How to Automate Any Process

Benjamin Babb
process automation

When it comes to process automation and your business, the stakes are high. 

According to one estimate, 30% of work activities for over half of the jobs in the US could be automated. That’s a day and a half worth of hours each week that most workers could get back if their processes, workflows, and tasks didn’t require as much hands-on attention. 

Of course, it's one thing to recognize the value of automation for business workflows, and another to make it happen. The work of planning and implementing automations doesn’t have to be complicated and it shouldn’t be mysterious: it is just a matter of knowing what you want to do, recognizing what you can do, and then figuring out which tools you need to put it in motion. 

That's what this post is all about. This 8-point framework will guide you through the steps you need to take in order to automate any process or business workflow. 

Process vs workflow: The terms “process” and “workflow” are sometimes used interchangeably, and that’s OK. The 8 steps outlined here can also be used for workflow automation. 

Step 1 - Define your goal(s)

The first step toward automating a manual process is to define your goal(s) and understand your objectives. This will help you set your priorities and create an automation strategy that makes sense for your particular situation. 

A common assumption about process automation is that the goal is always efficiency, but that’s not the case. The primary driver behind automation can also be

  • to add value to the product or service
  • to make processes more predictable or accurate
  • to improve the customer experience
  • to create better outcomes for internal or external process customers
  • to make work less repetitive or frustrating for employees

Regardless of why you want to automate your process, being able to define your goals can help you prioritize the workflows and task automations that need attention first.

GoalCommon issue(s)
Deliver better customer outcomesProcess is error prone, unpredictable, or slow
Improve employee experienceToo many repetitive tasks, takes up too much employee time
Increase efficiencyProcess is too expensive, takes too long to complete, or not scalable

Step 2 - Identify the target process

Business processes can be complicated. Often what we refer to as “a process” may actually be a family of related processes or subprocesses. For example, a typical procurement process may include subprocesses such as approving vendors, creating purchase orders, receiving goods, and paying invoices. 

Here’s an example of an end-to-end procurement process and its subprocesses.

Open image in new window

In this example, the first question to ask is: Is the goal to automate the entire end-to-end procurement process, or one of the subprocesses? 

To keep your automation project manageable and on schedule, consider focusing on the most specific process, subprocess, or workflow possible. Once you have your automation perfected, you can build it into additional business workflows and processes.

Step 3 - Establish process boundaries

This step reinforces Step 2. Once you’ve identified the process you want to automate, you need to set the boundaries of the process just to make sure you stay focused. The easiest way to set the boundaries and avoid scope creep is to identify the trigger or starting point of the workflow or process you want to automate, and then identify the result or outcome. 

Any work or manual processes that occur between these two points is a candidate for automation.

Components of a workflowOpen image in new window

Step 4 - Map your process

You’ve identified your starting point and stopping point. Now you need to create a process map or diagram that illustrates all the actors, action, and information in the process workflow. 

Depending on the complexity of your process, mapping might require the help of others on your team. That’s because you need to have the most complete map possible, which means including every task and every actor in the process workflow. Some of that information may have to come from team members who have their hands on the work. 

ActorsPeople who handle, hold, approve, or move the work at any point in the process
TasksSpecific steps that must be completed in the process
SystemsDatabases or applications that hold or impact the work
InformationForms, documents, files, and other types of data

Step 5 - Identify the tasks that can be automated

The process map will provide you with an inventory of all the tasks and workflows that make up the process. The next step is to review each and decide if it’s a candidate for automation. 

Keep in mind: Some tasks cannot be automated: they require human input and oversight every time they are completed. Other tasks don’t require the human touch and can be completed by a machine or software. To get you started, these are some common tell-tale qualities of tasks that can be automated:

RepetitiveInvolves the same steps or inputs each time
FrequentHigh volume task that must be completed multiple times in an hour, day, or week
RecurringTasks must be completed according to a regular schedule
DependentTriggered by another event or change in status
SimpleDoes not require complex information, decision making, or problem solving
PredictablePlanned element of a workflow or process, occurs in every instance of the process
CollaborativeRequires action or input from multiple stakeholders

Step 6 - Create your automation wishlist

Some of the most common tasks that are automated include composing and sending emails, notifying team members, creating requests, or updating task statuses. Depending on your process and the tools you use, the automation possibilities are endless. 

Step 7 - Assess your capabilities

In order to make your automations a reality, you’ll need the right automation tools. Software can make automation easy to implement and manage, for both simple and complex processes. Workflow automation software can also integrate with your existing stack, in order to create a seamless automation experience and coordinate data across applications. 

For most teams, no-code or low-code tools provide the fastest path to automation. These types of tools make it much easier to implement new automations and refine existing ones. No-code and low-code tools don’t require as much time or effort from developers or IT teams, and they are frequently found in the citizen developer toolbox. 

Step 8 - Configure your automation

Now that you’ve set your process boundaries, identified the tasks and manual processes you want to automate, and reviewed your current software capabilities, it’s time to bring your automations to life.

Your workflow automation software should make it easy for you to plan and configure automations in any of your workflows. It’s simply a matter of deciding what will trigger the automation and what the automation will do. 

Learn more about automation

Our articles hub is full of information about automating tasks, workflows, and processes. Find more resources on topics including workflow management, examples of workflow diagrams, flowchart symbols, BPM, and more. 

Learn why companies trust Pipefy to help them automate processes and optimize workflows

Written by
Benjamin Babb
Enya devotee, ghost story aficionado, and skillet collector. Research, writing, and branding are what I do with my brain. Will talk about language or chihuahuas all day long. Senior Writer at Pipefy.

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