In the last blog post I talked about the four steps to create an onboarding automation system which takes you from being overwhelmed to 30% increases in available time and increased revenue.
And that’s a great first step, but I realized that creating any automated system for your business is going to be challenging if you don’t have the resources and tools you need to organize those new workflows into a cohesive system.
Often, after setting up a new system, some items will still fall through the cracks. Keeping track of the tasks that have been completed, or are up next, can be challenging.
I don’t want to leave you high and dry, so in this post I’m going to show you some invaluable tools and resources to keep your automation systems organized and keep you on top of your work with ease.
You need a road map
The solution to the problem of disorganization is to set up a road map so you always know exactly what is going on. A road map can easily be used for any automation you are creating — from lead education to internal processes — but for the purpose of this post we’re going to do it in the framework of client onboarding, since that was the focus of the previous post.
A road map is essentially what it sounds like: a map that provides you with a bird’s eye view of your automation system, providing directions on how to follow the system so you don’t get lost. Creating this road map requires the use of various process checklists and workflows to increase productivity and effectiveness.
By the end of this post you will have learned the parts of a process automation road map, plus get a list of the resources and tools to help you get the job done.
The parts of an automation workflow road map
There are three elements to an automation workflow road map. They are:
- The Workflow Diagram (Your Map)
- Process Guides (Your Systems)
- Checklists (Your Tasks)
You’re essentially starting from a top-level view of the road map and then narrowing in to the specific systems and tasks within those systems. If we liken this to an actual map, you can think of it like going from the country (Workflow Diagram) to the state/province (Process Guides) to the cities (Tasks).
Of course, for each of these three parts there are literally dozens of potential tools to track and implement them. But not all of them will help you. So, we’re going to go through each element, help you get a grasp on what they are, and then show you the tools we would use to implement each.
Here we go!
The Workflow Diagram
As we said, the workflow diagram is where you organize your top-level view of the entire system for onboarding or education (or whatever you’re automating). If you ever get lost, this is what you’ll refer to for guidance.
There are three key elements of an effective workflow diagram:
1. A workflow diagram is visual
The first element of the workflow diagram is that it is a visual representation of your process. In the last blog post I had given you a look at a very (very) rough sketch of a process diagram, but that was the “first version” of what you might come up with. Your Workflow Diagram is the polished version to shows how your automated system runs.
2. A workflow diagram is alive
The second aspect of a workflow diagram is that it has to be a “living” diagram. That means that you have new versions consistently being pushed out based on how you change and modify your automation processes. It should be something that is easy to change, manipulate and modify. That is why software solutions often work best, but even that isn’t a hard and fast rule (as you’ll see).
3. A workflow diagram shows relationships
Needless to say, the third aspect of a workflow diagram is that it shows relationships between various tasks and activities in your automation sequence. Most of the resources we list below help you do just that.
But first, let’s look at an example of what a workflow diagram might look like:
From the Washington Post article on the “insanely confusing” path to citizenship
As you can see they can be rather detailed. Later we’ll talk about the importance of starting small, and you can rest assured that this workflow diagram didn’t start out looking as complex as it does.
If you’re just starting out, focus on turning that initial rough sketch into a digital diagram. That can act as the initial blueprint for your diagram. Eventually you’ll add to it as you build your automation process.
Tools and Resources to create your Workflow Diagram
There are a lot of ways to create a diagram, but here are a few tools that we like. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Gliffy is a an example of software that specializes in a very specific type of function. This is a cloud-based application that gives you the ability to create graphical charts and diagrams and does it quite well. We’ve used it in the past and, if you can shell out the almost $100 / year for the personal license, then it might be worthwhile for you. Especially if you plan to make a ton of diagrams.
- Pro’s: Sharing features, easy to create relational diagrams, cloud-based, 14 day free trial
- Con’s: Costs $95.88 / year for a single user license
When you think of Keynote (Apple’s version of Powerpoint for Mac), your first thought probably isn’t the design of workflow diagrams. However, given Keynote’s abilities to move objects and information around a page, it actually does quite well in this area. Granted, this isn’t the purpose for which it was created, but if you need a free software (on a Mac) to create some diagrams, then this could work quite well.
In fact, here is a link to a course on Lynda.com that goes into detail about how to create charts and graphs with Keynote. (Clearly I’m not the only person who has used it for this purpose.)
I’m guessing Powerpoint can probably do many of the same things, but since I’m not a strong Microsoft user I can’t say specifically that it will work.
- Pro’s: Free (for MacOS users), easy to use
- Con’s: Not what it was designed for, Poor cloud-based application UI
Draw.io is a decent chart creating cloud-based software. Best part? It’s free. However some of the shape and design options are limited, and it isn’t as easy for non-designers to use. But, if you don’t care about those things and want a good, free solution, then this just might work. Plus, it is really strong with Google Drive and sharing integration (although not as great with Dropbox, for some reason).
- Pro’s: Free, Integrates well for sharing across Google
- Con’s: Not as easy to use as others, some design limitations, doesn’t play well with Dropbox
Lucid Chart has lots of good reviews online (like this one, this one and this one) and is clearly a favorite cloud-based chart making software. It boasts an easy-to-use interface, beautiful graphical elements and other helpful functionality to increase productive workflow. It does cost money, but the price point is fairly reasonable.
- Pro’s: Cloud-based, iPad app, well-made with good features
- Con’s: Starts at $5.95 / month for a month-to-month starter account
Whiteboard (by hand)
Okay, so this might seem a little silly, but there is something to be said for a big whiteboard when drawing out a diagram. It might seem low-tech, but this sort of hands-on, visceral experience can be liberating for your creativity.
Alternative versions can be doing it on poster board, in your notebook with a pen, or just sticking post-it notes on a wall. Sometimes old school is the best school.
- Pro’s: Super easy, intuitive and practically free
- Con’s: Definitely not cloud-based
Others you might have heard of …
Microsoft Visio used to be the premier diagram and flowchart software but has fallen by the wayside in recent years with the resurgence of lower-cost or free diagram software that does a lots of the same things for a much lower price point. Plus, it only works if you use Microsoft Office.
Omnigraffle was a very popular Mac diagram software a few years back, and it works great, but given the price point ($199 for a pro annual license) I can’t really recommend it if you’re using it for the occasional workflow diagram.
So, once you’ve decided on the tool you’re going to use to maintain your bird’s eye view of your automation process, what’s next? Well, that is when we get into the processes that make up the various parts of your road map.
A process guide is where you document the specific procedures required to complete a task. As the word “document” implies, this is often in the written form, but you can also take advantage of video and graphics to illustrate your processes more effectively.
When you’re creating a process guide here are three things to keep in mind:
1. A process guide should be easy to add to
The easier it is to add processes in your guides the more likely you are to use it. Make sure you can embed documents, videos, images, and even checklists into your system. The more you can document, the more you can automate and delegate.
2. A process guide should be easy to use
When delegating tasks make sure you aren’t creating something too unwieldy for anyone else to use. Keep it simple and make sure an employee or contractor can get up to speed in a relatively short period of time.
3. A process guide should be easy to revise
Once you set a process down in your guide it shouldn’t be like pulling teeth to make changes. A good example is written procedure manuals. They are great for ease of accessibility, but hard to change given their physical nature. Many of the tools below can be set up to provide automated update notifications to your team, or at least log changes in the process guide.
Tools and Resources to document your procedures
The list of tools for setting up a process guide are limited, mainly because this is a harder nut to crack for most software. These are the ones we like, use and recommend.
This is one software I’ve been chomping at the bit to integrate into our processes at Akamai Websites. I’ve played around with it enough to know that it will be a huge benefit to our ability to keep things from falling through the cracks. As you might have guessed, it can be a bit overwhelming at first, but even so it is fairly easy to use and intuitive. My advice it to start slow and just build out a few main processes, adding to them over time.
- Pro’s: Amazing software built for creating process checklists, templating, easy to use, free to start
- Con’s: Slight learning curve, starts at $12.50 per user per month.
Although Asana has a steep learning curve, it does a great job of combining task management and checklists with project management. A few annoying features like the need to have everyone on the same email domain to get access to certain set-ups can be problematic, but if you can deal with some of the quirks, a lot of people swear by it.
- Pro’s: great software, free for teams under 15 people
- Con’s: quirky system for team set up, expensive for teams over 15 people ($375 / year)
Originally designed as a kanban board type of task management system for those using the agile/scrum methodology (mostly software developers), this free web application is used by organizations all over the world to manage their tasks, teams and projects. In fact, Akamai Websites uses this as one of our primary task management tools.
But Trello can also be a great way to document procedures. Sort of. The best way to use it for process documentation is to set it up as your primary hub where you link out to the videos and documents that actually describe the specific processes. Not exactly the best solution, but Trello is free so it’s hard to complain too much. 🙂
- Pro’s: Easy interface with beautiful drag-and-drop system, free, cloud-based, free mobile apps
- Con’s: Not really meant to document processes, per se.
So, now we have both the bird’s eye view of your process as well as a way to document each one.
Next we’re going to take a look at how to create, track and assign the specific tasks within those systems. This is where the rubber meets the road and the majority of your time in the system will be spent with your checklists.
Checklists are where you keep track of the specific tasks that need to be done and track the completion of them during each time you run the automated process. There are four specific things to track with your checklist system:
1. What is the task?
This is sort of obvious (and most task tracking systems have this in place by default), but it is still worth mentioning. It is also helpful if the checklist software can track notes and conversations about the task.
2. Who is doing the task?
Even if your team is just you, it is a good habit to get used to assigning tasks to team members. After all, eventually you’ll want a team of people running these automated processes for you, right?
3. When does the task need to be done?
Due dates are also a great feature to have with your checklist and task tracking system. It will allow you to follow a schedule for the project and make sure you are delivering things to the clients and customers on time. Bonus points if it has calendaring functionality.
4. What happens after the task is complete?
This is where you use the workflow diagram to help map out the specific tasks. Once a task is done you should be able to activate the next task in the sequence, or at least know what is happening next.
Tools and Resources to track your tasks
There are more task management systems than you can shake a stick at, but here are the ones we like. They fulfill all four of the requirements listed above (and in a few cases, much more), to allow you to get all your ducks in a row.
We mentioned this above. While Trello doesn’t excel as a process documentation tool, it makes up for it with it’s ability to manage tasks and projects. We love Trello … almost as much as we love Jello.
The pro’s and con’s are the same as listed above in the Process Guide section.
As mentioned above, Asana has a bit of a steep learning curve. However, the checklist functionality is definitely on point and it is great for tracking tasks. If you can get over the quirks then you just might fall in love with Asana.
The pro’s and con’s are the same as listed above in the Process Guide section.
Basecamp (by the fine folks at 37Signals) is a crowd favorite. But rather than just being a checklist tool, it is a full-featured project management system. It might be more than you need, but if you do need it, then it is a good option. All the features you’d expect in a good project management app without any of the bloat.
- Pro’s: well designed and easy to use, good across multiple devices andcloud-based
- Con’s: Expensive. $1,000 / year (or $99 / month) for unlimited team members.
To be honest, this isn’t the best in terms of task tracking, but because it is so robust as a process documentation and tracking tool, I can’t help but include it here.
The pro’s and con’s are the same as listed above in the Process Guide section.
Teamwork is a part of a suite of products that include other cloud-based software for integrating both real-time chat and customer help desk features into your business. If you’re heavy on the customer support side of things, this might be just the thing for you. If you are a one-man band with only a few clients, then you can probably do without.
Full disclaimer: I don’t use Teamwork myself and haven’t played around with it so I’m only going off of what I know from those I’ve talked to (or reviews I’ve read online). But some folks rant and rave about Teamwork so I included it here. It has some great tools (gantt charts and board views, etc.) and has a free-to-start option. It is here due to its reputation, but since I haven’t used it do a bit of research and try it out first.
- Pro’s: Popular, well-liked, web-based, great cross-compatibility with other apps you already use
- Con’s: $69/ month cost
* * *
Tips and Tricks to Implement your automation systems
As you’re building out your system, here are a few things to keep in mind.
There is no “perfect” system.
Every system has some downsides. If you wait around until you find the “perfect” system you’ll never get started. Instead, pick a system that will do 80% of what you need and become “perfect” at using it. Mastery of an almost-there system is better than never creating a perfect one.
Start small then scale
As I alluded to before, you should start small. Don’t go crazy creating a super long workflow diagram when you don’t yet have all the pieces dialed in. Start with what you know, try it out, and then reiterate on it, improving with each version.
This is a living system, so let it grow and adapt to the environment. We don’t come out of the womb as fully realized adult human beings, and we shouldn’t expect the same of an organic system like this.
Document, document, document
I can’t stress this one enough. The more you can document the more you can delegate. Every time you do something, document it. Because every documentation of a process allows you to add it to your automation workflow, creating another opportunity to delegate that process to someone else.
This will free you up to do the important work that moves your business forward. I know it isn’t exciting or sexy to document your tasks, and it feels like it makes them move at a snail’s pace, but it is totally worth it in the end. Trust me.
ProTip: The best way to document is to use video, and the best way to do this for most business purposes are screencasts. Whenever you do something on your computer, also screencast the process. If you saw the list of screencast videos I’ve made to document processes you’d think it was all I do during my day. But I know that with each video I make, that is one less things I have to repeat in the future. I’ll cover how to do screencasting in a future blog post. Trust me, it’s much easier than you think.
What system do we recommend?
Really, that is sort of a non-question because it depends on how your business and systems are set up. But, if we were going to do our own systems over again from scratch it would be one of the following two ways:
- Workflow Diagram: Draw.io
- Process Guide: Process.st
- Checklist: Trello
- Workflow Diagram: LucidChart ($5.95 / month)
- Process Guide: Asana
- Checklist: Asana
The second way is there just because Asana is really good at both setting up processes as well as checklists. But it isn’t necessarily better at either of them than Process.st or Trello. Ultimately, our system would include some version of these pieces of software. Which, to be honest, is pretty much what we’re doing now.
Next steps to supercharge your automation systems
So, what should you do next? Honestly, the best thing you can do is just start. Don’t wait around for the right environment or moment. The right environment is wherever you are, and the right moment is now. Put together something that is “good enough” and then work consistently on it to make it “better” until it becomes “great”.
If you’re serious about setting up your own onboarding automation system, then be sure to pick up our free checklist on the eight ways to create onboarding automation systems. Just put your email in the field below to get instant access.
Of course, if you’re really serious, then pick up our video walkthrough of the eight steps, which includes a resource guide of over 70 different automation tools and technologies that you can use to create your own system.
Click here or on the button below to get your copy for just $9.
And it goes without saying that we’re always available to help you put these systems into place for your business. Just contact us to learn more.