by November 1, 2004 0 comments

Once the elementary stage of e-enabling the business is over, and you are ready for that big jump into full-fledged e-business, comes workflow automation, beyond simple process automation. Typically, this part is for larger organizations, or ones with fairly established processes.

What is the difference? While process automation can exist as independent islands without connecting to one another.

Workflow automation joins multiple processes together to complete the ‘work’. A typical workflow can extend across multiple departments, divisions and multiple levels in the organization.

Workflow defines the order and conditions based upon which the work flows in an organization. It also defines and allocates the work to the people and schedules it. That is, what action is to be taken at each point along the flow and within how much time? 

A bit of theory is in order before we proceed onto the practical aspects of workflow management using a case study.

There are primarily three types of workflow processes: Production workflow, Administrative workflow and Ad-hoc workflow. Production workflow includes processes that are highly structured, detailed and pre-defined. For example, leave sanctioning or managing procurement. In Administrative workflow, the processes are handled through templates, and ability to handle processes simultaneously is less than production workflow. The user has to tell the system, who the next user of the process is, and what needs to be done with the process. In Ad-hoc workflow, the processes are created or modified as and when the circumstances arise. Automated systems can handle all three types of workflows.

The selection of workflow system is critical and needs to be decided according to the type of process to be automated.

Workflow systems fall into three other categories: image based, form based and coordination based. 

Image workflow systems convert paper-based process to digital images using imaging technology. The images are stored and then routed to the user for further processing. Image workflow systems are useful where there are thousands of standardized documents to be processed every month and responded to without any modification. Cheque processing in banks is a good example of this. 

Form workflow systems, unlike image flow systems, are text based and consist of editable fields. The system routes the form to the intended user. In coordination workflow systems the process loops between users. Each user in the loop has to take some action based on the other users’ action/s. A price negotiation process is a good example of this.

One of the important elements in defining a workflow system is to ensure that it can handle multiple file formats such as spreadsheets, documents and images.

Case study

Timex a leading manufacturer of wrist watches has automated most of its processes, but does maintain manual processes for some activities such as excise and tax documents. The automation was done using software developed in house. Oracle 9i was used as the back end at the factory, and the regional offices, with the front end being developed in Developer 2000. The warehouse and point of sale automation was done using Sybase and Power Builder. 

Originally, Timex used different software within different parts of the organization. And these systems did not take data from each other. This resulted in data duplication and more importantly, information not being available on time. Manual process made users dependent on each other. Any employee leaving the company meant that the others became less productive, because he has walked away with important information on how the process worked.

Cost estimation was a key area of concern. The product cost was estimated and there was no way to calculate the individual cost components and their breakdown. For example, what percentage of cost was due to overhead expenses vs what was it for raw material. This meant that the margins calculated for a product were at best and approximation. 

Timex went in for an integrated workflow-based solution to be able to manage the business better.

What did the workflow solution deliver? Benefits include better production planning, Reduction of manpower deployed for just handling the processes, productivity improvements, effective inventory management and the ability to respond faster to changing market conditions. More than that, the workflow system was also able to give real- time information on credit status and cash collection. 

Due to process automation, manpower requirement for some of the functions went down by as much as 40 percent. Timex was able to meet the market demand in less time. New product development time came down to forty-five days from four months. 

Workflow automation brings its own set of challenges with it.

The biggest challenge faced by Timex was in automating the materials management workflow. It affected every system from purchase through finance through production planning to finished goods. So the materials-management system had interface with all the other systems. For instance, production-planning system inputs depend upon demand forecasting, marketing people and purchase system. 

The materials-management system in turn had to provide input to the finance system for vendor payment. It also had to provide information to the production system on the availability of the material for planned production. The system had to raise alerts and flags for shortages and quality of the material received. The challenge was to meet the requirements of all the users of the information in the materials-management system. The second challenge was to make users aware of the benefits of the automation and what it can achieve. Users tend to view it as automation of the repetitive tasks and creating reports. They tend to ignore the fact that streamlining of the processes and making them more efficient by building in decision-support systems is a key deliverable of any workflow automation. The other big challenge is to meet changing and incomplete requirements. 

With inputs from Sanjay Singh, Manager IT

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