All movement requires energy. Workpieces on the plant floor or in an office environment are no exception; energy is required to move the workpiece. The same rule applies whether the workpiece is a physical piece of paper or an electronic file. When we receive a task, we initiate workflow by expending energy as we develop the task into a workpiece. When we stop working on the task, the workpiece remains in the location where we left it until we or someone else decide to expend the energy to get it moving again.
Everything in the previous paragraph seems self-evident, to the point where we can say it’s “obvious.” So, why should we make such a fuss about this? The relationship between energy and material movement, if followed to its natural conclusion, leads to a startling but true assertion about workflow. All workflows have a natural tendency to stop flowing. Workflow can only keep moving forward with a constant application of energy. Therefore, the question really isn’t whether the workflow will stop. It will, many times, after every step. A long process with hundreds of process steps has a workflow where the work stops, literally, hundreds of times. If we accept the assertion, workflow is constantly stopping, then the question becomes, “For how long?” A better question to ask may be, “For how long will the workflow stop flowing every time we cease expending our energy on it?” Even better and more precise, we can ask, “How long will the workflow stop each time, before we take notice and begin expending energy to get the workpiece moving again?”
Push and Pull
Push systems have difficulty knowing whether workflow has stopped. Pull systems, on the other hand, have a bias for motion. This is why lean methods are all about the flow. The system is rigged to keep work flowing at every process step, without constantly needing to determine how much work-in-process (WIP) is piling up at intermediate locations within the process flow.
Every time something impedes workflow, value is threatened. When a client or customer does not have the information or product they want or need at the time and place promised, the customer might turn to another company capable of providing it here and now! Customers don’t care why it’s not there; their only concern is they can’t have and don’t have what they want or need. Hence, the vital need for having an effective, reliable system in place to assure workpiece visibility, continuous flow and product value.
Virtual Workflow Workpieces
Virtual workflow has the same essential characteristic; a strong bias or tendency to stop flowing. Virtual workflow is nothing more than electronic files, documents and forms, which we process using a computer system. These workflow products do not become physical, tangible artifacts unless we take the trouble to print them out, creating a physical document.
Shouldn’t virtual workflow be easier since it does not have physical substance and mass? For decades, we have heard about the promise of the paperless office; everything is available at the touch of a mouse. It should be easier, right? However, my experiences confirm: Managing virtual workflows is profoundly more difficult than managing physical workflows. I feel these challenges daily in my work, since my work involves mostly informational products, my workflows are mostly virtual.
These non-physical work pieces have a number of harsh realities, constantly reminding me just how difficult managing this type of workflow really is. As a result, I have often pondered why virtual workflow is so difficult compared to physical workflow, when logically, on the surface, it seems like it should be so much easier to manage.
Hide and Seek
This line of thinking brings us to another essential property of virtual workflow: virtual work likes to stay hidden. Bringing the workpiece out of hiding and into view, where we can manage it, also requires energy. At every turn, after each process step is completed, the virtual workpiece goes back into hiding. Keeping each virtual workpiece visible and actively flowing through to the next process step requires constant energy input.
Before we can work on the file, we must find it and open it. Finding the correct, most updated version of each workpiece is a common problem but is an essential step before we can continue our work. When we are working with others to finish a task, we must let the next worker know the workpiece is finished and ready for his or her attention. If we fail to notify them, they will not know the workpiece is ready for them. In virtual workflows, any workpiece filed in an incorrect location or filed with an incorrect, incomplete or inadequate file name, may actually go into hiding forever. If not forever, we must expend a great deal of effort and energy to find and retrieve the workpiece. Thus, virtual workflows require FIFO (first-in, first out) queues and bins for visibility just as much as any physical workflows. Electronic documents are extremely fragile, subject to damage and corruption at every turn. An electronic file is easily lost, deleted, misfiled or corrupted. Preservation of virtual work requires us to implement a system with backups and duplicates to cover our butts, in the event a file gets lost.
We know all workflows have a tendency to stop after each process step. However, I believe virtual workflows actually require more energy and human effort to sustain because of their additional tendency to stay hidden in our computers after every process step. These two characteristics create a need for workflow management techniques to keep workpieces visible. With virtual work, there aren’t any physical papers, files or folders being exchanged or being dropped in someone’s mail slot or in-tray on their desk. The workpieces in virtual workflow are like needles hiding in a computer haystack. An effective virtual workflow system, requiring only a minimal amount of effort and energy to maintain, requires exceptionally disciplined workers. Invisible workpieces tend to be “out of sight, out of mind.” The negative impact on workflow requires resolution.
When a company has established a successful, efficient workflow system, they have also established the means to assure the value of products or services they offer. While there are no easy answers, implementing this stable system is essential.
Establishing process steps, such as setting task reminders when the next step is due or sending notifications alerting the next worker when it’s their turn to work on the workpiece, is a vital necessity for any virtual workflow environment. Lean tools, such as A3 Sheets and Value Stream Mapping (VSM) are also very effective additions to any successful workflow system. Every successful company is reliant on established efficient workflow systems!
Does your company have issues with workflow and keeping work visible? We love to hear from our readers! We encourage you to share your experiences and any solutions you have found helpful with our SMI Community in the comment box below.
Andy Pattantyus, CPIM is president of Strategic Modularity, Inc., a systems engineering consulting firm that works with clients on process oriented Lean Transformation projects, including initiatives to improve administrative workflows. Andy is also an active member of APICS-SFV and The ACA Group. If you would like to get in touch with Strategic Modularity, Inc., contact Andy.