, consumes lots of paper, and may entail a considerable amount of effort to track down late payments. By ironing out the wrinkles in this area, you can keep everything moving.
- Poor collaboration. Nothing is more vital to an organization than communication. Unfortunately, it can be astonishingly poor in some firms. Remote work has exacerbated the issue. If you don’t have solid communications systems in place, you’ll have real struggles as your workforce grows.
Every company faces unique challenges. If the three items above don’t apply to your operation, look for the ones that do. Until you take the trouble to dissect your organization honestly, you won’t be able to optimize to any substantial degree.
2. Set Goals.
Once you’ve identified the challenges, shift your attention to overcoming them and optimizing workflow. This starts with setting tangible objectives.
Your goals should be SMART ones. In other words, they need to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Don’t expect the process to happen overnight. It can take days or weeks to come up with SMART goals that will impel your startup forward.
3. Try Workflow Software.
You can take plenty of practical steps to optimize the workflow at your startup, but there’s also likely to be opportunities to streamline various processes with the help of software programs. Specifically, you may want to implement workflow software.
“Digital workflow software provides organizations with strategic technology capable of creating and executing cross-enterprise business processes,” PNMsoft explains. “Workflows can be deployed, monitored and continuously optimize cross-enterprise functionality within a mixed environment of people, content and systems.”
Businesses love workflow software because of its cost-effective advantages. Not only can it address glaring issues, but it may enhance productivity, increase visibility, improve accountability, and empower your company to react more swiftly to change.
4. Use Automated Solutions.
In addition to workflow-specific software, you should think about automated solutions to help you overcome workflow challenges you identified. You probably won’t be surprised to learn there’s a solution for almost all of them.
Take invoicing. AP automation software -- for example, Avidxchange -- can help you automate and streamline workflows to ensure ubiquitous access to necessary data without wasting time.
Perhaps your biggest challenge will involve collaboration. Project management software, can help you organize files and facilitate seamless communication from team to team without delays.
The point is that there’s an automated solution for almost every issue. Whatever challenge you’re looking at, there’s a tool that can help you overcome it. If you identify challenges and set measurable goals, choosing the correct automated solution becomes fairly straightforward.
5. Standardize Processes.
At the heart of workflow optimization is process standardization. The less room you leave for interpretation or variance, the easier it becomes to maintain control and manage your resources.
The key is to standardize without weighing down your organization with unnecessary bureaucracy. Too much standardization -- especially early on -- can stifle creativity and prevent your company from evolving where it needs to go.
To a degree, processes like invoicing, accounting, employee scheduling, and supply-chain logistics can be standardized, but take care not to impose too much standardization on creative pursuits like marketing and product development.
6. Document Everything.
One of the biggest issues for startups is that turnover can be high over the first few years. Unless you want to spend all your time bringing new hires up to speed, you would be wise to invest in good documentation.
“Document your procedures so your new employees can get up to speed and hit the ground running on their first days,” entrepreneur Brian Casel suggests. “Well-documented procedures for all of those repetitive tasks in your business will make it 100 times easier for new employees to begin their jobs.”
Give Your Startup the Boost It Needs.
Many companies don’t think about workflow optimization until they’ve already developed processes and become entrenched in them. It might seem unnecessary at first, but an early investment in workflow optimization need not be premature. Rather, it could be very smart.
It’ll give you the boost to move with confidence from Point A to Point B … not only with regard to individual processes, but in terms of organizational growth and maturation, as well.
Workflow optimization starts with company leadership and steadily transforms the rest of the organization. If you don’t prioritize a strategic, unencumbered workflow that maximizes resources and curbs waste, then how can you expect anyone else to? Lead by example and enjoy the results.