3 subtle signs your business has inefficient processes


There is still this belief in the business world that “process automation” is something only big companies should worry about.

I’ve been a consultant for a long time, and one of the biggest things I see holding companies back—from growing startups to large enterprises—is thinking that process automation or optimization is this fancy, expensive, out-of-reach task. These companies, founders and managers alike, often say things like, “We’re too busy doing things our own way,” or, “We don’t have time to look at those processes because we’re already fighting fires every single day.”

What these companies and decision-makers don’t realize, however, is that while they’re down in the trenches fighting fires, they’re oftentimes ignoring the roots of their problems. They’re dealing with missed deadlines because their project management tools aren’t defined and set up correctly, or they’re manually processing paper forms and back-office workflows, resulting in wasted time, productivity, and efficiency for their teams—when many of those tasks could easily be automated.

In most cases, these are small to midsize companies with between 100 and 5,000 employees.

But with all of the tools and resources available today, how come most of these companies don’t take automation into account sooner?

Here are 3 subtle signs I’ve found time and time again that a business has inefficient processes—and how you can effectively automate them.

1. The first indicator is that a process is broken within the business.

More often than not, companies operate using very manual processes.

You would think in 2019 that everything would be digital, but the reality is, thousands upon thousands of businesses still use physical paper and forms on a regular basis. Someone is responsible for filling it out, scanning it, emailing it to someone else, etc. Then that person has to print it, sign it, scan it, email it back, and so on, until someone else then takes the information and manually types the information into the system.

The whole situation is completely time-consuming.

But the subtly here is paying attention to whether or not the process actually works. 

  • If the expectation is for the document to be signed and returned within 24 hours, is that goal being met? How often?
  • If the expectation is for the document to be completed with no mistakes, is that goal being met? How often?
  • If the expectation is for the document’s information to be typed back into the system, is that goal being met? How often?

Having a process that works 80% of the time, or 60% of the time, is a clear sign that it simply doesn’t work. It’s broken, and needs to be fixed.

2. The second indicator is a daily routine or task that is highly repeatable.

These are the day-to-day routines and processes very few people think about.

What happens is the individual just hired at a new company and they’re told, “This is how we do things here.” They then go along repeating the same process as the person before them: printing, scanning, copying, signing, sending back, etc., performing the same task day after day after day.

Companies that are prime candidates for process automation have dozens, sometimes hundreds of these “highly repeatable” tasks—all of which are signs the company has broken or minimally optimized business processes.

For example, this year we worked with Classical Charter Schools in New York. They had full-time staff responsible for manually pulling data from various systems, merging them into Excel, and then sending the forms to someone else. The next person would then manually perform various calculations and send the form back—and this was how they ran their summer school enrollment process, year after year after year.

When we started working with them, the first thing we did was map their entire process start to finish, so that we could identify the areas we could optimize and automate with technology. Essentially, our job was to remove and automate as much of the “back-and-forth” burden and tedious admin work as possible.

By the end of the project, we had automated nearly the entire process. This greatly reduced email-based collaboration and manual review and approval processes, and allowed for the viewing of near-real-time student performance data, list allocation, and camp enrollment status.

Using simple automation, we freed up their employees’ time, allowing them to focus on other, more important, tasks within the business.

3. The third indicator is seeing a process affect multiple areas of the business

Anytime a process reaches across multiple departments and teams, it becomes a magnet for error.

A great example here would be hiring.

Most companies use the same hiring process for all their departments: sales, project management, marketing, etc. They have an interviewing process, a candidate comparison process, a decision-making process, an offer letter process, and so on. Then, once a candidate accepts, they have another handful of processes: onboarding, training, the list goes on. And even if the company is early stage (although later-stage companies make this mistake as well), they may not “think” they have processes in place for these things, but the simple fact they’re repeating the same functions over and over again means they have some sort of process—however ambiguous.

The issue with a core function like hiring, however, is that what might seem like “one process” is actually impacting nearly every facet of the business. And because this process is happening over and over again across multiple departments, small errors or inefficiencies will start to compound.

So, in order to avoid small, solvable problems like these from becoming massive time-wasters for your company, here’s how I would encourage you to go about solving them.

Solution 1: Don’t start in the weeds with one single task. Start high-level and see what is causing that task in the first place.

The first step to improving inefficiencies within your business is not to start with one single process.

This is something we tell our clients all the time at Optimum. Even if you think you know where the problem is, it’s worth taking a moment to map out the current state of your business processes across the board. The exercise we do with our clients, for example, is to take each core process and look at all the people involved, what information is feeding into the process, and what is the output. Then we repeat this exercise for the rest of the core processes within the business, first determining whether all of these processes are even necessary in the first place—and then refining from there.

Once you have the high-level processes defined, then you can get into the weeds and start automating the sub-steps.

Solution 2: Don’t just start buying new software

Instead, look closely at how the process happens manually—and then integrate the solution for the specific problem you are trying to solve.
Software alone doesn’t fix processes. In fact, sometimes new software can make things worse.

We use a handful of different methodologies and frameworks to understand what is triggering a business process, how it works, who is involved, and so on—then select and implement the right software for their needs.

Once you go through this process, then it becomes much easier to choose technologies and tools to help automate or optimize individual functions. Maybe your internal training process is great, but upon further inspection, you realize you could train employees significantly faster by using a different training tool with better project management functions. Or, you could streamline how teams work together internally, how they interact, and specifically what information needs to be sent between team members.

A lot of times, a process is broken because the handoffs between different teams and departments don’t happen, or there’s a communication breakdown that keeps repeating itself. So by looking at the root of the problems, suddenly it becomes clear which part of the process can be improved.

Solution 3: Don’t just start haphazardly choosing processes to fix

Make a list of all your processes, top to bottom, and prioritize automating the ones with the highest impact.

If you really want to solve internal inefficiencies the right way, do an assessment of all your business processes: which ones are already automated, which ones are not, which ones are standard protocol, which ones are not, etc.

Once you’ve gathered your inventory, start prioritizing them based on how critical they are to your business.

  • Which processes directly impact the company’s bottom line?
  • Which processes affect client/customer success?
  • Which processes are highly repeatable?
  • Etc.

Let’s say you have 200 business processes that need to be optimized and automated. Figure out which 10 or 20 are your highest priority for this year, and then create a roadmap for the next six months or one year detailing the project. Form a team. Treat it like you would any other project. And create meaningful milestones to check-in along the way.

Once one process is fixed, move on to the next one. Gradually, your entire organization will transform into an automated environment.

For companies that are very small, one of the things I reiterate to them over and over again is that you don’t have to tackle the big stuff first. Choose some low-hanging fruit, get a couple quick wins taken care of, and use these smaller projects as proof points for the larger, more difficult processes within the business.

Once you start seeing team members freed up, internal costs down, and success rates go up, you’ll want to automate everything.

This article first appeared on Minutes Magazine.