This week on NVTC’s blog, Marty Herbert of NeoSystems Corp. shares the first in a series of tips for workflow and process automation.
If you are an ERP user, you likely know that most applications are rich with many features that address the nuances of running projects, especially if you are a government contractor. However, no application can address the many steps that an organization must go through to accomplish what might be seen on the surface as a simple task.
Take ‘billing’ for example. I was asked a while back to determine how to route a bill for approval, and I thought it would be a “piece of cake”. Create bill. Send to approver. Get approval. Bill is right – Send to customer. Bill is wrong – rinse and repeat. For this article, we’ll use commonly known GovCon ERP, Deltek Costpoint, as an example. This system is very good at the first part. If you need to create a bill, you can create bill replete with support for hours worked and costs incurred. The problem, however, is there is no nice and simple way of implementing a workflow process that will accommodate most organization’s review and approval routines within the ERP framework. That’s not a knock against Costpoint, no ERP systems on the market adequately address this issue, especially when you magnify it by the many, many other processes, that an organization has in place to accomplish their back office routines.
Over the next six weeks we will be taking a look at several areas where workflow plays a big role and how to leverage the automation of workflows via integration with your ERP. Companies unaware of how to automate in these areas are wasting precious time in determining the process, missing steps and ultimately don’t know how to streamline efficiencies that will save them money down the road.
In our first post for “Evaluating Your Process for Users of Deltek Costpoint or a Similar System,” I’ll examine the role of an AR clerk with my ‘piece of cake’ attempt at automating bill routing.
I had bills created from our ERP and I had Outlook, so I sent two bills to their respective approvers to verify hours were correct so we could bill the services to the client. Then I waited and waited and waited and waited… you get the picture. I followed up via email at least three times over the next week and finally, a week later, I knocked on their doors to see if they had time to review the email I sent.
‘Approver 1’ called me to his desk and had me look at the count of emails in his inbox. Until then, I was unaware that this number could go over 9,999, but there it was. I apologized and helped him find my email. Five minutes later he reviewed it and sent me an email saying we could bill it. Finally, the bill was out the door. I don’t remember whether I had to mail it or email it, but that is of no consequence. Oh, and of course, I forgot to tell my supervisor that I got the bill out the door so she was unnecessarily on my case the next morning. I’ll try not to make that mistake again.
‘Approver 2’ (let’s call her Amy), asked if I had received her email. She said she responded immediately to each of the messages I sent, so I crept back to my cube and found her responses. Suddenly I was the culprit in slowing down my own process! “Sorry, this Acme project isn’t mine,” she said. “These should go to Janet, she runs the Acme project.” Ugh! Wouldn’t you know she didn’t even have the courtesy to copy Janet on her response to me. So I just trudged down the hall to Janet’s office and had her review the paper copy. She looked at it briefly and said “yep, looks fine.” Great, I was out her door and happy to get the bill out of the door. Never mind that I forgot to get Janet to initial the invoice to indicate she had approved it and, of course, I forgot to tell my supervisor I sent the bill. But, hey…bill is out the door, case closed.
Actually, the case was just getting started. The following week, in walks my supervisor. “I got a call from Acme Company’s CFO. She asked me who Francis Miller was and why we were billing Acme for her travel to Las Vegas. When I look in our system, this bill isn’t even posted, when did you send it out? Did you get Amy to review and approve this before you sent it out?” Sorry, I said, I forgot to post the bill in the system, and Amy said the project really belongs to Janet, so I got her to review and approve it…..see (as I pulled my copy from the file drawer). But, of course, Janet’s initials weren’t there. Now my boss is mad at me for sending out an invoice that she thinks I didn’t get reviewed AND I forgot to post it. Swell.
I realized there was A LOT of room for improvement in this process. Problem #1, people are swarmed with email. Problem #2, people change roles and responsibilities a lot. Problem #3, no coordination with the ERP and the approval activities. Problem #4, I can be my own worst enemy. Why couldn’t all this stuff be linked together somehow, and why isn’t there a way to get things posted in the system without me having to remember every little thing. I’m only human, after all. And this was a simple bill. I could only imagine – or rather didn’t want to in this case – what would have happened if there had been revisions.
From experience I’ve gathered intelligence on how to sidestep these common pitfalls. Apart from working together as a team, companies always think in terms of making changes to their IT infrastructure. What I believe needs to happen is approaching these pitfalls in terms of changing the process infrastructure. There are no short term ‘quick fix’ changes, but rather logical steps toward automating manual processes that run at the heart of their businesses.
Get people out of email and into a single system for approvals. This will help solve problem #1 and 3. By logging in to a single system for approvals, the approver should be able to get to a “To Do” list that helps them focus on the task(s) at hand. A system that alerts ONLY when an approval is required, and only when this task is “past due,” can assist in decreasing problem #1.
Link your system to Deltek Costpoint or a similar platform! Not only does it save time from transferring information into Outlook, but it also ensures that the information will not be incorrectly entered or failed to be entered. Additionally, users can maintain project leads in Costpoint, and can link to a user in the system to automatically assign the approver to the person(s) involved in any given approval process. Problems #2 and 3 solved.
Create a workflow that allows for rework, rejection, and handles the issues and items that may need to be addressed when something is “wrong.” That way, the stakeholders that need to be involved can be included automatically based on roles, or by selecting a user from a list of possible issues/departments involved. This decreases the amount of emails sent out for approvals. Assigning a task and automating reminders in the system accomplishes all these things.
Solve Problem #4. Remove yourself from your enemy list. Relax. Stay out of email. Work on other things. Seriously. At a recent conference I attended, it was estimated that we spend around 28 percent of our work time sending or reading emails. What happens when you remove a single work stream worth of emails from your list of things to do? You can get back a piece of that time to work on other more pressing issues.
If it sounds like I’ve been through this process at least a few times, it’s because I have. Using the power of a business process management tool called Integrify, NeoSystems has automated this and other processes and tied those processes to Costpoint and similar platforms. Throughout this series, I will highlight the ways we have implemented, envisioned, and produced time-saving, compliance-driven processes that integrate with your ERP to create an Enhanced Workflow Automation Framework.
Have burning questions about Process Automation? Feel free to contact me ahead of next week’s blog post.