You can't improve a business process if you don't understand how that process works. Managers and employees may have a general sense of how things get done in their groups, but describing the business process in a formal way can be a valuable exercise — and lead to major improvements in efficiency.

Listing all the steps included in a particular process will help ensure your team accomplishes all the things it needs to do and isn't leaving any steps out. "Take out the trash," for example, is not just taking what's in the wastebasket to the garbage can, but also replacing the bag inside the wastebasket, cleaning it periodically, taking the can out to the curb and bringing it back on trash day, cleaning the can periodically, and so on.

Once you have the list of steps in place, you can look at ways to automate the steps, as well as look for ways to make the steps more efficient, such as by eliminating bottlenecks. One bottleneck might be, "We have trouble with the trash process because the bag isn't getting replaced," and it turns out that the person taking out the trash doesn't know to replace the bag, doesn't know where bags are, or that replacement bags ran out and they don't know what to do when that happens.

Designing a workflow process from scratch might seem overwhelming at first. In some cases, parts of the workflow may be performed by different parts of the organization. Sometimes people may not be sure exactly what happens in a particular part of the process: the task goes into a group, something mysterious happens, and the task is completed.

The workflow process can be especially intimidating if an organization assigns one particular employee — who might not even be familiar with the workflow at all — to define the workflow for the entire organization. The fear of "What if I leave something out?" can be paralyzing, especially if people feel they're supposed to be creating a fancy diagram that incorporates every possible step.

To avoid those problems and to jump-start the workflow design process, some attendees at the recent Empower 2013 conference recommended this approach:

  1. Get a bunch of sticky note pads and give every employee or group involved in the workflow a separate color.
  2. Have each employee or group write what they do with a document or process on the sticky note, one step per note.
  3. When everyone is done, take the sticky notes and put them on the wall in the order the steps are performed.
  4. Leave the sticky notes up on the wall for a while. If something gets left out or there are additional steps, just add it in.

example of swim lane diagramOnce it seems like you have a complete, ordered list of steps that a document or process follows, you can go to the next step, which is creating a "swim lane" diagram. It's called that because it uses a group of columns, each assigned to a person or department, to show who's responsible for performing that particular step in the workflow. Remember the color coding with the sticky notes? That tells you who's responsible, so you can just organize the sticky notes on the wall in a way that groups all the tasks done by a single person or department in one vertical column.

At that point, you can start looking for inefficiencies. But in the meantime, you've specified the process, and that's the hardest part.

Here’s an example of reworking an existing business process.

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