How to create efficient document workflows

Every company establishes dozens or even hundreds of document workflows – it’s part of the firm’s DNA. Understanding who is responsible for issuing, reviewing, editing, approving, and storing documents constitutes the baseline for document workflow management.

In this article, we’ve compiled a list of tips, tools, and suggestions for creating document workflows that help your administrative side of business work seamlessly.

The art of creating efficient document workflows 

1. Identify the need to improve the document workflow

A common misconception is that document automation deserves attention when you, your team, or the whole organization begin to feel the weight of paperwork.

However, that’s often the sign of being too late to the party. Chances are you’ve already lost time and money, but the good news is – no more of that.

The work on organizational efficiency starts with admitting there’s a problem to solve. Although fixing an entire workflow may seem tough at first, you’ll see that by introducing document flow automation, you’ll quickly arrive at better results.

There are several signs of struggling with document routing:

  • long turnaround time (the period between the first beginning of the workflow and its end)

  • mounting data inaccuracies (discrepancies between databases that are dependent on the document intake)

  • trouble finding information (the time needed to find the right document)

  • financial losses (resulting from lost documents or missed deadlines)

  • approval bottlenecks (specifically in processes where several steps of approval are needed)

If any of the above made you nod silently, keep reading – we’re here to help.

2. Start with the basic assumptions of the workflow

Document workflows vary in complexity, the number of steps included, and the specific reasons for their existence. They should also be designed to fit your company’s needs and circumstances, such as additional reviews, approval steps, and other “moving parts.”

Initially, you don’t have to go through the process in detail; rather, you should focus on sketching the general terms. Think about the following aspects:

  • Are the incoming documents physical or digital? Initially, you should determine whether the documentation arrives as physical copies or has already been digitized. That will later impact certain steps in the document management process.

  • Which documents are part of the workflow? While you can expand the list of your documents later on, you should have a general idea of the amount used in the process. Following an example, an insurance clerk receives and generates various legal and business documents when processing a claim from a customer. 

  • Where do the documents come from? Depending on your service or product, documents may be directly sent by your customers or generated automatically whenever a new order is placed. Third parties, such as your business partners, regulating bodies, and other institutions, may also provide documents.

  • Who receives the documents? While the above question refers to the source—the document’s issuer—this question refers to the person or party who receives the document. That person, company, or institution may have its own requirements regarding the delivery of the document, its form, or its contents.

  • What’s the main purpose of each document type? Sometimes, the answer is obvious, like a CV arriving in your mailbox used to assess a candidate during recruitment. However, to introduce order in your workflow, it’s best to write down even the most obvious aspects. At this point, you might also consider if your documents serve multiple purposes and – therefore – may play a role in more than just one workflow.

  • Does the document contain sensitive data? When handling documents that include personal data, you are obliged to follow official rules, often set by the regulatory body in your market. That’s document control. Following the example of debt collection, agents in some countries may be fined for contacting people without having the court order first. Another example is healthcare providers, who store patient’s personal data in their archives. In such cases, document security has to be one of your top priorities when working on the process workflow.

  • How and where is the document archived? Eventually, every workflow ends with the document being archived or destroyed. Find out whether there’s one common document repository or if there are numerous destinations.

At this point, you’re looking at a set of notes, which isn’t particularly easy to work with. Hence, the next step is to create a visual aid.

3. Visualize the documented workflow with the right tool

Visual representations of business processes help to achieve alignment between teams, improve communication between stakeholders, and – generally speaking – give a better overview of what’s happening. 

It’s no different in document process modeling.

By creating a visual model, you will easily track all the stakeholders, the stages of processing the documents, and specific required actions — such as validating the contract with your law firm partner. 

You can use many tools, but our recommendations are Miro and Whimsical. 

Since both platforms include a free setup, it’s best to check them both and choose the one that feels easier to navigate.

When working on the visual model, take into account:

  • Risks – is there any danger associated with the process, such as a fine for misplacing the document, leaking personal data, or not delivering it on time. 

  • Dependencies – is the workflow dependent on another process, or are there rules to solve any blocks or bottlenecks.

  • Alternative document routes – are there multiple people at the approval/document handling step? 

As a process owner, your next step is to look for ways to automate.

4. Consider adding automated document data extraction

If this action did not appear as a step in your document workflow, you might consider including it.

Many documents contain valuable data that you need to copy, transfer, or use in some other way. This typically involves manual work that’s rather tedious, time-consuming, and error-prone.

That’s where our platform, Alphamoon, steps in. Automated data extraction mitigates risks from mishandling documents and gives your team access to data thanks to a convenient, easy-to-use tool available online. 

Alphamoon can be set up to read any data from your documents and help automatically recognize document types. It also assists in other document-related tasks, such as splitting and merging pages and copying text from scanned images.

To find out more, head over to our guide – How to set up custom document classification in Alphamoon – where we explain the simple process of configuring the model on your own (by the way, you don’t need technical skills to do that).

Let’s get back to our process.

Now that you’ve created the visual representation of the document workflow, including all the steps, stakeholders, risks, and dependencies, it’s time to gather final feedback.

5. Validate the mapped-out process with colleagues working at each step

According to Professor Karlien Vanderheyden from Vlerick Business School, listening to your teammates is the secret to being a good manager. It shouldn’t be all too surprising, and we’re mentioning it because the same applies to designing business processes.

Even if you’re not directly managing people, establishing a process is still a management task. Therefore, it is important to seek your colleagues’ advice and opinions—particularly those involved in the flow of documents.

Following the advice on listening to your co-workers, try to understand the following:

  • How many documents of a given type do they receive daily/weekly/monthly? – this information will help you foresee future bottlenecks. Also, this might indicate whether document automation would speed up the proceedings.

  • What’s the approval workflow? – in less transparent structures, there could be the danger of a never-ending back and forth between people. The approval process should, therefore, be clearly explained to the team. When talking to your colleagues, identify their roles in the workflow.

  • Are there any missing steps? – as the project owner, team leader, or specialist, you need insights from others to get the full picture.

5. Run tests and trim the fat

Diligence is a virtue, but before you start implementing the new, improved – and very detailed – workflow for your documents, consider looking at it from another perspective. After all, your top priority is to introduce effective document management – not a complex one.

Once you’ve gathered all of this information—fingers crossed that your head isn’t steaming with knowledge—you need to take the final step, which is to make it leaner.

Business processes are often the result of constant changes, such as staff rotation, shifts in strategy and/or team goals, and other factors.

Juggling all of these elements can be a daunting task. Imagine updating the visualization of every workflow several times a year.

To prevent this, the final step in designing a document workflow is simplifying it.

Try running the process with your colleagues but without particular steps and see if the rules apply to deliver the expected result. If the answer is yes, then you have successfully concluded this tough exercise!

7. Manage the workflow and update whenever needed

After testing the workflow in real life, don’t forget to update it whenever a change occurs. 

You might also want to test document workflow software to automate your work further. Such tools include pre-defined paths for specific use cases, enable role assigning between teammates, and foster collaboration.

A popular solution is Zoho Creator, a low-code platform that enables users to create digital document workflows and approval processes and monitor them together.

When paired up with AI-backed extraction from documents, it’s a powerhouse that saves you and your team from manual tasks.

Why does optimizing your Document Management Workflow pay off from a long-term perspective?

Now that we’ve explained how to transform your document processing tactics from chaos to order let’s answer the real question—why do it in the first place?

Is chaos that bad? Isn’t it just a document governance policy that complicates things?

Well, disorganized and poorly managed document workflows have dire consequences for the business, including:

  • Sunk internal costs

  • Internal miscommunication

  • Unused data

  • Employee frustration

  • Direct impact on sales and operations

Thanks to the implementation of document workflow systems, you’re looking at the following benefits, too:

  • Team productivity improves as a result of spending less time on repetitive tasks

  • Growing amounts of documents are no longer a hurdle stopping your firm from expanding

  • Individual workflow participants get a much better understanding of their roles and duties

  • Data becomes much more available and commonly used to help decision-making

An example of an improved workflow

Let’s examine an example of an improved invoice intake workflow in an imaginary company called Hemingway Manufacturing. The company sells production line parts and receives and issues hundreds of monthly invoices, purchase orders, and other documents.

The project manager, Helen Scott, was asked to scrutinize the way the documents were received and processed internally since some invoices required changes due to wrong amounts every month. In addition, the company management has recently seen a few clients leave because of faulty orders sent to them.

Helen Scott created the following diagram that illustrated the workflow.

Then, she organized a workshop with the team. Their input has shed more light on the document intake process. Helen learned that:

  • Documents vary in language and design, and the team sometimes struggles to understand their structure. As a result, they make mistakes and take more time to process them.

  • One person signs off on all invoices, and she’s been recently absent. However, the team did not receive exact information on whether the suppliers had been informed about the internal delay. In addition, there was a lack of clear understanding of who the second person to approve documents is.

  • Due to the multiple languages, purchase orders and invoices were not always correctly verified. In addition, accounts sent the purchase orders directly to the finance team members.

Helen has worked on updating the visual representation of the workflow, where she proposed solutions to solve the problem. Her ideas included:

  • Introducing a centralized platform for all incoming invoices and purchase orders to avoid chaotic intake from various sources,

  • Using a data extraction tool to tackle diverse documents in many languages,

  • Adding more employees in the approval step.

Helen’s proposed solution increased operational efficiency and helped the entire team achieve better results. As the workflow owner, Helen has also introduced a document management solution to handle the creation of internal documents and keep track of all the critical documents – such as invoices and purchase orders.

Conclusion: Let the documents flow

There you go – a deep-dive into the topic of document workflows management.

All of these tips should help you get started, gain a better understanding of potential risks, and eventually build a lasting methodology for future challenges.

Click below to talk to Alphamoon’s team about the document-related tasks we can help you automate today.

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Why do you recommend sketching the visual version of the workflow instead of working on it right away in a document workflow automation tool?

While some users may be in their element when setting up rules, dashboards, and roles in low-code tools, most benefit from visualizing the steps first. That way, you’re guaranteed to have a simple way of addressing any issue before bringing the document workflows to any platform.

Is document data extraction necessary for improving document workflows?

Yes – it’s a vital step that improves the overall quality of data your company derives from documents. Moreover, tools like Alphamoon help you get that value faster and send this data elsewhere – such as your ERP, CRM, or BMS software.

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