Reviewing and Improving Workflow and Productivity: Methods and Tools

Most of our libraries and organizations have been around for numerous years, sometimes hundreds. Often that means many processes are created, changed as needed, and left in place long past their due date. Unfortunately, that means we are frequently working inefficiently, following old processes or cobbled together workflows.

The first part of the presentation will suggest methods for understanding and reviewing workflow. In the second half, we will take a look at various simple and lightweight tools and ways to use them to make work more efficient, especially in processing text, files, and data in batches.

Originally titled Tools, Tips, and Tricks to Making Work More Efficient. This webinar was presented for Florida Library Webinars on March 8, 2017. https://floridalibrarywebinars.org/events/16003/

Live Version of Presentation Slides

Context

To begin, I would like to give everyone a little bit of context.

When you are doing work individually, you obviously have full control of your own workflow. Often you just do the work and don’t think much about workflow.

Personally, I didn’t really start thinking about workflow until I started getting more involved with user experience. What did our users have to go through to complete a task in the library? I then turned more internally once I started supervising staff and their work, thinking about their workflow as individuals and as a team.

It was actually in thinking about other people’s workflow that I think started thinking about my own work and whether I was doing things efficiently.

I don’t think I have ever had a job description that specifically says to “manage and review workflows”, but many of my positions have involved overseeing operational work involving multiple people where work would not be done if there were no workflow established. This seems like a fairly common thing, but where the problems lie is when these very same workflows are never reviewed.

How do you know that the work is successful? That nothing is being dropped? Can the workflow be improved to make work easier? More efficient, and thus faster? Is the most appropriate person doing each task? Is the work appropriately divided? Is there a designated backup for each task? How do you ensure the backup knows how to do the work?

In the course of all this, I started to look at ways we can easily understand and analyze workflow. There are various ways that can help review workflows, and hopefully one or more of these methods can help you answer these questions. The methods I have chosen are also meant to be done in a reasonable amount of time, with minimal resources and without being overly complex.

Understanding Workflow

Obviously, different methods will work better depending on the specific workflow you are reviewing, the staff, and your organization. How many people you want involved may also determine which methods you decide to use.

Flowchart

One of the simplest ways to look at a workflow is to draw a flowchart based on your knowledge of how something is done, whether it’s a set process, or documenting how decisions are made. You might do it, or get someone else on staff to draw the flowchart depending on who is most familiar with the process.

This first example is a fairly set process in how an accessible format book is produced. This process could be drawn in a straight line as it’s a linear process, but it can still be useful to review the steps taken. In particular, despite the linearity of the process, there are notes regarding the fact that some steps only occur of the original format of the material is from print.

A second example here is a decision-style flowchart. Again, this is a fairly simple process, but it can help to visualize decision making process, especially for those who may be less familiar with the process.

You might even have multiple flowcharts, one which provides an overview of a workflow, with separate flowcharts detailing each part.

The flowchart you see here provides an overview of a request process. Each step that is in a blue box actually has another flowchart to provide the process for that specific step. For example, the production step is detailed by the first flowchart that I showed.

Task Analysis

Task analysis is a methodology used frequently in usability studies and as a user experience exercise. Depending on how a task analysis is done, it might include recording and analyzing task frequency, duration, and complexity. Frequently, a task is also broken down into multiple subtasks. While there are different ways of recording the information, commonly, how the task is completed is put into a form similar to a flowchart.

This is a task analysis of how a user requests an interlibrary loan online through the website. The images you see are screenshots from the various pages a user sees while going through the request process, with arrows to show which screens the user will see depending on the decisions they make, and the rest are handwritten notes about the user’s process.
Credit here goes to Matthew Reidsma at Grand Valley State University, who performed this task analysis and has since streamlined the process and improved the user experience around the online ILL process significantly.

Journey Sheet

Flowcharts and task analyses work well when you know and understand the whole process, but what happens when you don’t? Obviously, you need something that helps you identify all the steps in a workflow.

Honestly, there is probably an actual name for this method of looking at workflows, but I could not find one, so I have come to call them journey sheets.

The idea is that you have a sheet of paper which will go from one person to the next, and as it passes to each person, they write down their name and their tasks. This method works particularly well if you have a specific item, print or digital, that the journey sheet follows.

When we did this exercise at my work, we were looking at the workflow for new materials in how they are handled and processed, so we did a journey sheet for each type of material: hardcover with and without a hold, trade paperback, children’s non-fiction, children’s fiction, magazine, newspaper, and DVD. We opted not to do CD or audiobook, because we knew it was a similar process as DVD, nor mass market paperback for a similar reason, and I did not want to overwhelm staff with how many we were doing.

The sheets themselves have brief instructions and an example at the top, with information on who to contact. Once left with the staff member who does receiving, the sheets were attached as soon as an appropriate item came in and followed the item throughout the process until it was shelved in the public area, at which time the sheets were returned to me. One of the reasons I decided on journey sheets was because part of the process involves another department and involves many different staff members, so the journey sheets seemed like the easiest way to see what was happening with material.

Some people have asked me about having staff put a date as to when they receive it, which is certainly an option. However, in our case, we were more concerned with the process rather how long the process took, and we did not want staff to feel as if the speed of their work was being evaluated. So, really, it depends on whether timing is something you want to review.

What was most interesting was seeing how many people handled an item. In many places, the number of people handling an item is not necessarily an issue where items stay on trucks and are simply wheeled from one person to the next. However, at my workplace, due to space constraints, the less people that handle an item, the less time is potentially wasted simply moving an item from one person to the next, especially in Technical Services.

A journey sheet can be used with digital items as well, as long as it’s clear which item the sheet is “attached” to, and that the sheet moves along with it.

Swim Lanes

Swim lane diagramming can be a great way of visualizing the kind of information gathered from a journey sheet. Whether you go through the journey sheet exercise or not, swim lanes allow you to draw the steps in a workflow showing who handles each step by putting the tasks in different rows or columns (depending on whether you draw the swim lanes horizontally or vertically), representing different individuals or departments.

The example shown here is done vertically where each column is a different department and each flowchart step shows which department is doing the work, but again, it can be done horizontally with rows instead and with individuals instead of departments, depending on the information you have and at what level you are reviewing the process.

Using the results from the book journey sheet, we can rewrite the information by creating a lane for each individual and even group them by department. Now, we can easily see that the item goes through 3 departments, 7 individuals, and most significantly, that it passes by the same person twice. Based on this information about the current process, we can review the workflow and see where we might make improvements.

Questions to ask

After gathering the information, we need to ask questions about the process.

  • Does the order make sense?
  • Which steps are flexible in the ordering? Conditional upon other steps being completed?
  • Can specific steps be done more efficiently? (Is something done manually? Is there new technology that can help? Possibly automate part or all of it?)
  • How many people are involved? Can it be reduced?
  • Is the most suitable person doing each step?
  • Is the process consistent? Consistent with other departments?

Ideal workflow

Based on the answer to these questions, you will want outline what you think would be the ideal workflow.

Reorganization

If you don’t have an ideal workflow in mind already, you might consider transferring the information to a format where you can rearrange each step. You might do this digitally in a document, spreadsheet, flowchart software, or using good old sticky notes, so that you can easily move them around.

Card Sort Variants

If you are still having difficulty coming up with an ideal workflow, consider doing a variation of a card sort.
The basic idea behind a card sort is that you write each item on an index card or sticky note. You then have individuals or groups of people organize each card. In a closed card sort as you see here, the categories are predetermined. In an open card sort, there are no predetermined categories, and allow participants to group cards into as many or few piles as they think necessary.

A card sort is a type of exercise typically found in web design to help create an information architecture for a website. Nevertheless, we can use variants of a card sort for trying to find an ideal workflow as well.

In the context of a workflow, you would write each task on a card or sticky note. There are then a couple of different exercises you can do, either separately or together in one session.

Either individually or as a group, the first exercise is to pile or group together the tasks that should be done together or at the same time. For example, a library’s name is stamped or stickered onto an item and you might want a branch’s stamp or sticker to be added to an item at the same time.

The second exercise is to put each group of tasks in order. Some tasks have to come before others, but there is usually some flexibility for the order of tasks. As the group of tasks are ordered, think about efficiencies. For example, one of the tasks we wanted to move to an earlier part of the workflow at my workplace was tattle-taping, because it takes about 3 days to set for AV. By moving it to be one of the first tasks done, we no longer had to wait for the tattle-tape to set before sending it to be shelved.

There are advantages of doing it as a group including that others may have ideas you have not thought of, and that it provides an opportunity for staff to provide input to the review.

Getting to the Ideal

Hopefully in going through various exercises, you will have come up with an ideal process.
You might even consider starting with the ideal before you analyze current processes so that you are not unduly influenced by the current work environment.

However you get there, the ideal workflow may or may not work with the current staff, resources, and work environment. Other times, it may be that the ideal workflow is quite different from the current workflow. In these cases, you will want to develop flowcharts representing intermediate steps to get from the current workflow to the ideal one.

Finally, always check in with staff to see if they can think of any issues that you had not thought of before implementing.

Once you’re ready to implement the new workflow, consider a staggered implementation that reflect the workflows that you may have developed as intermediate steps towards the ideal. If you can, break it down even further, so that you make one or two changes at once, then give staff time to adjust before doing more changes. The bigger the change, the more time staff will need to get used to the new workflow.

For example, this timeline shows transferring duties from a Library Assistant 3 to two different Library Assistant 2s. It then gives each LA2 a month’s time before shifting more work from the LA3 to them. What follows is ample time for them to get used the new duties and resulting workflow. In that following time period, there are also review sessions built-in to make sure the transition and new process is going smoothly.

Does anyone have questions at this point about reviewing and developing workflows?

Tools to Increase Productivity

Okay, so at this point, we will shift gears a bit, since I promised that part of the presentation would cover productivity tools.

While what tools to use to make work more efficient very much differs depending on the workflow and what’s involved, there are a lot of great tools that are lightweight or commonly available. To finish off the presentation, I would like to go through a few applications that are almost all free to use and have fairly general usage.

One of the issues that many people have in libraries and similar organizations is that individuals cannot install programs without approval and involvement of the IT department, so the first set of tools that I will cover are all portable, meaning that they can be run from anywhere including a USB stick or by simply copying the files onto a computer.

KeePass

While there are many online password manager sites (such as Passpack), if you are worried about the security of keeping passwords online, consider using a local password manager such as KeePass, or if you’re on a Mac, you can try Keychain.
To be honest, I have never used KeePass myself, but I do encourage people to use password managers, because too often, passwords are kept in insecure ways, whether that’s on paper, in a Word document, or email. All too often, passwords are kept by a single person or different departments might keep them in different places. I cannot even tell you how much time I have spent collecting passwords at each new job I have had. Ideally, you find a secure way (which means not just a random Excel or Word file) to store and share the passwords.

Total Commander

Total Commander is an alternative to Windows Explorer. While for the most part, for actually browsing, copying, and moving files, some people do not find it to be a better or more intuitive alternative, Total Commander has a few tools built-in that are very useful.

In particular, there is a multi-file rename tool where you can select any number of files and rename all of them according to a specified pattern, by finding and replacing a string of text, add a counter, or many other ways.
The Mac alternative is called muCommander.

Notepad2

If you install Notepad2 on Windows, the installer will give you the option to completely replace Notepad on your computer. Regardless, Notepad2 is a very lightweight and very easy to use alternative to Notepad. It looks just like Notepad, but with lots of basic tools built-in and comes with code highlighting by default.

Particularly useful are the functions around batch text manipulation: remove all empty lines, compress whitespace, add text to the beginning or end of lines, and search/replace using regular expressions.

Many people recommend Notepad++, however, I find that it is too complex for what most people need it for and it is much less intuitive in comparison to Notepad2, which is much easier for most people to learn without any extra help since the interface is the same as Notepad.

IrfanView

If you ever wanted an easy to use image editor that is better than Paint or Picture Viewer but not so complex as Photoshop, then IrfanView is the answer.

Another great, lightweight program, it has all the basic editing tools you want, but what makes it great productivity-wise is that it includes a number of batch editing options, so that you can resize, rename, and process a batch of images at once.

The rest of the tools I cover are not portable, but if you can get them installed, they can be great for increasing productivity and efficiency.

Lightscreen

While Windows allows screenshots, one of the handiest things Mac users have by default is to automatically save screenshots as image files, and to choose a section of the screen. Lightscreen is a neat little program which will give you the functionality of choosing a specific section of your screen to copy or save, and save all your full screenshots, active window screenshots, and selection screenshots to any folder you specify by default. Functionality-wise, screenshot selection is such a small thing, but too often I have heard or seen people spend a lot of time cropping screenshots. Lightscreen also has a few extra options that are really handy, including choosing the image format, whether the cursor shows in the screenshot, and the ability to change the shortcut keys.

PDFtk

Similar to many of the other tools I have covered, PDFtk is great for batch editing PDF files. If you have a bunch of PDF files that need to have pages rotated, watermarked, or merged, PDFtk offers an easy way to perform these actions. It also has a few other standard functions like rearranging pages, and splitting files, but it’s again, the batch functionality that allows for efficiency over other PDF editors.

Sublime Text

If you ever need more advanced text editing, or a really good code editor, Sublime Text is a great program with lots of built-in tools and a ton of plugins. I will not get into too much detail since most people will not need Sublime unless they do coding, but it can be handy for again, for more advanced text editing. Just a quick example: I had a file where I needed to select all the page numbers and then increment all of them by 3 because the page numbering was off, and in Sublime, I could do that without having to manually go through all the page numbers.

MarcEdit

I will also just quickly mention MarcEdit here for anyone who deals with MARC records if for some reason you haven’t heard about it.

Not only does it allow batch editing of records, but the greatest time saver is being able to essentially create macros, which are called Assigned Tasks in MarcEdit, whereby with a press of a button you can get it to run any number of predetermined edits to a set of records.

Excel

While I’m sure everyone is familiar with Excel itself, there is a lot that Excel can do that many people do not take full advantage of. Aside from the usual basic formulae, and graphs and charts (which can get quite complex especially if you delve into pivot charts), Excel is really good way to do at least basic data manipulation.
Filters are a great way to refine the data you want to keep or remove the data you don’t want to keep. Beyond that, you can also use simple formulae to help with other functions. For example, you can use the CountIF function to find duplicates, where you’re not actually finding duplicates but counting the number of times something shows up, so you can then filter for anything that occurs more than once.

Trello

This is kind of a side note, but thought it was worth mentioning.

Trello is an online service using the kanban method of organizing work, where you have a board with columns delineating work by item type, progress, workflow, or anything else that makes sense. Each column is populated by cards, which correspond to tasks. Each card can have notes, comments, checklists, due dates, votes, and attachments. Each board can also be shared with other Trello users, which can be a great way to help keep track of projects and priorities.
There are other alternatives like Taiga, and Volerro, but I’ve never tried them so can’t comment on them.

Take Away

Workflow and processes are not something that you need to or should necessarily do a big review for often, but each workflow, especially those used regularly, should be documented and understood by everyone involved. If at any time someone has questions, it becomes a good opportunity to review whether something needs to change and how it will affect the workflow as a whole even when the workflow only involves a single person. If changes are being discussed, consider if there are tools or technology to help solve any issues or improve efficiencies. Regardless, the focus should be on a balance of efficiency and quality as the ultimate goal is always to provide timely, quality service to our users.

Thank You

I would love to hear if anyone has done these or other workflow review exercises and how successful they were; or if anyone has used tools that has helped their work be much more efficient. If there are any questions, I would be happy to answer any now as well. Thanks.

Published by

Cynthia

A librarian learning the ways of technology, accessibility, metadata, and people

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