Designing…Business Processes

KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid

Usually we are talking about interior design – colours and space planning – but someone with a design mind is more than just colours and materials. Design is about how something is used. What makes it work and what makes it not. Designing a home floor plan is not so different that designing the work process for a business. A business process to needs to be done with purpose, have meaning, and get you to a better, more efficient state. 

Designing a business process and a home floor plan has three big difference: 

  1. (the obvious) A home is physical and a business process it theoretical  
  2. There are many different kinds of people that use the business processes. Some could be analytical; some could be visual. Some could be tech savvy and some may not be.  
  3. Volume. What many managers fail to see is that a task on its own may be simple and straight forward. But when you multiply that task by 10, 20, 100… is it still simple? 

Having worked for a number of small businesses, I have faced with the reality of #3 many times. Someone comes over and shows you step-by-step how to complete a task. Simple enough. Then the company gets busier and that simple task becomes cumbersome and time consuming. But to the person who trained you or your executive team, they don’t understand why you are falling behind schedule. Why is this simple task is taking you so long to complete? It becomes a tension point between the two level of employment and, too often, no one sits down to understand why. 

Fact is, it’s never about the task itself as a solo entity. The task on its own is fine. It does what it needs to do, gives the information that it needs to give. The problem is always when volume is added – the number of times this task needs to be completed. When the process or the tool is broken, it will be seen when volume is added. It will take longer to complete the task. Errors will begin to come up more frequently. The user will skip parts that take too long to complete.  

If this is happening in your business, take notice and take action. Stop and look at where the breakdown is and find a solution. In most cases, the solution is as simple as automating repetitive parts and putting the right information in the right spot for the end user. You don’t need to go out and design an app for this. Both of these things can be achieved through excel.  

Automating repetitive parts 

A real-life example I can share from one employer is a Purchase Order. Half the company was still using carbon copy forms. Which meant they had to hand write the information for an order on a form (ship to address, products, quantity and pricing) and sum the totals – all manually. Then send it to the vendor. 

The other half was using an excel form but they still had to manually enter the information (ship to address, products, quantity and pricing).  

On both sides, there was no documentation of pricing from any vendor. They just looked at the last PO sent — I can’t be the only person that had a stunned look on their face when they heard this, right? 

This worked, clumsily, for one-off orders and even small projects. But when you have 5-10 projects on the go at the same time (which is what ended up happening that year) this process became too labor intensive and full of human error. 

Solution: 

First, scrap the carbon copy forms. That should be a give-in. It is the 21st century after all.  

Now update the excel: 

  1. Put all your vendor information into one page in the same document – Name, address, contact person (phone number and email) 
  2. Put all your pricing into one page, same document – Item, item number, cost 
  3. Add your location list – identifying number (ex: store unique number), address, phone number. In our case, shipping was only done to internal locations. We had a list of 120 location we could possibly ship to at any point of time. 
  4. Add your tax percentages. Because we were shipping to locations across Canada, tax would apply differently based on the end location. 
  5. Now that you have your “data dumps” created, automate the PO template itself 
  6. Drop-down menu for vendors that will pull their address and contacts 
  7. If you have an internal list, find a way to automate that. For us, it was to enter the unique store number. That would populate their address. 
  8. Drop-down menus for products. This will trigger the pricing to populate automatically. 
  9. Drop-down menus for Tax 
  10. Add the math – Excel is meant to do math! Let it do it for you. Subtotal, tax, grand total. 

With this update done to the existing Purchase Order excel form (reminder all those part were manually entered before), the only manual entries that were required was the assigning of the actual purchase order number (each department had their own coding or this could have been automated), the date delivery was required, quantity of items you wanted to order and authorization names (these changed based on signing authority). 

Now, I’ve since taken this document to another level of automation for full construction jobs but I won’t go into that. But again, that need came from managing 20 different projects at the same time and needing to make things easier, faster and with less room for error. The old way wasn’t cutting it anymore and it needed to evolve.  

As a manager, you need to be aware of this type of situation and react to it. The smoother your department moves the happier your staff are and the more profitable your department becomes.  

Putting the right information in the right spot 

It’s one thing to go looking for A key piece of information when it’s the only thing on the go. But when things are busy or there is a spike in traffic, that simple task times 20 occurrences can add up to a lot of waisted time.  

Take the example above with the vendor price list. When we put the list into the document that uses that information, it took away the step of looking for it somewhere else. It was already where it was needed, everyone knew where to find it AND everyone knew where to update it should a price change. 

When an employee has a lot on their plate, they will naturally knock off the task that are the easiest first – path of least resistance. If they have to stop their process to get something that was missing, they will “come back to it” because it requires more time. By putting the information where it needs to be it will take away those moments and keep the workflow moving. 

Part of putting the information where it needs to be is also making sure the pass-off to the next person is done correctly or completely. Think of it like an assembly line. The project goes down the line, each department doing their part as it hits each station, then all of a sudden, the plugin needed for the next part is missing – ERROR – ERROR – ERROR – the line comes to a screeching halt. Production levels drop.  

cog, wheel, process

This visually happens in an assembly line but it’s still true in an office setting as well. Just not as loud…possibly.  

For example – If the sales team is to go out and get sale orders, that probably includes getting customer information and product information. The sales team then hands off to the ordering team. If the sales team didn’t enter the complete shipping address (example: entered John St and did not provide house number) or selected the product but didn’t select the colour, then the ordering team is unable to complete their task – the plugin is missing. 

The ordering line then comes to a stop. They have to contact the sales team, get the information, make the changes and only THEN can the ordering team continue with their task.  

Most sale people out there are probably a) laughing because they have done this more than once and b) thinking, what’s the big deal? So it took them a little longer. Sure, now times that by 10. And how quickly is that information gets back from the sales team could impact the schedule to the customer. Never mind this now interrupts the sales team from their tasks…. 

This isn’t about the sales team not doing their job. It’s likely that the processes doesn’t work for their workflow. If everyone did their job to the fullest, the assembly line moves seamlessly, without stress, without breakdowns, without downtime. 

Make it easy for the teams to enter the information that is required from them before pass-off. Again, I go to excel as a cost-efficient way of doing this. Put the information in an order that makes sense to the order the user would gather it. If an input is required, use the Conditional Formatting to highlight the cell while the cell is blank. Once information is entered, the highlight comes off. And most importantly, make it unacceptable for pass-off to be incomplete. This is the hardest part for business owners – they want things to keep moving. I promise you, holding to this rule will increase workflow and efficiency but also decrease the amount of time, money and energy you spend on fixing problems. 

Every business’s goal is to make money, let’s be real. To do that, they need to put out more, reduce the cost or both. That’s just the reality of business – Demand goes up, resources often go down, but the level of execution doesn’t change. And that’s when your process needs to.  

To be successful you need to be able to find a way to better the process that doesn’t add stress to your employees or cost you more in time. There are many applications out there for businesses that make promises to do this. Really do your research before launching something live. We talked about two ways to do this with Microsoft excel in this article. Excel might be all you need to start. Keep it simple.  

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Don’t forget to share your success stories below. 

Any questions on processes or excel setup, email us at design@letskissdesign.com 

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