Going with the flow

Manufacturing companies are beginning to realise the potential benefits of workflow software. Until now its impact had failed to live up to expectations. But this year above-average market growth is expected as more companies, small and large, install the software. Workflow software automates and manages the flow of work from one person to the next. […]

Manufacturing companies are beginning to realise the potential benefits of workflow software. Until now its impact had failed to live up to expectations. But this year above-average market growth is expected as more companies, small and large, install the software.

Workflow software automates and manages the flow of work from one person to the next. Instead of jobs being transferred from in-tray to in-tray as paper documents, they are sent electronically and flagged on a computer screen when they arrive.

There is increasing awareness of how workflow can lead to improved efficiency in the way work is carried out.

For the past few years, workflow use in UK manufacturing has been increasing at about 2% a year. This year it is forecast to grow at 8%, according to Robert Glen, business development manager of Staffware, the leading workflow software developer. In comparison, the current annual market growth for workflow worldwide in all sectors of industry is estimated to be about 30%.

One of the main reasons for workflow’s growing appeal among UK manufacturing companies is that the software is being given more exposure by consultants and software firms, particularly enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors. ‘I don’t think there has been a conscious decision by manufacturing companies to investigate workflow technology,’ says Glen. ‘Most have had it pushed at them.’

Many different software products are often described as workflow applications. They include groupware, electronic mail, document management and production workflow. Some are message exchange systems: others, such as production workflow, automate complex processes which can involve integrating information from different computer systems.

Workflow can be used to manage the work of a single department, a company or an entire supply chain. It works best when applied to already-efficient procedures. Otherwise it makes sense for companies to look at their existing business processes and improve them before adding workflow software.

Streamlining business processes, however, is often difficult because it involves changing the way people work, which creates resistance. If the new way of working is then computerised, employees have to accommodate even more change.

‘When companies implement workflow, it can have a dramatic effect on the way people work,’ says Ben Groom, a consultant with the Druid Group, a management consultancy that has helped companies to implement workflow projects. ‘For example, employees no longer have to look for their work. When they log on to their computers in the morning they are faced with a long list of jobs they are expected to do that day, which can be dispiriting. These sorts of changes have to be managed for workflow to succeed.’

Workflow can also measure how long it takes an individual or a team to complete a job. If that job is not completed within a specified time, it can automatically inform the employee’s manager. If the manager does not respond, the matter can be pushed further up the corporate hierarchy. Functions such as these can be seen positively or negatively.

On the plus side, workflow systems can help companies to benchmark their business processes because they accurately measure each step in the process. They can help to keep track of work in progress because, at any time, they know whose electronic in-tray contains which job. They can provide proof that all the steps in a process have been followed crucial in companies that have to conform to quality standards such as ISO9000, or other regulations. Workflow systems also encourage greater productivity because people are aware that the system knows what they are doing.

‘You have to show people that workflow delivers benefits and that it is not just being installed as a controlling mechanism,’ advises Neil Coughlan, practice manager at Aris, a company offering IT consulting, education and software services. ‘The faster you can do this by, for example, starting with a pilot system the faster you’ll get people to buy in to the idea and the more successful your project will be.’

Most companies tend to start with a relatively small, focused workflow project. Popular processes to be automated first are those requiring authorisation, such as purchase order approval or engineering change requests.

The investment required for this type of project need not be huge, making them applicable to both small and large manufacturing companies. Kewill Systems cites prices from £600 per seat for its production workflow software, which is integrated with its IBS ERP system. Return on investment from small workflow projects can usually be achieved in less than a year.

Implementation times for small projects depend on a company’s existing information technology infrastructure. If ERP or electronic mail have already been installed, workflow can be added in weeks. ‘Small companies in particular find they can add value to their existing messaging systems by installing workflow systems,’ says Paul Trendall, Aris’s marketing manager.

Smaller manufacturing companies can also use workflow to make their ERP systems more attractive to users, says Andy Makeham, Kewill general manager. Traditional ERP systems present users with lots of menu options, which is confusing. Kewill’s, by incorporating workflow, presents employees with a to-do list for the day and each item comes with all the electronic documents needed to complete the job.

Kewill’s workflow software was developed for Pilkington Optronics, a UK supplier of opto-electronic equipment to the defence industry, which has been using it along with IBS for the past year to control its quality processes. The software is now being offered to new and existing IBS users.