April 2007 | How-To | Ten Tips

Automating Workflow Management

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By automating supply chain workflow, private fleet operators, carriers, and third-party logistics providers can more easily gather and utilize information, and communicate with their suppliers and customers more effectively. It also helps them gain a leg up on the competition. Workflow management software systems (WfM) are helpful, but they can also be challenging to manage and implement. Nancy Troutman, vice president of transportation and logistics for global IT consulting firm Neoris, offers these tips for automating workflow management.

1. Understand workflow management and clearly define its parameters. Workflow management is defined as the automation of business procedures, or "workflows," during which documents, information, or tasks are passed from one participant to another under specified rules or procedures. Supply chain workflow management systems address the entire transportation process—from loading a shipment on a vehicle to delivery at final destination.

2. Evaluate your resources and gain an understanding of your legacy system outputs. Closely examining your legacy IT systems, as well as your physical and human resources, helps create smoother transitions between workflow tasks and processes. In turn, process consistency gives companies greater predictability of customer response levels, allowing them to meet or exceed existing service-level agreements—whether the customer is a shipper, retailer, or a third-party logistics provider.

3. Learn to prioritize. Determine the most vital aspect of your supply chain process, and build the rest of your workflow structure around it. Your transportation network, for example, is impacted in many ways by workflow management. When using a web-based workflow management system, for instance, you need to create rules and rights for viewing load information and tracking the progress of delivery vehicles.

4. Leverage technology. Computers can process workflow information much faster than humans. A properly programmed, configured, and managed WfM system can drastically improve workflow management. By using the Internet, handheld devices, on-board global positioning system devices, and sensors to provide cross-fleet visibility, for instance, fleet operators can more easily identify the status and location of freight and vehicles.

5. Start with a small pilot. Most companies manage workflow using a combination of paper manifests and cellular communication. Piloting a new automated WfM system is a smart way to quickly learn the ropes of system implementation. Then, take lessons learned on the small scale and apply them to the rest of the system. A pilot will also give you an opportunity to fix any errors in a new workflow system before you roll it out across your organization.

6. Build redundancy into your workflow. Workflow management systems can equip drivers with cellular-based scanning devices to ensure they load, deliver, and pick up the correct items. These systems excel at processing messages, sending alerts, and enabling real-time communication with drivers. You must be prepared, however, for technology glitches to occur—building in redundancies, such as paper-based manifests, can help you survive a technology crash.

7. Obtain a single, consolidated view of your network. A consolidated view of your supply chain workflow could include your entire fleet's stops, routes, and trucks; the customers they are serving; and their proximity to delivery locations. One major benefit of creating a single view of your network is the ability to take advantage of backhauls in order to fill empty miles. The watchword in supply chain workflow management is visibility. Blind execution is no way to run a business.

8. Maximize control. Exercise a level of control over each workflow process and its handoff points so you can monitor and reduce potential inefficiencies. In general, the best process controls use standardized working methods and software.

9. Standardize, standardize, standardize. Ensure all data entered in your WfM is consistent across logistics providers and shipment lanes, as well as inbound and outbound functions. Also, make sure all system users are aware of any differences in data. In addition, internal reports should share consistent formats across trade lanes and user groups so anyone accessing the system will easily find the data they need.

10. Set expectations. To promote user acceptance, let everyone know the system's limitations before roll-out. Although a WfM system is a powerful decision-support tool, it will not optimize shipments or make decisions for users.

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