A visit to Kinko’s

An interesting story and how an idea surged. A couple of days ago I had to go to
Kinko’s for
printing some pricing and marketing material for a customer I was going to visit
the next day. I asked for normal color printing with a special paper, something
that made it look good. This was in kind of a rush mode. I was on the trip and
visiting the client was a pure coincidence.

When the person in the front desk took my order, he took out the huge form (it
looks something like a poster for some movie or concert) and he fills it out
with my order request. I couldn’t understand anything he was writing but I know
there are a bunch of fields in the form. He entered the color preference, the
paper type, the number of copies, my name, address and phone number. After
finishing, he marks every field in the form with a green highlighter (I still
don’t know why is this). Then he takes the form and puts it in sealed bag (like
a huge Ziploc) and then calls somebody in the background to handle the new
request.

First, nobody answered. He didn’t know who was free to work and who was working
with something (and nobody was paying attention to him either). Then he needed
to copy my PDF files to the machine where the printing was going to be done. He
didn’t remember the files I just told him to print so I had to go back and point
him the files I wanted. I noticed that with every printing work they have, they
create a folder with the customer name. Inside the folder they create three more
folders: Original, Process, and Final. Then he placed my files in the original
folder. I think the folders mark the workflow that needs to be followed for
printing. I suppose it goes something like this: they first open the files in
the original folder, then edit them with some program for best printing (still
haven’t figured out what they edit; documents always have this blank border and
they say it’s impossible to take it out). Then they put the edited files in the
final folder.

After copying and filling the request and everything was done, he told me the
estimated time that everything will be ready and that’s it, ready.

When I got out I started thinking (in critique mode) the whole process. I said
why they haven’t done something more automatic for handling these request and
assignment. Maybe they would only need one person in the front taking the
requests and something behind prepares the environment of work and assigns the
right person in the back.

Using a workflow application would help them great automating the manual
process. And how they can do that? I came with something simple for the problem.

First I though the best way to port the paper forms to an electronic form was
InfoPath. In InfoPath you have the ability to create sections inside the form
and digitally signed them preventing these sections to be tampered (we don’t
need anymore the plastic Ziploc bag for protecting the form). One issue
resolved.

In InfoPath you can define an attachment field that allows you to attach a file
to the form. You can attach as many files as needed and they traveled inside the
form always. Now you can take the files needed for the work and attach them to
request. They are never loss and you just have to ask for them one time. Another
issue solved.

The form is going to be electronic in first place. You can publish it to a
SharePoint site for
example and have a central repository form them, allowing searching and
indexing. This is not an issue, but maybe would be a great add on.

And now for the workflow part. A simple process can be made for handling the
request form. You would have the start activity with permissions for only the
front desk person to start the process. Security. Then a second activity for
handling the input request form.

As an improvement, we could create a web service that generates a unique number
for the request. This can be the second activity in the process. The third
activity would be to assign this number to a field in the form. Next?

The next thing we can do is actually create another web service that creates the
folders they need for processing the files. We don’t need the first folder, the
Original folder, because the original files are already attached to the form.
The web service would only need to create the other two: Process and Final. A
good improvement would be to create them directly in SharePoint and have a
central repository for them.

The most important step would be the assignment of the request to one of the
back office personnel that actually executes the job. I though the best way to
do this was to use the workload feature. I could specify the personnel available
for this and assign requests on a one by one basis or a least busy basis. Then
let the software manage the work queue. Maybe every personnel in the back office
can have like a Pocket PC and they can receive their tasks and immediately know
their new assignments.

The final step would be to send an email to the front desk person notifying that
the job was finished. An improvement here we could consider is asking the
customer for his email and place it in the form. Then we can put another
activity in the process for sending an email to the client saying that his job
is finished (customer service improvement!!).

Now the whole process is automated. Errors in the process will be far less.
Security in the form cannot
be compromised. And we guarantee that every back office personnel are receiving
their tasks in a balanced way. The next phase for this would be to make another
web service for saving the information in the form to a database table for
future statistics and analysis.

A major thing? To simply enabled Procx
to receive the form requests via email and have the form publish to the
Internet. I can fill the form myself from my house and I only have to leave to
actually pickup the final work after I have received the notification. A simple
step towards the
electronic
enterprise
. An example of how the process will look like is on the right.

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