When most people think of systems they think of computers and software. In many cases this is an accurate association but it can be a problem when you need to design a new system for your business.
Many business owners and key decision makers in all kinds of industries are tasked with having systems designed for their businesses and the first mistake they normally make is thinking of the system as an entirely IT problem to solve.
Systems must start with people. Every business that has been trading for a while will have existing processes in place that are carried out by people in the business's various departments. In many cases these processes will not be defined anywhere on paper but rather will have been created by the people on the front lines to overcome some problem that they have experienced. Over time these “work-arounds” are shared and eventually become part of the “official” processes.
In new businesses, these processes may not be fully in place yet and my normal advice would be to wait a few months before trying to design IT systems around them to allow time for the kinks to be worked out.
Step 1: Process Discovery
The very first thing you should do is map out your existing processes. Ask the people on the front-line of your process lots of questions about what they do and how they do it.
Draw flowcharts for each department showing how the processes happen within that department and what the entry and exit points are as well as what decisions are made within the process and how those decisions affect the outcome.
Draw a flow chart showing how the process moves from department to department if the system is going to cover multiple departments. In fact, it can be useful to do this anyway, even if the system you had thought about would only affect one department, as this can help you understand the potential repercussions for those other departments.
Importantly, don’t try to change the process during this phase. Just document what is already there.
Step 2: Refinement
Once you have a solid understanding of how things work on the ground you can begin to identify any inefficiencies within the manual process. These can then be improved within the manual process before we begin trying to bring IT solutions in.
Once the processes have been refined to be more efficient we can then look at areas that are labour intensive and repetitive. These are generally the areas that should be replaced with automated IT processes first.
Step 3: Improvement
Finally, now that we have an efficient system running with some support from IT, we can look at ways in which the system can be improved to expand automation.
Maybe adding options to the website will allow customers to manage certain things themselves, therefore reducing the workload on the customer services department; perhaps increasing the amount of automated communication about the status of customer order will reduce the number of inbound enquiries to the fulfilment department.
Step 4: Integration
Integration is often the costliest part of the process but also arguably the most useful.
In the earlier stages of this process you looked at where your processes might touch or flow through multiple departments. In many established businesses, these departments may have their own internal systems and processes already in place.
Integrating these systems into a bigger system can help improve efficiency with interdepartmental processes as well as reduce the overall churn of issues between departments.
It’s often helpful to have outsiders' help with this kind of planning and system design as they will have no prior knowledge of your business and can look at each department objectively. In addition, if they are given the proper support and access to each department, they can often provide insights regarding the intercommunication between departments and their existing systems that might otherwise be missed.
Overall, it pays to take the time to ensure that you are getting the best system that you can by ensuring that your internal processes are in place, well-established and running efficiently before trying to build IT based systems - and also by remembering that software and automation are not always the answer. Sometimes software is there to support human processes, not replace them.