Wednesday, December 26, 2007

It's all about workflow

On occasion, the business owners I serve suggest that new software will solve all their workflow problems. Time and time again, we learn that it's not the software that really matters, but good processes. Automating a broken workflow does not achieve a positive result. Re-engineering workflow, then automating it, results in a successful project for everyone.

Since it's the day after Christmas and many people are rushing to malls for after Christmas sales and returns, here's a seasonal tale of my recent experience with workflow from an IT perspective.

My wife asked me to return a few holiday items to Target. They had an efficient queuing system set up to enable four clerks to serve a well ordered line. The process is simple - hand the receipt to the clerk, then hand the items to the clerk. Each receipt is archived for 90 days and has a unique bar code at the top. The clerks do not need to read the receipt, they simply scan the bar code and all the items are retrieved into a local cache. The clerk then scans each returned item and it is checked against the local cache for price, verification of purchase, and the fact that it has not already been returned previously. This prevents fraudulent return of items not purchased from Target. Most importantly, Target has decided that this verification workflow is all that is needed to return an item. No manager/supervisor approval is needed, no key is used to open a register and no credit card is needed. All returns are automatically credited against whatever method of payment was used for the original purchase. By empowering the clerks to process returns this way, the customers are very satisfied, no manual keying of data is needed so accuracy is high, and I'm motivated to buy again from Target, knowing that I can easily return anything I purchase.

My wife also asked me to return 10 extra towels/linens to Bed, Bath, and Beyond. As I entered the store it was clear that the workflow was broken. I found no orderly queue and unclear responsibilities as to who provides specific customer services. I found a very helpful enthusiastic employee who began to manually match the 16 digit bar codes on my receipt with the bar codes on each towel to verify that I had the correct receipt. Once she manually circled each bar code and initialed them, she then scanned them into the register. She was not empowered to actually process any return transaction, so after 20 minutes of manual paperwork she then paged a manager. The manager was busy so he suggested the supervisor, who was busy ringing up new sales. After trying to interrupt the supervision unsuccessfully, it was clear that another page to the manager was necessary. This time, the manager responded, reviewed the bar codes on each of the towels again, checking the receipt again, then inserting a key in the register to enable a return. I then was asked to produce the original credit card used so that it could be credited. Luckily I had a copy of my wife's Visa card with me. Finally, after 30 minutes, 3 people and manual paperwork, my 10 towels were credited and the $50 dollars was placed back on my credit card. I'm reluctant to purchase from Bed, Bath, and Beyond again, since I know any return will take more of my time than I have available. Considering the time and gas involved, it would have actually been more cost effective to donate the towels to a worthy cause. The very nice folks at Bed, Bath, and Beyond said that IT was working on a software solution for 2008. Let's hope they re-engineer the workflow first to empower clerks to process returns!

So next time you're told that software will solve the customer's business process problems, be sure to study the workflow first!


Ileana said...

The BB&B story sounds like getting claims reimbursed by health insurance, doesn't it?

It's amazing how quickly they process the claims in December though...

Unknown said...

Excellent example of efficient/inefficient work flows.

I returned a pair of headphones to target last night in fact. It was so hassle free I caught myself telling my girlfriend "This is why I love Target so much better than Wal-Mart." The cashier over heard me and was smiling.

Don't forget those situations though where the potential for good work flow is there, but the product doesn't allow for it. I use several online solutions for hospital comparisons, clinical benchmarking and such. The designers do a real good job with the software but often are out of touch with what the customer is using it for. I have to design my work flows around their products.

I'm sending out physician "report cards" right now, which include Core Measure Compliance data, and some other comparison data like ALOS and cost opportunity. In one product I have to build and update the reports, it can take me days just to get the reports ready to run, and I have to repeat it biannually. The other product, I can download a data dump, and I setup a database on my end to spit out very nice canned reports.

It's all about empowerment. In one product I have no power to work with the data except within their tool. The other product I can get the data I need in a form I can use, and I am empowered to use it however I see fit. My work flows between the two are so drastically different it's sad.

Dr. Val said...

Excellent analogy. That really helps explain why intelligent process/work flow is the foundation of any good IT solution. Thanks!

hollylocks said...

I agree. Great analogy. By the way...Kohl's has a similar methodology for easy returns.

hollylocks said...

I agree. Great analogy. By the way...Kohl's has a similar methodology for easy returns.

sks said...

Excellent analogy and great perspective for next time we hear that IT solutions will solve everything.

Steve Waters said...

I see this issue all the time in medical practices and even some hospitals. The expectation is the IT system is going to solve their business process issues and make them more efficient but with little or no time and attention having been paid to the actual business processes. I saw this last week reviewing a mid-size pediatric practice that had just experienced a failed EHR implementation. Two minutes into the meeting it was clear the lead physician was the problem. He had no awareness of the general office workflow and could not articulate his own work flows. In addition there had been very little training, including the physician leading the project. He didn't go either. Is it any wonder the project failed? Bottomline is review workflow carefully before implementing technology and understand how it will have an affect on the organization. In most cases this does not require high level skills sets just a little time and common sense.