Create a workflow in just a few steps
Workflows are how we organize and visualize our work. They bring control and insight into how work gets done and add accountability to our tasks. Building workflows helps us improve process efficiency and deliver more consistent outcomes.
This guide provides a complete walkthrough for anyone wanting to make a new workflow or improve an existing workflow. It also provides links to other resources for anyone who wants to learn more about workflows and how they can be used to improve processes and make work better.
If you're already familiar with the basics of workflows, you can skip the next section using the jump links on the left.
What is a workflow?
People tend to use the term “workflow” in one of two primary ways.
First, to describe the way we conceptualize our work. In this case, a workflow refers to our understanding of how work is organized and carried out in order to produce a specific result.
For example, a manager may want to learn more about all the steps, tasks, and people involved in a particular function at work. They are interested in better understanding how something gets done. A good example of this use of workflow would be: “What’s the workflow for getting this document approved?” or “Who all is involved in this purchasing workflow?”
The second way people use the term “workflow” is when they describe a graphical representation of work. Used this way, the term refers to the diagrams and flowcharts we use to illustrate the activities, information, and people who produce a specific outcome.
Someone using the term in this way may be trying to map or illustrate the steps and actors involved in the workflow in order to share that information with others or to make changes.
Our page on workflow diagram examples includes some of the most common types of workflows.
Build a workflow in 5 steps
Step 1: Define the workflow boundaries
The single most important thing to remember about workflows is that they need clearly defined beginnings and endings. Without them, it’s difficult to control the workflow. Without a consistent starting point, how do you know when the workflow is active? Without a defined result, how can you measure its success or efficiency?
By drawing the boundaries of the workflow, you are focusing on a definite, specific set of people, tasks, and activities. This will give you much more control over the workflow and make the remaining steps in this process much easier. To set boundaries, you’ll need to identify the end result (output) of the workflow, as well as its starting point (trigger).
Identify the outcome (result)
Although it may seem counterintuitive to begin with the endpoint of your workflow, there are two very good reason for this: 1) it will help you identify all the activities, information, people, and systems you need to achieve the result and 2) understanding the desired outcome helps you determine whether or not the workflow is effective/successful.
At the end of the day, the point of any workflow is to accomplish or produce something. Try to focus on an outcome that is measurable or can be counted. For example, a workflow may result in the production of an item or it may result in the successful completion of a service request or an approval.
Identify the starting point (trigger)
Once you’ve named the result you want from the workflow, it’s time to define the trigger, or action, time, or condition that puts the workflow into motion. There are a few different types of triggers: requests, receipt of information, specific action, or time.
Examples of common workflow triggers and outcomes
|Sales||An approval workflow might be triggered when a redline request is received. The endpoint could be the receipt of a signed contract.|
|Marketing||Campaign planning is one marketing activity that can be organized as a workflow. The trigger could be a request from corporate, and the result could be a campaign proposal.|
|Operations||Reporting is a typical operations workflow. In this case, the trigger could be an automated notification that occurs one the same day each month. The output would be the report.|
|Human Resources||Employee onboarding is a common HR workflow. This workflow might be triggered when an offer letter is signed and received. The result of this workflow could be a completed checklist of onboarding materials or paperwork, or a handoff to the new hire's manager.|
|Finance||Finance team workflows include purchasing. These may be triggered by an inventory notification and the output could be a successful three-way matching.|
|Customer Support||A CS team workflow could be triggered by the receipt of a service request or inquiry. The result of the workflow could be a closed ticket.|
Step 2: Identify the workflow components
Once the framework of the workflow is established, the next step is to create a list of all the actors, tasks (steps), and information that are required to make the workflow complete.
Include all actors, even if they don't have a direct impact on the work
The key to creating an accurate inventory (and a realistic workflow) is to include everyone or everything that “holds the work item in any way, shape, or form.” (Sharp & McDermott, 246).
That means including people who add value or impact the work, as well as those who move it along without adding value.
Workflow components example
Take a sales approval flow as an example. A sales rep creates a proposal document, which must then be emailed to a manager for approval. In this simple example, you have three players in the flow: the rep who creates the document, the email system that moves the document between the sales rep and the manager, and the manager who approves the document.
It might not seem obvious that an email system is part of this workflow, but imagine a scenario in which the email system goes down temporarily, delaying the delivery of the document. In this case, the workflow is interrupted not by the sales rep or the sales manager, but by the system that moves information between them.
The email example is very simple, but a workflow may include other people or tools that don’t add value to the work, but still contribute to the overall execution. If they are removed from the equation, the workflow fails.
Create your inventory
Workflows vary in their complexity. Some may be short, sweet, and right to the point. Others may be quite complex. In either case, you want to be thorough in your analysis of all the workflow components. Here is a list of what to look for:
Tasks, steps, or activities that are necessary to produce a desired result or outcome.
Data or documents needed to keep the workflow in motion and produce an accurate result.
Get feedback from the people who do the work
At this point, it may be helpful to present your workflow to your team and invite them to check it for accuracy. Getting insight from the people who have their hands on the work will help you create a clearer picture of the workflow by “getting in the weeds.”
Step 3: Organize your workflow sequence
Once you’ve walked through the workflow and identified every component — people, systems, information, etc. — it’s time to arrange the workflow as it happens. You can do this on a whiteboard, with pen and paper, or using the drag-and-drop interface of a no-code workflow management tool.
Workflow example: Procurement
The procurement process provides a good example of how individual workflows work together to build processes. In this model, the procurement process consists of 4 separate workflows: approving vendors, creating purchase orders, receiving goods, and paying invoices.
Question: Do I need to use standard workflow symbols?
Answer: It depends. The best strategy for illustrating a workflow is to keep it as simple as possible.
That might mean using the same type of box for each person or activity in the workflow. If you want to present a more formal workflow diagram, you can use basic or advanced flowchart symbols.
Be mindful of your audience: if the people who are going to see the workflow aren’t familiar with standard symbols, using them may not add much value to your diagram, or make it confusing to read.
Step 4: Review all handoffs
Any point in the workflow where the work changes hands can be an opportunity for a problem. That's why it's important to review every handoff in the workflow.
Whether that means a transition where a work item changes hands physically, or the exchange of information between people or systems, handoffs can present vulnerabilities.
Often when workflows break down or become inefficient, it’s due to a problem with a handoff.
Step 5: Optimize your workflow
Workflows are like machines: they require maintenance and can often be improved with some fine tuning.
If your workflow contains redundancies, requires a lot of back and forth communication, or depends on cross-sharing data from other apps or systems, here are five ways you can improve its performance and increase its efficiency.
1: Save time by using templates
Although some workflows will need to be created from scratch, templates can provide a flexible structure, especially for workflows that are new or that evolve as businesses scale.
Templates provide a customizable blueprint for workflows that can be modified easily using a no-code interface. No need to wait on IT or a developer to make changes.
2: Automate repetitive tasks
If you’re using workflow management software, you’ll have the ability to automate some of the tasks and communications activities in your workflow.
For example, if your flow requires the creation of multiple documents (or multiple versions of the same document), you can add an automation that will generate those documents for you.
You can also automate notifications and emails to keep work moving along, and you can also automate status updates and work assignments.
3: Capture data easily with public forms
Workflows that depend on input from people outside the organization can get stuck if there isn’t an easy way to capture that information. Team members can also waste valuable time trying to solicit information from customers or people in other departments.
A public form creates an entry point for this information, one that can be shared easily. Forms can be structured with rules and conditionals that ensure consistency of information and which can automatically route the workflow to the right person, depending on the information provided.
4: Collaborate better through integrations
If the workflow depends on information from multiple sources such as apps, email, calendars, or other tools, consider using a workflow management platform that provides integrations. This can reduce the need for manual entry and help consolidate information into a single source of truth.
Integration also enables smoother channels for collaboration by making data more easily accessible.
5: Add X-ray vision with reports and dashboards
Monitoring and reporting on the effectiveness or efficiency of workflows is an important part of workflow management. Workflow software that provides deep insights can help identify bottlenecks, problems with handoffs, and manage deadlines.
Reports should be a snap to prepare. Dashboards should be easily configurable using a no-code, drag-and-drop interface.
More about building and managing workflows
Creating a workflow is just the beginning. Learn more about modeling, managing, and optimizing workflows and tasks with the resources below.
- Workflows Defined
- Workflow Diagram Examples
- Common Flowchart Symbols
- Workflow Management: The Complete Guide
- A Brief History of Workflows
- Workflow Terminology: Complete Guide to All Things Workflows
- The 3 Basic Components of Any Workflow
- Workflow System Features
- How to Manage Workflows In a Hybrid Model
- What is Workflow Automation?
- Task Automation: How to Work Smarter, Not Harder
Learn why companies choose Pipefy to help them optimize workflows and master process efficiency through automation
Building workflows well depends on identifying all the elements of the work, as well as the transitions that take place between the starting and endpoints.