Time is precious. Use it wisely with 30+ ways to streamline your business processes. Including tips on game-changing tech that will save you tons of time.
Streamlining your business operations is the foundation of productivity and profitability. If you’ve spotted red flags - like go-slow workflows and sluggish systems - this article is for you.
We’ve got 30+ ways to streamline your business, based around the themes of process, policies, and people.
To make it extra helpful, we’ve included tech tips to accelerate and elevate your everyday operations - and peppered it with insights from some of the most successful Operations Directors we know.
Be warned. There’s no one-size-fits-all. Some tips are complementary, while others might seem contradictory. We’re just here to inspire you and uncover opportunities that could work for your unique circumstances.
Many businesses are held back by processes that have evolved over time, rather than being consciously designed for maximum efficiency.
Someone did something well once, and that has become ingrained as THE way to do it. New starters get trained to do it that way. No one questions the logic behind it because ‘We’ve always done it like that’.
But just because something worked once, doesn’t mean it does now. So the first step to streamlining is to audit and improve your current processes.
Great operations managers challenge the status quo. So get comfortable understanding - and questioning - why things are done a certain way.
An example from an agency could be using better content management systems to save time on admin work.
It’s important to challenge the status quo and make sure we are aware of why we do certain things and are curious and open to trying new ways of working. - Stephanie Dawoud, Operations Lead at LEVELS
Mapping and visualizing business processes is a crucial step in understanding, analyzing, and optimizing how a business operates. It provides a clear picture of how things happen and whether workflows actually work.
This activity will help you identify bottlenecks, redundancies, and inefficiencies. And - once you’ve identified them - you can work to eliminate them. This not only delivers cost and time savings, it can also improve the service customers receive and boost satisfaction overall.
Plus, these visualizations provide a quick and easy reference point for training new team members, which speeds up onboarding too.
As with everything, you need to set goals for your streamlining agenda. For example, reducing time to market, cutting customer response times, or making specific cost savings. This will help you get buy-in, resources, and know whether you’re making a difference.
These goals should be cross-departmental and supported by champions in the senior leadership team.
It’s very easy for organizations to become siloed. When this happens, different departments work in isolation and pursue team-specific KPIs. These can sometimes cause downstream problems for other teams. High-level KPIs that cut across silos will be more effective than more individualistic objectives.
‘Operations should be the balance in the middle,’ says Jacob Brain, Director of Operations at New North. ‘Making sure that the company's winning overall, not just individual departments.’
No one knows a process better than the person who performs it day in and day out. They know what works…and what doesn’t.
So when you’re looking for streamlining opportunities, they’re the person to ask. They’ll be painfully aware of the bottlenecks, barriers, and frustrations in a particular job. They probably have a long list of improvements that could be made…if only someone would listen. Now’s your chance…
Ask them to document the process, what and who is involved, how long each element takes, and rate each stage using the traffic light system. Anything red, look for ways to improve.
Provide opportunities and tools for employees to feedback on processes - anonymously if needs be - and act on valid suggestions.
It's very easy to look at work that's being done and make assumptions that we're not moving fast enough, not following processes, etc. Getting down into the mud, you can see what's really going on and why operations are the way they are. It gives you insight into all the little technicalities that happen during the day, during the week, during the month. - Ella Steinmetz-Simon, COO at 14 Minds
It isn’t just your employees who feel the pain of ineffective processes. Your customers can suffer too. And they’re less likely to suffer in silence.
Savvy businesses listen to customer complaints to understand how they can improve. And they don’t just wait for the customer to contact them. They know to look at online reviews too!
Introduce a range of ways for customers to feedback and be proactive about seeking their views. Then categorize feedback based on common themes to identify areas that need improvement.
For example, if customers complain that they’ve tried to return an item but are still waiting to hear back from your support team, this points to potential improvements. Introducing an online returns portal could make things better for the customer and quicker for your customer service team.
Your supply chain can also identify process problems. For example, are suppliers repeatedly emailing to chase unpaid invoices? Dealing with these complaints gobbles up valuable time for your Accounts Payable team, putting them further behind with the pay run.
Look at every step of the process to identify the issue. If the problem is that suppliers aren’t submitting invoices in the right format, don’t dismiss it as a ‘them problem’. Look at how you communicate your invoice requirements and make it clearer.
Keep a record of the type and frequency of complaints that different teams receive. And remember that solving a problem for others often solves a problem for you.
Retrospectives, reviews, postmortems… whatever you want to call them, you can learn a lot by looking back at past projects. They’re a powerful way to review efficiencies and continually improve your business processes.
They’re a chance to reflect on what went well (Go team!) but also what didn’t work. Team members should feel psychologically safe to be open about problems and process breakdowns. Without this knowledge, you could keep making the same mistakes in future projects.
Past project data is helpful here too. If you can see that a previous similar project took 100 hours and cost $30,000 - but the current project doubled that - it can highlight areas for improvement.
Analyzing past failures helps identify and eliminate the root causes. It also encourages a proactive mindset where everyone is alert to streamlining opportunities.
Low-value tasks are steps in a process that add little value to the final outcome. These steps can consume additional resources and take more time, without significantly improving your product or service to clients.
Identify steps in a process that do not add value to the final product or service and eliminate them - in every department. For example
It’s important to understand day-to-day work at a detailed level to recognize what chains of processes and decisions are needed - or need to be iterated - to create the most value. At the same time, it’s important to challenge the status quo and make sure we are aware of why we do certain things and are curious and open to trying new ways of working. - Stephanie Dawoud, Operations Lead at LEVELS
Data can transform your business. But only if you understand it. Thankfully, there’s an abundance of tools out there to help you make sense of your business data. In doing so, you help senior leaders make confident data-based decisions, quicker.
AI can analyze datasets and deliver actionable insights in a fraction of the time it would take a human analyst. And data visualization tools make it easier for everyone to understand key information like performance metrics.
Plus, visualization helps you quickly identify patterns and trends that might not be evident when looking at raw data. For example, helping you spot if a new project is going to take you over-capacity and should be put on the back burner.
Duplication spells double trouble for busy businesses. You’re wasting time and money doing things twice. And you’re introducing risk and confusion. For example
Look for opportunities to centralize systems that touch different departments - for example, introducing a CRM system to manage customer communication centrally - as well as digitalizing paper-based processes.
If you think you’re the only organization that hasn’t dragged itself into the digital age yet, don’t worry. There’s still a lot of you about!
If you have people filling out forms by hand - and other people typing up that information - this is a huge opportunity to streamline your systems.
Aim to replace any paper-based systems with digital alternatives ASAP.
For example, many organizations still ask staff to fill out timesheets by hand. Writing your hours on a printed timesheet and popping it in the internal post to be typed into a spreadsheet somewhere.
This makes no sense when time-tracking software can do it instantly - and feed that data directly into invoicing and HR systems too.
Explore your options to replace all paper forms with online alternatives, as well as digital signature technology for anything you need to be signed.
Another type of duplication is reinventing the wheel. A person or team investing time and energy to devise a solution that already exists elsewhere.
A Knowledge Management System is a centralized digital repository for SOPs, training materials, and best practices. Staff can add their own solutions - like process visualizations - so all employees can self-serve the information they need.
Research from MIT suggests organizations that enable the re-use of their peers’ tried-and-trusted solutions speed up innovation. Leaders should ‘foster habits of reuse, by setting expectations for teams to consolidate solutions in a centralized repository and to reuse their peers’ solutions when practical.’
Once you’ve established the best way to perform different processes, you can document them in SOPs - ‘standard operating procedures’. These record exactly how different processes should be performed.
Dr Laura Mellor, COO at AMZ Pathfinder, says:
In most companies, the need for a standardized quality of work becomes apparent very early on, but the documentation of it lags behind. Writing down your processes and having a schedule for updating them is a simple fix. Once organized, you have a manual on how you as a company do a certain task. This stops the same questions from being asked time and time again. Already, you’re streamlining your company and saving precious time for your team.
SOPs increase consistency across different teams and reduce the risk of reinventing the wheel. They also speed up onboarding by providing a comprehensive ‘how to’ manual for new starters. Just be careful not to get over-zealous. Too many rules can become pointlessly bureaucratic. This leads us on to our next tip.
While SOPs are widely considered beneficial, some experts think too many defined processes can be detrimental. They recommend aiming for ‘minimal viable policies’.
‘Minimal viable policy’ means businesses have only the processes they need to function effectively. Beyond that, they avoid dictating how things should be done. They trust and empower employees to use their commonsense and initiative to work out the optimum way of operating.
Organizations committed to MVP pursue the power of subtraction: their leaders eliminate impediments to team progress, such as excessive or complex policies that increase bad complexity, and instead implement high-level foundational principles that define collective constraints and guide teams’ decision-making. This cuts the average time to make complex or high-stakes decisions in half. - MIT’s Centre for Information Systems Research
Agile is a methodology used in software development and project management. Like Lean principles below, it is a customer-centric approach to business, but its main focus is on agility and speed.
Agile brings together cross-functional teams - in short sprints - to develop an iteration of a product. Feedback from each iteration is then incorporated into the next. This creates a viable product fast and uses customer input to craft something that perfectly meets their needs - nothing more, nothing less.
This approach uses parallel processing to accelerate outcomes. It also ensures developers don’t waste time creating functionality that - at the end of a longer project - customers may not like or want.
Lean principles are committed to improving efficiency and reducing waste. Which is why you’re here, right?! Some of the key lean principles you need to know are:
Lean principles will help you identify the most efficient ways to meet customer needs in a profitable way. You’ll look at every element of your business operations with a lean eye, alert to wastage - whether that’s wasteful steps in your processes or wasting the talents of people in your team.
In a professional services firm, your people are the most important part of your business. They come up with the big ideas and deliver brilliant customer outcomes. They also account for the majority of your costs. So you need to use them wisely.
Having resources under-utilized costs you money instead of making it. While over-utilizing resources can lead to bottlenecks and burnout. Resource utilization is about achieving the perfect balance so that all of your people are earning - not burning - money. But never overstretched.
An 85% utilization target builds breathing room into people’s work-day, rather than packing their schedule to full capacity. This doesn’t just prevent costly and disruptive burnout. It also ensures people can tackle ad hoc tasks without throwing everything else off track. This keeps your business flowing better.
Sometimes, it isn’t enough to just optimize your resource utilization rate. Sometimes you’ll need to grow or shrink your workforce to match the demand for your services.
Workforce capacity planning is a strategic process that validates whether you have the right number of staff – with the right skills and in the right job roles - to meet future demand.
If you’re not already engaged in capacity planning, now’s the time. Capacity planning helps you streamline your business by reducing costs associated with having too many staff - and by preventing bottlenecks from having too few staff.
Use scenario planning to understand the impact of different business opportunities. It helps you embody lean principles without leaving you short-handed.
Streamlining is inseparable from technology these days - from the new tools you can use, to upskilling your staff to use them effectively. One thing’s for sure - spreadsheets aren’t sustainable or scalable enough for ambitious businesses.
In a professional services business, some software solutions to investigate include
Manual tasks are anathema to streamlining. In the age of automation and AI, performing repetitive, routine tasks by hand makes no sense. Automation can significantly speed up processes and reduce the risk of human error.
But that’s not all. It also frees your people from tedious tasks and gives them more time for the stuff they enjoy. This leads to more engaged employees, which brings a whole host of benefits like higher productivity and retention.
Professional services automation is an umbrella term for various blocks of software that automate and connect processes across the professional services value chain. They help professional service firms to automate previously manual processes, plus centralize systems for more streamlined processes.
Look for software that can free your people for more strategic and value-adding activities. But don’t think this is a ‘one-and-done’ activity. Keep scanning the horizon for new developments.
Every single company should be invested in having software that works for the company, not the other way around. Always look for more automation. Just because you have software that was the most popular six months ago, be on the lookout, see what's going on, follow the trends, and don't be afraid to try new things. - Ella Steinmetz-Simon, COO at 14 Minds
Artificial Intelligence is a hot topic - as well as the ethics of using it. While the jury’s still out on some areas of AI, others are already tried and tested in the workplace. AI is capable of delivering significant time-savings and efficiencies.
AI can complete processes in minutes that might take a person a whole day. For example
This speeds up day-to-day operations and can relieve problematic bottlenecks. It also gives you the potential to scale your business without a proportionate increase in number of employees.
An automated workflow is when - instead of having to perform, say, 10 tasks manually - you can do one thing and automate the rest.
Think about a review process. That could involve numerous manual steps including assigning the review task to the review, emailing them the work, receiving the amends back, marking them as complete, etc.
In an automated workflow, the originator would simply click that their work is complete. This would automatically trigger a message or task for the reviewer containing a link to the work. The reviewer could add comments to the work and click complete, automatically routing it back to the originator.
Alongside all of this, the workflow could add the task to contributors’ to-do lists and update the project status automatically so everyone knows what’s what.
There are lots of workflow automation tools on the market now that let anyone create these time-saving flows without needing to know complex code.
Off-the-shelf automation tools are great. But sometimes you want to create a workflow that spans different systems and departments. When your processes are too complex for standard workflow tools to tackle, you might need deeper integration of your software.
Software integration is when you use a connector - usually an API - to get two or more applications working together. This could mean anything from sharing data from one system in a format that makes sense in another, to creating workflows that travel through numerous systems seamlessly.
This reduces data duplication, speeds up processing, and helps people work together more effectively.
You may need to call in an IT consultancy to help you plan your integrations. Or, if you have a tech-savvy team, investigate iPaaS (integration platform as a service) providers.
Time is literally money in your project-based business. You need to maximize billable hours and minimize the time you waste on non-value-adding activities. Manual tasks, excessive meetings, and bureaucratic processes are massive time sinks that torpedo productivity.
One way to spot these sinkholes is with project time tracking - getting staff to record how they spend their time. This can reveal streamlining opportunities.
For example, if someone is bogged down in manual admin tasks you can unblock them by reassigning those tasks to someone else or by looking for automation opportunities.
Time tracking can also help you improve future forecasts by understanding where your team’s time actually goes. This can help you resource projects properly from the start, create more accurate quotes for clients, and stick to your schedule.
There may be some resistance to asking your employees to track their time. We’ve got some tips on how to introduce time tracking without making waves.
Parallel processing is when you break down a longer, sequential process into multiple simultaneous tasks. This shortens the overall duration of the workflow, without compromising on quality. Mapping your processes will help you identify any opportunities to do this.
For example, instead of one person completing a task over 5 days, five people can complete the task in one day. This has the potential to accelerate your workflows, increase agility, and optimize resource utilization.
In a marketing agency, for example, this divide-and-conquer approach might involve using a social media specialist, copywriter, web developer, and graphic designer to concurrently develop campaign materials - instead of a single person working through them all over a longer period.
Asynchronous working means your organization establishes working methods that don’t require staff to be available at the same time. Employees can choose their own work schedule - rather than trying to force themselves to work a set 9-to-5.
It’s grown from increasing globalization and the need to create systems that work for employees in different time zones. But an added benefit is that creates an environment where everyone can complete their work when they feel most personally productive.
This is good for them - and you - as it helps people get in the zone and do their best work without distraction. This helps work flow better for individuals and delivers better outcomes for your business.
It may cause some processes to take a little longer - such as soliciting colleagues’ views via a week-long survey rather than in a one-hour meeting. But sometimes it’s good to slow down because it creates more considered, confident decisions. It certainly works for us at Runn 🙂
Consider outsourcing non-core activities that don't directly contribute to your business's core competency. This can free up resources for more critical tasks.
One of the major organizational trends in the future of work is staff augmentation and outsourcing. Until fairly recently, if work needed doing, it needed to be done in-person and on-site. More recently, society has embraced remote work, the freelance economy has boomed, and organizations can work with people from anywhere in the world.
That means your business is no longer tied to hiring, developing, managing, and getting ROI from permanent staff. You can tap into a global network of specialist contractors as and when you need them.
This can streamline your processes because most of the onus for delivering work efficiently falls on the contractor. Plus you can grow or reduce your workforce dynamically in response to changing market needs.
Another benefit of outsourcing is the opportunity to increase your capacity by tapping into timezone differences. Because even when you’re sleeping, someone, somewhere, is awake and working!
For example, imagine you’re a graphic design agency producing magazines for a publisher. You might decide to outsource photo editing because you don’t have that skillset in-house.
Outsourcing to a global provider - rather than a provider in your timezone - could mean that the editing happens overnight. So you send the images at close of play Monday and have them back by first thing Tuesday. This effectively saves you a day’s delay.
Using online collaboration tools can speed things up considerably. Think about collaborating on some written content, for example. You could create a document. Save it. Share it by email. Have a colleague make track changes. Save their version. Email it back.
Or, with an online tool like Google Docs, you can collaborate in the same document. There’s no need to save, share, and make duplicate copies. And you don’t need access to a specific device or network, you can access documents from anywhere.
This saves time at the collaboration stage. But also reduces the time and confusion created by having multiple versions of the same document across different departments and folders. Online tools automatically save different versions of your document, so you have a full audit trail of every change.
Upskilling is when a business invests in training employees to enhance their skills and knowledge. This could be to improve their performance in their current role. Or to diversify their skills to make them more useful across the business.
Upskilling your employees can help streamline operations by
Upskilling also keeps your employees more engaged and motivated. When employees are more invested, they are more likely to spot opportunities and innovate - including new, better processes.
At Runn, everyone is entitled to one day of self-directed learning each month.
Self-directed learning days let your people take time out to learn something new. Like any upskilling initiative, self-development makes new knowledge accessible to your business.
Giving people autonomy to choose their own focus lets them select something highly relevant to their current interests and challenges at work. Which can increase engagement and improve their performance.
Autonomy at work means giving employees more freedom to make decisions and manage their work. Instead of keeping an excessively tight rein on employees’ day-to-day work, you trust them to use their expertise and initiative (within guardrails, of course).
Autonomous employees are more empowered, engaged, motivated, and productive. And there are fewer levels of bureaucracy to navigate and cause delays.
Plus, as our co-founder Nicole says, motivated employees take less managing. Autonomy empowers people with bottom-up support, rather than controlling them with top-down management.
Bottlenecks cause a disproportionate amount of trouble. Something could be a five-minute fix. But waiting for someone to get around to it could take weeks. That why - at Runn - we encourage people to be unblockers.
Our CTO, Rowan, explains:
When you see someone asking for assistance and wanting to jump on a call because they need someone to have a look at their work, we prioritize that as the highest priority. That becomes more of a priority than any feature you could possibly be working on. Because you are unblocking. You’re helping someone else to achieve their best, and you are just putting a slow pause on what you are doing. So that's something that we practice and embed into the culture.
Encouraging colleagues to help unblock bottlenecks for their colleagues can help improve the flow in your business. Plus what goes around, comes around. Next time there’s an issue, it could be you who needs help.
Looking for workload management tools that could do wonders for your team's productivity? Check our ultimate list.
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