How to Tighten Up Your Approval Process and Smash the Bottleneck

approval process headerWhether you’re submitting a draft of an article for review, collating a report for senior management, or presenting a product design, you probably need someone to sign off on your work.

This happens day in day out in organizations all around the world.

Yet, the sign off process can be slow and littered with delays.

Anyone who has worked in software development will know the pain of submitting work for review, only for revisions and changes to drone on and on. The time spent waiting can sometimes be as much as the time spent working.

And this, friends, is bad for business.

Last week I published an article on Muda – waste in production systems – and laid out the different ways poor processes create waste and damage business performance. One of those wastes is referred to as Time on Hand, or waiting.

In this article, we’ll look to cover the most common occurrence of this waste: the approval flow. We’ll look at:

  • What an approval process is
  • What common approval workflows are
  • Best practices for approvals
  • How you can use Process Street to streamline your approvals

What is an approval process and when do we use it?

Approval-process-banner
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An approval process in its most simple form is gaining a second opinion to authorize a task, product, or proposed outcome.

However, an approval process in business benefits from being seen as much more than this.

We discuss in our work here at Process Street the importance of systemizing your business. This means having processes and workflows connecting and mapping all business operations. Once those are in place you can look to improve the processes, optimize them, and automate where possible.

The crucial component in this systemization could be argued to be the importance of the embeddedness of processes.

Instead of one team completing a process to develop a budget, for example, and seeing the hand off for approval as the end of the process, it helps to see the approval as part of the process itself; a chain of interconnected processes.

Teams benefit from seeing their tasks and work as a component part of a larger company-wide workflow. This gives workers a sense of ownership over their role and helps them see the importance of their work within the company’s successes.

Creating approval processes which are clear and documented, and designed for the specific needs of that particular approval, assist in making these sign offs and authorizations simple and fast.

As Smartsheet outline:

Approval processes are a type of workflow, which is any sequence of work from initiation to completion, that you can create to ensure work is approved the same way every time.

Improving approval flows can reduce the waste of waiting, but can also be used as a quality assurance mechanism to define how a deliverable is approved. This lets the process define the interaction and standardize it, which is a crucial step to improving and optimizing processes.

Two sides of approval processes used in business

Having solid approval processes in place can allow you to either check deliverables are to the standard they should be, or they can operate from the other angle to help the deliverer gain approval quickly in order to move onto the next tasks.

To demonstrate this, let’s look at two different kinds of approvals we might want to be aware of via accounting practices and creative content submissions.

The invoice approval process

approval process invoice
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Invoice approval requires a company to check through a series of criteria in order to assess whether or not an invoice should be paid.

As MyAccountingCourse makes clear:

[T]his is the approval process that the accounting department must perform before it is allowed to cut a check for the purchase of goods.

This process might operate as a checklist undertaken by the accounting department as one of their internal controls.

Throughout this checklist, the accounting department will make sure all items listed on the invoice were agreed beforehand, that all the items listed have been provided, and then the department will make sure these items have been appropriately documented within their own system.

This list may include:

  • a purchase requisition,
  • purchase order,
  • receiving report,
  • invoice price,
  • date,
  • payment terms,
  • and approval payment personnel

This kind of approval process in centered around the idea of control. But other approval processes may be broader than this…

A designer’s approval process

approval process design
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There’s no one size fits all approval process for designers, and different people like to work in different ways.

However, a common feature in the industry is to make clear to clients a series of approval measures from the beginning, which may include:

  • The number of revisions the client can request
  • A set number of days a client has in order to provide feedback
  • The use of a lean methodology like Scrum to allow for work to continue on other areas of the project as feedback for the previous milestone is being developed

These controls benefit the workflow of the designer, meaning their workload will not grow larger than the original scope of the project and poor client responsiveness won’t slow the project down – combatting against reduced earnings for the designer.

Brent Galloway, writing for Digital Freelancer, recommends designers specify to clients that they are only willing to provide 1 or 2 revisions at most on deliverables. This defines the approval relationship at the beginning, meaning the designers’ workflow is not disrupted, and further work requested from the client can be billed separately.

Similarly, Egle Karalyte of TaikaStrom, writing for Creative Bloq defines what their team consider a round of revision:

Once a design draft is presented, the client has a specified number of days to provide their feedback. Once all of their comments, ideas and questions are consolidated and we provide a new version, that’s the end of that round of revision.

This defines the approval process in advance to protect their business and improve the workflow of the project.

How you can build approvals into your processes

approval process workflow
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This is ultimately super simple.

The first step could be to map your workflows. Look to see at what point in your company workflow a deliverable of some form is created and where it needs to go through approvals in order complete its journey.

Then you can document that process and assign elements of that process to the relevant people. The whole team works through the process and completes the tasks relevant to them. Meaning everyone works together as a slick machine.

We obviously use Process Street to achieve this.

In fact, I’m using Process Street to achieve this right now. When I write an article, it goes through a series of steps of approval. Here’s how we’ve built our system.

First, I run our Blog Production Process inside Process Street. From here I can add in the relevant information to the first few sections, including what keyword I’m targeting and what my proposed title is.

Then I will enter a description of the header image I want for the article. Once I’ve completed that task, our designer receives a notification letting them know they are needed. They enter into the process and use my title and image description to create a header image.

Once the header image has been uploaded, the process can continue. I provide feedback on the header image and it is either approved or a revision is completed and reuploaded. This image approval is built into the process itself.

The process will be started at least a week before publication, meaning I’ll present a draft of the article to my team for approval. Their comments are then added into the process and I’ll begin working on making the necessary changes.

When my article is completed and I have formatted it ready for publication, the process automatically notifies the editor who can come in and give final approval or make suggestions.

All of these notifications to the other stakeholders in the creation process are triggered as I work through the process. People are automatically notified and can give me their feedback, supporting work, or approval as soon as possible.

Moreover, with a fully documented process, we can look back on the process at a later date to see a clear record of what was undertaken and who provided approval. This adds a layer of quality assurance to our operations.

How Process Street facilitates streamlined approvals

Process Street aims to make managing processes and automating workflows as easy as possible for the end user.

This is why we have a series of features in place which assist in working with different types of approval processes. In particular, we’ll look at:

  • Stop tasks
  • Conditional logic
  • Inbox

Stop tasks make approvals mandatory

Stop tasks are a mechanism for stopping a process from continuing until a specified action is undertaken.

By the nature of linear processes, each task should be undertaken in order and in an ideal world this would happen each time a linear process is run.

The problem with this is that theory doesn’t always result in practice. If every workplace functioned as it was written down on paper then organizations would be very easy to manage. In reality, there is a human element to management where we have to appreciate external factors which influence how a process operates in the field.

If an employee is in a rush, they may jump ahead on a process or try to find shortcuts round a process. In some lines of work this is fine and simply a natural variable a process designer or manager will live with.

approval process stop tasks

In other areas of organization, this is a dangerous circumvention of a necessary process. The ability to enter stop tasks into a process allows the process designer or manager to control this variable.

One useful way to use stop tasks would be to assign the stop task to a manager or the person responsible for approval. This results in the process user needing to obtain approval before entering more data into the Process Street checklist.

Another use case may be using an upload field or another means of submission which must be completed in the checklist before the process user can move to the next task. This means that external approval is not needed immediately for the process to continue – simply evidence that the work has been done. This can be useful for more flexible processes where the act of having done the task requires approval, rather than the content of the task itself.

Conditional logic directs users automatically

Conditional logic is one of the key features the Process Street userbase had wanted incorporated in order to add complexity to processes and workflows.

With conditional logic a process designer or manager can create a series of junctions in the process meaning the process user only sees the tasks they are required to see.

For example, there may be a process which involves interacting with a client. If the process contains a question for the client, the task could include a simple Yes/No dropdown box. How the client responds to this question would then determine whether the process user follows the Yes process or the No process for the rest of the checklist.

approval process conditional logic

The conditional logic in the checklist can be as complicated or as simple as the process designer wishes to make it. It could be used sparingly in one or two tasks, or it could be used throughout the checklist countless times to account for a whole range of variables.

This feature directs the process user automatically through what their next steps should be based upon what data they enter. In this sense, it provides approvals on the basis of predetermining the next approved action.

This is approval in advance; approval by design.

Inbox means approvals can be dealt with instantly

approval process inboxBuilding approvals into the process is the first obvious step to achieving a strong approval process.

Obviously.

But it shouldn’t stop there. The person responsible for approving the task has to be able to fit these approvals into their personal workflow.

Process Street’s Inbox feature is designed so that when someone is assigned a task, it appears in their Inbox in the platform.

From here, the approver can choose to either view the task in an onscreen pop out to verify the task quickly, or they can click through to enter into the checklist and review previous steps as well as the task they are assigned.

This streamlines the approver’s interaction with the work and the process. It means the person approving the work does not need to leave the platform, or does not need to be contacted via email or Slack or any other channel in order to know what work they have to do.

If an approver wants to, they can receive email updates when tasks are assigned to them or can use Zapier to get Slack updates too. However, we know as well as you do that reducing email clutter and cutting down on Slack background noise – Slackground noise (coined right now) – is an important part of curating a modern workspace. As such, Inbox smooths this process out for you.

How approvals work in practice in Process Street

In this template below, you can see an accounting process documented and ready to run.

The purpose of the accounts payable process is to provide checks and balances on your outgoings. In a large organization, it can be difficult to keep track of these flows and the point of these processes is to review on a regular basis how these flows are performing and making sure it all adds up.

This process is designed for a enterprise firm dealing with large payments and has a three step approval flow through junior accountants before being signed off and approved by a senior accountant. Each step needs to be accounted for in a linear fashion and this cannot be compromised. The whole purpose of the process is approval.

For each of these steps, you could use conditional logic to only show the relevant tasks to each person, task assignments to provide notifications in Inbox for each person when their task is due, and stop tasks to make sure the process cannot continue until the previous task is completed.

Beyond this template, you can see a more complex integration of processes using task assignments and conditional logic in our article on how to conduct an interview.

Build your approval processes to be streamlined and manageable

If business process management has two key goals or components then it could be argued they are:

  • To improve the quality of output of the process
  • To make fractional gains in efficiency at each stage of the process

Improving your approval processes will help you make sure you deliver high quality output every time, and streamlining those processes to make them easier for the people who use them should result in increased efficiency too.

Check out how Process Street can help you improve your approval workflows by signing up for a free account now.

What kind of problems do you experience in your business with approvals? What other features would add extra value and help you tackle those bottlenecks? Let us know in the comments below!

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Adam Henshall

Adam Henshall is a content writer for Process Street and dabbles in other projects inc Idyoma on the side. Living in Sevilla in the south of Spain, Adam's current hobby is learning Spanish! @adam_h_h


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