Help organize and streamline my work process, pretty please
September 18, 2012 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Can you suggest a system that could help a group of employees manage a long, many-stepped process? We're driving ourselves bonkers in the meantime.

So, the process in question is for creating an item for sale online. The product is selected, imported, assigned data (size, color, etc), has photos taken, and about a zillion other steps in between and after. In total there are about 30 steps, multiplied over 3 to 4 different vendors. Four to six people are currently involved with this process, and it's a pain to communicate back and forth about what's done for which products and what's next and where there's a hold-up and so on.

Here is a list of the steps for one of our vendors.

Currently we're using a spreadsheet I whipped up, but there are more steps than there used to be, more products coming in than there were previously and it's inefficient and inconvenient to access and interact with.

Is there some sort of program we could have written, or a website we could create that has check-boxes for each step, or something creative I'm not thinking of? Our company isn't small enough to have one person manage all the steps, nor large enough to have 'departments' to forward things to when a step is complete.

Also, these items arrive and are worked on/completed on different timelines, so it's important that they can be accessed and updated individually.

Can you help me come up with an organized solution?
posted by rachaelfaith to Work & Money (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You could try using a Kanban board. This will allow you to track a task (or in this case an item) through all of your steps - lanes on the board - until it's done. Although 30 steps is probably pretty excessive for a Kanban board to handle, you might be able to alter it to fit somehow.

If you don't want to use an online Kanban board, post-its on a wall work just as well, but obviously aren't as easy to distribute across sites.
posted by gmb at 8:56 AM on September 18, 2012

dotProject--It's been a while since I used it heavily, but it's basically a web-based version of MS Project, and it's free.
posted by TomMelee at 9:08 AM on September 18, 2012

Along the lines of a Kanban board is the very flexible and easy to use (and free) system Trello.
posted by maxim0512 at 9:12 AM on September 18, 2012

This is exactly what project management software is for. I use Microsoft Project every day in my work. It allows you to link tasks (Task A can only start after Task B is complete, for example), assign people, set schedules, and see how changes early in the schedule affect later tasks. You can break major tasks down in a series of sub-tasks.

It's a very deep and detailed program, but you probably only need the basics. That said, there is a cost involved in money and time, but there are many tutorials available online.

I have not used dotProject, mentioned above, but if it does the major tasks of Microsoft Project. then it's worth a shot.
posted by The Deej at 9:20 AM on September 18, 2012

There are tons of project management online apps.

I would suggest asking this same question on this specialized Q&A site for project management after first searching that site for potential answers to similar questions that were already asked.
posted by Dansaman at 9:25 AM on September 18, 2012

Here's an image of a sample Microsoft Project page, showing tasks, subtasks and a timeline. Any other project management program should let you produce something similar.
posted by The Deej at 9:26 AM on September 18, 2012

More specific than project management, this sounds like process management, and there is a lot of software out there to automate it, depending on the application (ProcessMaker is an open-source one that I have never used and do not vouch for, but it seems pretty typical). In general, you set up a workflow, or a variety of workflows. Each product or case or file travels through that workflow and can automatically notify assignees when action is needed.
posted by muddgirl at 9:40 AM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

For four to six people, would physical checklists work? You're going to have a bear of a migration problem if you ever grow beyond, say, ten people, but at this scale it seems like you could just put physical checklists into physical inboxes.

I'm assuming here that there's some specialization in who handles which of the thirty steps, so that people could physically hand off the checklists to the next guy in line. If it's just a free-for-all of people grabbing whatever tickets are available, you might want a digital solution to make the handoff more convenient.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:24 AM on September 18, 2012

One problem with physical solutions is that it's hard for everyone to see the status. However, if you all work in one phyisical location this can be done quickly and easily. One of the interesting things I saw on the show Ace of Cakes is that they have one big wall dedicated to their current and future projects - they just hang a clipboard up for each project with the cake design, due date, and status of the cake. I don't know if there's a formal business name for this approach, but "status wall" brings up some interesting ideas. This could be adapted to work with preprinted checklists - grab the right list, fill in the header with product info, then check off boxes as you complete them. It's also a nice visual marker if someone is working on a specific product, because they'll have the clipboard at their desk.
posted by muddgirl at 10:32 AM on September 18, 2012

Response by poster: Yeah, I considered physical solutions, but we aren't really in close quarters, and with 50-70 products coming in every few weeks, plus 30+ steps per item, I don't think it'd be feasible.

I knew there were solutions out there, and I thank everyone here for input. I'll have to look into each of these and see what could work for us. Our company is growing pretty quickly, and we're all fairly fresh at this kind of process and scheduling (as opposed to me doing every step for every item, as we did several months ago) so I was totally unfamiliar as to our options. Until now!
posted by rachaelfaith at 10:57 AM on September 18, 2012 is a tool we're using for a multi-step process with several individuals involved.
posted by ejaned8 at 11:45 AM on September 18, 2012

Not sure if it fits your needs, but I remember being impressed by Basecamp several years ago.
posted by ZipRibbons at 12:29 PM on September 18, 2012

In looking at the project/process management apps, you'll see some have the ability to create tickets, assign tasks, share documents, create milestones, etc. Those are some of the things you'll probably want to think about in choosing an app. BaseCamp is indeed a popular one but there are many, many others (I'm surprised so many developers develop new project management apps when the field is already so crowded, but I assume it's because their work is process intensive and they are not happy with their existing options even though there are so many). Others I've heard of but have never used are Attask and SmartSheet.
posted by Dansaman at 4:11 PM on September 18, 2012

Maybe there is something you can adapt from the idea of library aquisitions and cataloging.
A database is created with different people updating and upgrading the item record along the waay.
First, a record with title, creator, unique item number, product code, and vendor is written up.
A status of "on order" is used.
When a box arrives with books, a staff member verifies the quantity and item. The status is changed to "in cataloging".
Another staff works on the catalog description, using a controlled vocabulary and agreed upon conventions.
When they are done, the status is changed to "coming soon".
The items are physically labeled with information provided by the cataloger, also any ink stamps or security measures are applied at this time.
The item status is changed to"in transit" and it is boxed for delivery to the branch location.
At the branch location the status is changed to "shelving cart" which the system automatically changes to "in library" after 24 hrs.
Everyone with acess can see the status of every item and the number of copies that were bought, since each has an item barcode number.
I know I skipped some steps but I hope you can imagine a similar process that documents the steps accomplished and where the item is in the process chain.
posted by calgirl at 9:49 PM on September 18, 2012

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