Workflow Innovation

The latest issue of Fast Company magazine (if you’re not a regular reader you should be) has an excellent article written by Jon Gertner in which he interviews and describes the role of Jeong Kim at Bell Labs (Alcatel-Lucent). Kim is credited with dreaming up (drawing on a napkin) a cubic approach to managing innovation. On one axis of his cube sits a measure of impact (incremental or revolutionary); on the second axis is measured process (analytic or artistic) and; on the third axis is the measure of time (today or longer-term). You can read the article for yourself wherein the thesis is that companies need to manage a matrix and portfolio of innovation projects and be realistic about the dimensions (measures). What stands out for workflow and business process analysts is the role of the process of innovation.

Innovation in Process

Research & Development and product innovations can be (and some would argue – should be) at the intersection of marketing and scientific breakthrough. This is often the case in IT, applications, tech products and medicine (among others). Other fields (education, administration, customer service, etc.) are less likely to harness the potential of innovation based on the belief that innovation only happens in technology. This couldn’t be further from the truth and should be challenged within your organization. Innovation is about transforming a distinct phenomenon for the purpose of producing a different result (product, outcome, sensation, function). In either case (technology, product, service, clerical event) workflow and business process management (analysis and improvement included) are critical tools for the scientist and service manager alike.

Workflow Analysis Serves Multiple Masters

In my work, I most often see workflow and BPM serving the function of establishing requirements for new systems. That is a wonderful use of the tactics and tools inherent in BPM. However, as a manager or leader in your own organization, I want to encourage you to stimulate your workflow energy for the purpose of innovation. It’s this kind of thinking (innovating services) that led to your ability to buy plane tickets online and use your ATM card. The driver can be a service need. This is especially true when the technology already exists and can be harnessed in new ways to unlock the potential of an otherwise outdated administrative process.

There is nothing stopping you from imagining how services can be rendered in entirely different ways. Overcoming or suspending beliefs at the whiteboard by revealing the inefficiencies in workflow can be exciting and energizing. It can also yield tremendous measures of success at the bottom line (savings) and top line (profits).

Ingredients of Innovation

  1. Pick your process based on need (complaints, costs, competition)
  2. Map how you do it today
  3. Inventory your issues, risks, barriers, obstacles and quality concerns
  4. Establish key performance indicators
  5. Invite your customers to the table and ask them how they would like (imagine) to accomplish the same ends
  6. Ask them if there there is an end (outcome) you can’t yet see them meeting with your service or product
  7. Look to adjacent fields for inspiration (I used to send health insurance company customer service reps to restaurants and shopping malls in search of ideas, for instance)
  8. Look at how other fields are using their technology and wonder out loud if there is any way those tools can be leveraged
  9. Question the process itself. Why are you doing this? What would hapen if the process were eliminated tomorrow? What would you do to adapt? Is there any other way to achieve your desired outcome? Is there a more appropriate outcome to achieve?

Innovation is a Process

It’s critical to apply some kind of methodology to your innovation (whether its analytical or inspirational). Basic project management ( a charter, a plan, milestones, tasks, a manager and monitoring) is essential as is a logic model that can contain your experiment. The PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) is a simple approach. No matter what your field, testing is crucial. Don’t make the mistake of deploying an innovation anywhere without some testing and re-testing. Your business depends upon the testing stage.

By extending your purpose and scope in workflow to include innovation, you’ll reap much more. To gain time, profits, greater quality, improved functionality and higher customer satisfaction scores is a good thing indeed.


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