Image and Workflow is a generic term for technology that aids paperless working. If your operating model places emphasis on efficiency and process improvement, it can be an essential part of running your business. In its simplest form, it works by delivering an electronic image to a location where it can be processed (read, acted upon, transferred into another system) by a human being.
However, more sophisticated solutions attempt to automate parts of the interaction. For example, ‘reading’ the incoming request and updating other systems, creating outbound confirmations or carrying out simple transactional processes.
Key functions that can be carried out include:
- Conversion of paper-based inputs into an electronic image
- Interpretation of the information on the image
- Creation of an electronic work item or case file
- Classification of the work type (often called indexing)
- Routing of the item through a series of work queues
- Storage of the original image and retrieval of the image when required.
The benefits of Image and Workflow
The core purpose of Image and Workflow it to make life simpler. It’s the reason it’s commonly used in the service sector to assist with processing, storage and retrieval of customer correspondence. It can also be used for managing internal tasks where there’s a business process that can be modelled. It’s an ever-evolving technology: while originally used for traditional paperwork it’s now increasingly being used for emails, online self-service forms and more.
The benefits of Image and Workflow include:
- Instantaneous movement of work between locations or process steps
- Elimination of transportation and storage costs of paper files
- Increased flexibility of working (electronic work allows geographical work sharing)
- Reduced cost and increased speed for retrieving information once archived
- Potential for automation of data capture and management information
The pitfalls of Image and Workflow
It’s a common misconception that automation automatically means better. In fact, there are many problems associated with the design and use of Image and Workflow systems that mean the cost savings of implementation are often marginal at best. At worst, implementation can directly impact on the success and cost-effectiveness of a business, and do little to meet the goals set out in your operating model. That’s why it’s always important to weigh up the pros and cons with equal precision.
Reasons for the cost of processing increasing include:
- Design, purchase, installation, licensing, operating and maintenance costs of the hardware (scanners, storage area networks etc.) and software (intelligent character recognition, workflow etc.)
- Design, build, test, implementation, operation and maintenance of bespoke software solutions
- The cost of exiting the solution when inevitable upgrades are required in the future
- The addition of entirely new business processes, for example scanning and indexing, which are often designed using ‘batch and queue’ thinking that requires high bandwidth networks
- Hidden costs due to poor performance of the technology (illegible images, faulty auto-indexing, poor character recognition, system downtime etc.)
However, cost isn’t the only pitfall to consider. Changes in the customer landscape often lead to inefficient workarounds. While automating business processes means that changes can only be delivered at a speed determined by the IT change lifecycle, which is typically 6-18 months.
Continuous improvement is therefore stifled by the high cost and long lead-time of these changes. In fact, it’s not uncommon for solutions to be out of date even before they’ve gone live.
Understanding the challenge
At OEE Consulting we design for the end user. In the case of Image and Workflow, this means establishing whether the solution genuinely improves the process from a business and customer perspective. Customer-focused metrics and total cost of ownership analysis often suggest this is not the case, however the need for process improvement still remains.
The most compelling argument for implementing imaging solutions is the potential for better future customer service, for example providing instant access to historical documents. While not without its merits, we believe that when Image and Workflow is driven by an understanding of Lean Service it can deliver a large proportion of that benefit without the need for major IT investment. This approach is explained in the following Operations Design framework, which helps to inform your overall operating model.
OEE Consulting’s Operations Design framework
Improving the process
Fundamental to automation is the SECAR principle. Often known by its reverse acronym RACES, this five-step approach sets out the correct sequence for improving a process:
The IT industry’s tendency to jump straight to automation is the cause of many project delays and overspends. That’s why it’s essential to understand that operations is more than just process. Image and Workflow solutions need to take into account the operating model, and day-to-day needs of the operations managers and staff using the system. They need to be agile and responsive. Quick and cost-effective to modify. Capable of responding to changes in the market. If not, automation will quickly lead to a breakdown in communication.