How to Automate a Process in 3 Steps
July 26, 2019
When improving a process (to make it more reliable or cheaper), we follow a 3-step model. This article walks you through the 3 steps, using an example process most businesses should be familiar with. Afterwards, we briefly explain how we applied this model in other circumstances, and finally we suggest how you can take action yourself.
The 3 steps of the model are:
- How to connect humans to your process (customers, staff, agents, candidates, …)
- How to automate decisions based on input you receive
- How to respond by creating visibility into the status of your process, and by evaluating progress towards your goals and performance indicators
(More often than not there is a 4th step, “rinse and repeat”: Instead of aiming for perfect automation, we often get imperfect but improved solutions out there swiftly, followed by iterative improvements.)
Before we start: What process are we improving?
Most real-world processes are already connected to their environment, e.g. CRM or ERP systems, or special purpose systems for production control, or communication, or something else. To not worry about integration with these systems in this article, we chose to start at the “front door” of most profit oriented businesses, the order intake (or project intake) process:
No matter how your customers place projects with you, there is almost certainly room for improving the process. To keep it simple, we’ll assume that customers or your staff should start a new project by filling in a form in their browser: Whatever gets submitted to the form, is the starting point for the next steps of any project.
Let’s get practical.
First Step: Connect
Making a few assumptions about what is important to start a project for you, the form may look like this:
Let’s go and build this form, at forms.uber5.com. Alternatively, watch this brief video demonstrating the gist of it:
(TODO: forms.uber5.com not available yet)
The form, in this example, is the “connect” part in the 3-step model.
Second Step: Automate
What are we going to automate? In practice, this again depends on the business and process at hand: It may range from a simple notification to a sales or project manager, to kicking off a complex workflow via a CRM system.
We define the various interconnected steps that are part of a particular automation as a flow. The following list of flows is meant as an inspiration on what’s possible:
Choose from these flows
- Category: Basic
- Notification on form post
- Daily digest on form post
- Conditional notification based on sentiment
- Category: Social
- Tweet on request
- Tweet conditionally
- Subscribe to mailing list
- Category: Integration
- Update CRM/SRP system
- Update other system
- Transform and forward
In this example, let’s add a flow that sends notification emails to a list of recipients, whenever a new project request gets submitted: You would choose “Notification on form post” from the list above.
This would yield a “Project Intake” flow that may look like this:
- “Accept form post” creates an HTTP endpoint. The form data (from the first step) would be sent here, whenever the “submit” button is pushed.
- The “template” node renders the form data into a friendly email message
- The “http” step responds to the form post, as a confirmation back to the forms system
- The “email” steps send out emails.
There could be other steps in the flow, e.g. to perform steps conditionally, or repeatedly every hour or day, or to open a project in your CRM/ERP system, or to perform sentiment analysis on the message, etc. Your imagination is the limit.
This was an example for the second step, “automate”.
In the “respond” step we now make the process observable, the pre-condition for repeatedly improving the process. You can interact with the following diagram (by clicking on the bars), to find out what has been happening in the last few weeks in our exemplary project intake process:
Project Intake Replies
More often than not, making visible what is happening is an important, first step:
- It shows those participating in the process what their and the process’ intrinsic performance is.
- “Fact finding” becomes easier and quicker, and if it’s not as easy as in our example (it most likely is not), then an online reporting tool can help.
- Standardising a process is the starting point for more automation. In our example, as every project request will now enter the business through the same flow, further automation becomes possible.
This practical walkthrough demonstrates how a streamlined project intake process has many benefits: it saves time, ensures nothing “falls through the cracks”, and enables further automation.
We’ve used our 3-step model successfully in many other circumstances where no generic, “off-the-shelf” solution would have worked:
- A complex application process, where candidates apply themselves, then get evaluated and “pushed” through the process with notifications, interaction requests, interviews and assessments
- Call centre operations, where lower costs and more flexibility were achieved by making calling script based and possible from anywhere (“bring your own device”)
- Location based polling, where efficiencies were achieved by operational management support (online, location-based tracking) and an Android app (dis)allowing the agent to start the interview until they reached the intended location
Contact us so that we can improve your process, too!
Written by Chris Oloff who lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa, building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter