Workflow Analysis: Key to Building Better Processes

Workflow analysis helps us understand the tasks and activities that build our processes. Learn how to analyze workflows with this guide.

workflow analysis

Workflows organize tasks and help teams achieve their goals. They keep business functions running smoothly and provide a way to break down complex processes so that we can understand how work gets done. We use workflow analysis to identify problems, resolve inefficiencies, and optimize our work. By better understanding our workflows, we can perfect the processes they build.

What is workflow analysis?

Workflow analysis refers to evaluating the sequence of tasks and activities that produce a specific workflow outcome. Analysis provides insight into each step in the workflow in order to identify redundancies, bottlenecks, and other issues. The ultimate goal of workflow analysis is to align the intended result of the workflow with the actual result of the workflow.

Common workflow problems

Even though workflows vary widely in terms of their components and complexity, there are some common problems that workflow analysis can uncover. These include:

Undefined starting points or triggersImproperly sequenced tasksMissing or incomplete information
Transitions and handoffsRoadblocksBottlenecks
Unnecessary workRedundanciesRepetitive tasks that can be automated
Tasks that get stuck in an endless loopTasks or activities that continue after the workflow is completedOutputs that do not meet expectations
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How to do a workflow analysis

Workflow analysis might sound like a complicated undertaking, but the process framework is relatively straightforward. The goal of the analysis is to answer these six basic questions:

  • Does the workflow produce the desired outcome?
  • How is the work getting done now? (This is known as the “as-is” workflow.)
  • What are the problems with the current model? 
  • How can those problems be solved? 
  • What does an improved (“to-be” workflow) look like? 
  • What tools will be needed to make the changes?

To answer these questions and improve the workflow, the analysis can be broken down into three steps: evaluation, mapping, and improving.

1 – Evaluate the workflow outcome

The starting point for any workflow analysis is determining if the current workflow is producing the desired outcome.

To do so, it’s critical to view the workflow from the stakeholder’s or customer’s perspective. This perspective belongs to the person who receives the output of the workflow — whether they’re internal or external. In order to work within this POV, it’s important to answer questions such as:

Does the workflow meet this person’s expectations?

Does it deliver the desired outcome with consistency?

If not, then it’s time to look deeper into the tasks, information, and activities that make up the workflow. The health or efficiency of a workflow may be measured by other KPIs as well. These metrics may be quantitative or quantitative in nature. For example, does the workflow produce the right number of outcomes during a given period of time? Does the workflow cause frustration for team members who are responsible for its tasks and activities?

2 – Map the current workflow

Now we’re ready to “get in the weeds” with workflow analysis. At this point, the focus is on deepening our understanding of the workflow: all of the people, systems, information, tasks, and activities that convert the workflow input into a workflow output. We’ll also want to assess the sequence of steps within the workflow. 

Every workflow is built from the same basic components. Traditionally, it’s been the job of the workflow analyst or manager to create an inventory of these components and then map them out in their proper sequence. Today, any citizen developer may take the initiative to diagram or model the workflow.

workflow starting point icon
Input. Workflows are activated by an input or trigger event. Examples of triggers include receipt of an email or request, an automatic response to a change in inventory, or the addition of a new customer or employee. Workflows may also be scheduled to activate at a scheduled date or time.
People. The most critical component of any workflow is the people who do the work. In some cases, systems or tools can complete some tasks in order to complement the work that people do. Human and non-human elements that change the work or add value  are referred to as “actors.” One of the most important results of any workflow analysis is understanding how the workflow affects the people who are doing the work, and how the workflow might be improved from their perspective. 
workflow information icon
Information & data. Workflows may require data or information in order to be completed. How data is collected, organized, and accessed are critically important aspects of any workflow.
workflow activity
Work. All of the tasks and activities that must be completed — in a particular sequence — in order for the workflow to produce it’s target output. In some cases, “work” may mean moving the item along in the flow without actually changing its value. Remember to include anyone or anything that “holds” the work as it progresses through the flow.
workflow result icon
Output. The end result of the workflow. All workflow outputs should be defined, discrete (able to distinguish one output from another), and countable so that the performance of the workflow can be measured.

Mapping the workflow for analysis

How we go about mapping the workflow will depend on 1) the complexity of the workflow and 2) how well we understand each of its components. For very simple workflows, we may be able to complete the mapping process on our own, using a pen and paper. For more complicated workflows, we may need to consider a more structured process. 

This might include working closely with the people who handle the tasks and activities of the workflow, in order to understand all the nuances of the flow. Doing so adds more detail to our workflow map and provides critical insights into why the workflow does (or does not) produce the expected result. Getting feedback from other stakeholders in the workflow can also be helpful for our analysis.

3 – Identity workflow improvement opportunities

Once we’ve finished mapping the workflow, the next step will be to evaluate each component and transition that leads to the outcome. (Working backwards from the output to the input may be helpful.) As we work through this process, look for aspects of the flow that need fine tuning or which need to be reworked altogether. 

Pay special attention to handoffs in the workflow. These points in flow where work items change hands are susceptible to delays and communication breakdowns, and these can be excellent opportunities for workflow optimization.

Improving workflows through analysis: 6 common fixes

1 – Clarify handoffs

Points in the workflow where work changes hands are notorious for causing problems. This usually happens when the recipient isn’t aware that the work needs their attention or the work gets routed to the wrong person. Improving the accuracy and timing of handoffs can be as simple as using workflow software features, such as rules and automatic notifications that ensure that work arrives at the right place at the right time. Rules can determine where the work item goes next. Notifications can alert team members that work items are ready for their input. 

2 – Prevent missing or incomplete information

Missing information can bring a workflow to a standstill. Incomplete data, instructions, or other details can interrupt the flow, break communications, and cause team members to waste time chasing down the information they need. Using a workflow management system that provides a public forms feature is one way to solve for this. Forms prevent work items from entering the workflow unless they have all the required information. Rules can enforce the completion of certain fields, exclude irrelevant information, require attachments or approvals, and allow team members to update data easily by navigating to a specific URL.
automation

3 – Automate repetitive tasks

Individually, repetitive tasks in the workflow may not take up much time or attention. Consider them as a cumulative whole, however, and the picture changes. Automation prevents bottlenecks and delays by resolving some activities without human input. For example, notifications, document generation, status updates, and workflow routing can all be handled by workflow software. Approval workflows, email, work assignments, and reports can also benefit from automation. Automation can also improve workflows that cause employee frustration or that are often bogged down by delays or missed deadlines.
dashboard

4 – Add visibility and control

Effective workflow management requires x-ray insights into the workflow and all its related tasks and activities. Dashboards allow managers and team members to instantly assess the status of all work items in the flow, and help identify bottlenecks or breakdowns in the workflow structure. Workflow software users can configure dashboards and reports using a no-code, drag-and-drop interface that provides the exact information needed to monitor and measure the performance of their workflows.
integrations

5 – Integrate with other tools

Workflows that depend on multiple apps, tools, and databases are susceptible to issues with the movement of information across those boundaries. Data silos can also occur when information requires manual input in each app. Integrating these tools and databases can ease the transition of work items and create a more holistic process.
templates

6 – Use a template

Instead of building every workflow from scratch, consider starting with a template. Templates provide fast access to a workflow structure so teams can get to worker sooner. Workflow management software provides customizable templates that teams can set up and fine tune workflows using a no-code, drag-and-drop interface.
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Learn more about workflows

Workflow analysis is one of the cornerstones of effective workflow management. Our series of articles and blog posts on workflows are designed to help managers, employees, and citizen developers better understand, control, and optimize their workflows and processes. Learn more about workflows and workflow management with the Pipefy series on workflows.

How to Create Workflows

Guide to Workflow Terminology

Common Workflow Symbols

A Brief History of Workflows

Workflow Diagram Examples

What is Workflow Management? 

What is Workflow Automation?

The Future of Workflows