Mastering Workflow Optimization: Strategies and Techniques

A study by Bain & Company shows that more than a quarter of all companies can reduce their operating costs by 10%, or even more, by using business and workload optimization strategies. According to the study, optimization can allow companies to collectively save more than $2 billion a year

Whether you're a business leader seeking to optimize operations or a project manager looking for ways to better execute projects, just those numbers alone make mastering workflow optimization important. 

Mastering Workflow Optimization: Strategies and Techniques
In this guide, you’ll learn:
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But, before you can start, you first need to familiarize yourself with what the entire process looks like and pick a strategy for workflow optimization that’s a good fit for your company.

What Is Workflow Optimization?

Workflow optimization is the process of streamlining various business procedures in order to increase a company's efficiency in a particular area (e.g., administrative, industrial, etc.). It aims to reduce costs and work output errors, lessen the amount of time needed to complete tasks, help eliminate bottlenecks, and more.

Workflow optimization revolves around analyzing and rearranging (if necessary) the steps or tasks needed to complete a particular type of job or project. This is done for the purpose of making the entire process more efficient and productive while also increasing the overall quality of performed work and products or services.

Why Is Workflow Optimization Important?

As companies grow, their internal process will inevitably become more complex. What worked when a company had 10 employees might not work as well when it reaches the 50-employee mark. This can lead to decreased efficiency and productivity and can ultimately affect its success. 

Optimizing workflows and continuously improving upon them is crucial for companies that want to maintain their growth, improve productivity, and continue to be competitive in the market.

Importance of workflow optimization

The most common benefits of workflow optimization include:

  • Improving efficacy and productivity – By optimizing workflows, companies can streamline various business processes, work on eliminating bottlenecks, and eliminate inessential tasks and superfluous steps. This can greatly improve their efficiency and productivity.
  • Reducing costs – Better productivity and efficacy (through workflow optimization) will lead to reduction of costs more often than not, as it minimizes waste and underutilization. 
  • Promoting agility and adaptability – In constantly evolving business environments, companies need to be agile and adaptable, not just to survive but to thrive and flourish. They can more easily pivot, scale, and adapt to new market-driven challenges or opportunities when they optimize their workflows. 
  • Making data-driven decisions – Optimizing workflows will naturally involve at least a modicum of data analytics. The result of analyzing data is a detailed look into various performance metrics. These can give companies valuable insights and information to base their decision-making on. 
  • Improving employee satisfaction and reducing burnout – Optimized workflows can not only improve employee satisfaction but can greatly reduce their stress levels and chances of burnout

The Main Phases of Workflow Optimization

The main phases of workflow optimization

There are many different strategies for workflow optimization. Most of them will involve the following phases. 

Phase 1: Determine Objectives  

Before making any changes to the current workflow, it’s important to set clear goals and objectives for the optimization processes. Try to find an answer to the following questions:

  • What is the main idea behind workflow optimization?
  • Are there specific bottlenecks that you’re looking to address?
  • Is the process optimization going to be company-wide or is it targeting specific departments?
  • What types of processes are you looking to improve?
  • Are there any new tools that you wish to implement?

Improving workflow optimization of a single department is much easier than doing it for the whole company. The former requires less work but will have a smaller impact on the overall processes of your company. Optimizing workflows on a company-wide level, on the other hand, will have a much bigger overall impact, but will also require a lot more work. 

Phase 2: Review Current Processes

Reviewing and mapping current processes is probably one of the most crucial aspects of workflow optimization. This is the part where you should try to identify all areas that are ripe for improvement and that can be streamlined. You could use tools to create visual representations of current processes to make it easier to pinpoint overly complex or redundant parts of present workflows.

Phase 3: Remove Unnecessary Steps

After mapping out and evaluating all processes, it’s time to remove those that are unnecessary in order to optimize workflows. These could be tasks that significantly increase expenses but don’t offer much in return, or outdated processes. 

For example, if a company's employees are manually tracking their work hours and spending a significant amount of time doing it, it might be the right call to cut that process out and switch to a modern software solution. 

Phase 4: Reevaluate Workflows

Once you’re finished with removing inefficient, unnecessary, and outdated processes, it’s time to focus on everything that’s left. Do a review of your remaining workflows, consider the steps that they involve, and think about the best ways to maintain and improve them. In essence, you want to reevaluate what’s the best way to carry out those processes. Focus on answering questions, such as:

  • Is there a better way to perform certain processes?
  • Are these processes implemented correctly?
  • Is everyone in the company completing processes in the way they were initially intended?
  • What are the issues that could arise?
  • What causes the biggest bottlenecks?

Remember, the goal of workflow optimization is to improve business results, but before making any major changes, it’s vital to consider how they can affect other processes and the company’s overall success.

Phase 5: Examine and Monitor Results

The workflow optimization process is cyclical in nature, and it demands continuous observation and examination. There will always be a process that can be further optimized, due to the invention of new technologies, or the development of new strategies and methods. For those reasons, even after you’ve done with optimizing workflows, make sure to monitor processes, even if everything seems fine.

6 Strategies for Workflow Optimization

6 Strategies for Workflow Optimization

The most common strategies for optimizing workflow are:

1. Agile Workflow 

The Agile workflow strategy can especially benefit companies that are a part of dynamic and rapidly evolving industries (e.g., tech industry, software development). 

The principles of the Agile strategy allow businesses to streamline their workflows in a way where they become more driven, iterative, responsive, and customer-centric. By adopting the practices of the Agile strategy, companies are able to achieve better results while continuously improving upon their various business processes. 

The main principles of the Agile workflow optimization strategy are:

  • Incremental work organization – All business processes subject to workflow optimization are broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces that allow for continued adjustments and improvements.
  • Customer-centric – Delivering value to the end-users (i.e., customers) by promptly addressing their needs, curtailing their concerns, and focusing on their preferences.
  • Collaboration – Encourages communication between teams, supports the sharing of information and insights, and promotes collaboration in various optimization and other business processes.
  • Adaptability – Companies that implement agile workflow optimization are responsive, or sometimes even welcoming, to changes in the market. They have the capacity to look at both the internal and external factors that may impact their workflows, analyze them, and adapt accordingly. 

2. Business Process Improvement

Business Process Improvement (BPI) is a workflow optimization strategy that focuses on identifying work processes that are the least efficient and productive and the most prone to errors and less favorable outcomes. After identifying these processes, the goals of the strategy are to improve them and streamline them, all the while reducing costs and increasing productivity.

The main aspects of BPI workflow optimization strategy include:

  • Process identification and analysis – Identify and record business processes that need to be improved. Grasp the entire scope of a specific process, and map out its objectives and any stakeholders connected to it. Analyze those processes to identify inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and waste.
  • Setting goals – Establish clear and measurable goals for improving workflow and business processes. Clearly define desired outcomes (e.g., reduction of costs, improving customer satisfaction, increasing productivity, etc.).
  • Integrating technology – Use software and digital solutions (e.g., time-tracking apps) to optimize work processes. Implement new tools to foster automation, focus on data analytics, and make data-driven decisions.  
  • Simplifying – Focus on reducing and eliminating waste by lowering the complexity of the work process in order to increase productivity and efficiency. Includes automating or balancing the workload to better utilize all available resources.

3. Lean Workflow Optimization

Lean workflow optimization strategy focuses on, as the name would suggest, keeping things lean. The main goal of the Lean strategy is to regularly identify wasteful areas and remove them from the equation. 

These can include inefficient practices, such as unnecessary administrative burdens and meetings that decrease the overall efficiency of the business processes.

The five main aspects of lean workflow optimization are:

  • Identify value – Identify what the customer considers valuable. Understand the needs, preferences, and requirements of your desired customer base.
  • Map out the value stream – Ascertain all the processes, steps, and activities involved in delivering said value to the customer base.
  • Generate flow – Create work processes that ensure a smooth flow from one step to the next (towards delivering value to customers).
  • Establish pull – In a pull system work, customer demand is what drives and initiates work. Meaning no goods are produced and no services are provided without the actual customer need. This aims to reduce the risk, costs, and waste associated with inventory management.
  • Pursue perfection – Continuously improve on the main aspect of the Lean workflow optimization strategy. As new technologies are developed and better ways of performing work emerge, try and foster a culture of constant improvement through incremental changes. 

4. Six Sigma

The Six Sigma optimization strategy focuses on a data-driven approach for identifying and eliminating the main causes of process inefficiencies. The main goal behind it is to increase the levels of quality, productivity, and efficiency. 

The Six Sigma strategy uses statistical information to give ratings to every business process. These ratings help figure out the risks and chances of a specific process becoming inefficient, producing waste, and disrupting budgets and costs.

The key aspects of the Six Sigma workflow optimization strategy are:

  • Customer is king – Clearly define customers’ needs and wants early in the workflow optimization process. Keep in mind that the customers are the ones that define what quality service/product is.
  • Gather and analyze data – Collect various types of data (i.e., using time-tracking or project management software) and analyze it to determine KPIs to more accurately measure performance and discern the root causes of process deficiencies.
  • Develop and implement solutions – Use the collected information to make data-driven decisions about improving and optimizing workflows.  
  • Ensure sustainability – Make certain that all the optimization processes are sustainable, allowing room for growth and a constant overview of work productivity and efficiency.

5. Theory of Constraints

The Theory of Constraints (TOC) is a workflow optimization strategy centered around the idea that every company has certain types of constraints that limit its ability to effectively achieve business goals. These constraints can be connected to work processes or resources. Managing them effectively is what TOC is all about.

The key principles of the TOC workflow optimization strategy include:

  • Identify constraints – The main goal is to ascertain which types of systemic constraints are negatively affecting the workflow.
  • Allocate resources – Rearrange and reallocate resources to quickly and efficiently deal with or remove the identified constraints.
  • Continuously improve – TOC is not a one-time solution; it is an ongoing process that continually strives to manage and reduce constraints as they pop up.

6. Business Process Reengineering 

Business process reengineering, or BRP, is a workflow optimization strategy that focuses on rebuilding work processes from scratch. After analyzing the current workflows and identifying inefficiencies in them, with the BRP strategy, the next step would be to create entirely new workflows that better fit the company's goals. 

BRP, unlike most of the strategies that we’ve mentioned, is not about making incremental improvements but is about completely rethinking all the processes involved in performing work. 

Key aspects of the BRP workflow optimization strategy include:

  • Redesign – A complete overhaul of current work processes from the ground up, done by analyzing and reimagining how these processes should look like ideally.
  • Meet customer expectations – the BRP strategy puts customer requirements and what customers consider as valuable at the center of its redesigning efforts. 
  • Streamline and simplify – The strategy aims to simplify and streamline work processes by removing unnecessary steps, tackling bottlenecks, and using tools and various other digital solutions.
  • Use technology – Leveraging technology to automate new work processes is another key aspect of the BRP strategy. These could involve using time-recording apps, messaging or project management software, and the like. 

Things to Consider Before Optimizing Workflows

Optimizing workflows is a tough ordeal and can take time. Before you attempt it, you should carefully consider:

  • The scope – It can determine the amount of time and resources you’ll need to invest in the workflow optimization process.
  • Needs for and the costs of technology – Try and figure out if you need new tools and software to streamline workflows, and more importantly, how much those tools are going to cost.
  • Laws and regulations – Make sure that whatever you do to optimize workflows, you don’t end up inadvertently breaking government rules, laws, and regulations. 
  • Data security – If optimizing workflows involves dealing with sensitive information, make sure to take into account the privacy and security of that data.
  • Overall costs – Analyze the costs of implementing new workflows. Take into account the initial and recurring costs. If optimizing specific workflows doesn’t pass the cost-benefit analysis, maybe it’s best to reconsider it.
  • Performance review – Create new systems that allow you to regularly analyze and review optimized workflows. This will, in turn, help you discern and deal with new issues that arise more quickly and efficiently.

Tips for Workflow Optimization

Streamlining processes and optimizing workflows, especially if they consist of multiple steps and involve collaboration between different teams or departments, won't be an easy feat. Just trying to figure out how it all works, where the connections are, and which links in the giant chain are weakest will require a lot of time.

That’s why we put together a list of tips that will hopefully help you make the whole process go a lot smoother. 

Use Time Wisely

Time, or more precisely the effective use of time, is one of the most crucial aspects of any workflow optimization process. Planning work schedules and avoiding multitasking and distractions will not only help reduce stress and prevent burnout but will also ensure every cog in your company is as efficient as it can be. 

Utilizing modern technology for time-tracking can significantly help with this. It can give you a deeper insight into how much time each individual task takes to complete, which employees are performing at a high level and which are not (and possibly require additional training), various bottlenecks and project delays, and more. 

With this information, you can more easily discern process inefficiencies that you can later analyze, optimize, and continuously improve upon through whichever workflow optimization strategy you choose to go with. 

Make Customers Priority Number One

The customer is always right is not always a given, but ensuring high levels of customer satisfaction will most definitely make any company more profitable and competitive in the market. That’s why it’s important to continue putting customers (their preferences and requirements) as number one, or as close to number one as possible, on your company’s list of priorities when you’re implementing a new workflow optimization strategy.

Reduce the Number of Meetings

Team and company meetings can be a good way to get everybody on the same page when going through the workflow optimization process. They can also improve morale and collaboration and make it easier to work out solutions for various problems. But, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Unnecessary and unproductive meetings can, in the end, be more disruptive to workflow and ultimately cause a myriad of new problems. 

According to a report from Dr. Steven G. Rogelberg, Professor of Organizational Science at UNC Charlotte, unnecessary meetings can cost big companies in excess of $100 million per year. 

So, the best way to avoid that is to ensure that the meetings you organize are well-planned, have set time limits for each topic that’s going to be covered, and include only the necessary personnel.

Collaborate With Team Members

Collaboration is an important part of any successful workflow optimization process. Including employees, team members, and various company personnel in the process and encouraging them to share their feedback and thoughts is a good way to conduct workflow optimization. 

By having everyone in the company take part in the workflow optimization process, you’ll not only get additional information that you can use to make the whole process go much smoother but will also help improve team cohesion and morale. Employees will feel more valued and will be more willing to participate in it.