A workflow is an organized series of tasks that must be completed in a particular sequence in order to achieve a specific goal.
Workflows range from simple tasks that can be performed by individuals, to highly complex processes that involve hundreds of team members across multiple business units.
All workflows, no matter how simple or complex, share one universal characteristic: workflows are repeatable. They are typically not efficient for completing ad-hoc or one-time events.
Simply put: workflows are a set of directions for completing common or routine tasks and/or processes.
Types of workflows
Every workflow falls into one of three main categories:
- Sequential workflows
- State machine workflows
- Rules-driven workflows
Sequential workflows are the simplest. This type of workflow arranges tasks linearly so that they always progress forwards, and each dependency only affects the next part of the workflow.
Sequential workflows never loop back to previous steps or cycles in any way, each task directly leading to the next once completed.
Expense reimbursement might be an example of a sequential workflow: the reimbursement request is submitted, reviewed, approved or denied, and any funds are then disbursed.
If the expense reimbursement process described above allowed the reviewer to ask for further documentation from the requesting employee, it would instead be an example of a state machine workflow.
State machine workflows allow dependencies to affect previous steps and tasks to cycle back.
Processes in these workflows aren’t modeled as a series of tasks, but rather as distinct states that allow for more complex interactions.
Finally, rules-driven workflows are similar to sequential workflows, except progress is governed by more sophisticated conditions.
In this model, moving from one task to the next involves rules similar to those in conditional programming, with “if,” “else if,” “else,” case statements, or traditional logic evaluating rule statements as true or false.
In this case, merely completing a task doesn’t always lead to the same set of latter tasks like in sequential workflows, though this rules-driven model does exclusively progress forwards as well.
Onboarding requires a standardized procedure for welcoming new hires, teaching them what they need to know about the company, and integrating them into the workforce. Here is an example of a typical onboarding workflow, and a template you can modify and use yourself.
Another common and ongoing workplace activity is expense reimbursements. Using a workflow to track requests, receipts, and payment status can help set expectations, manage deadlines, and streamline the process.
In sales, lead generation, research, follow-up, proposal writing, and negotiation are all repetitive tasks that are easy to organize into a workflow, making the whole sales pipeline more efficient and standardized.
Workflows should make work easier, not more complicated. That's why it's important to follow a clear set of steps for identifying, designing, and diagramming each workflow to make it manageable and effective
The first step is to identify a process that would benefit from a workflow. Start by gathering information about the process and establishing its objectives. Note any dependencies, as well as how much time it currently takes to complete the process.
Walk through the steps of the process with someone who is familiar with the tasks, and seek input from multiple stakeholders to help identify bottlenecks, unclear objectives, and common pain points.
Remember that workflows are best suited for processes that are routine or common within your organization.
After you’ve identified the components of the process, it’s time to start documenting the workflow. At this stage, the tasks within the process are mapped and written down so they can be effectively discussed and improved.
Include all of the information you’ve gathered about the process in this documentation, then invite feedback from your stakeholders. Apply feedback and refine your workflow.
Once you’re satisfied with the detail and organization of the workflow, use a workflow tool or software to create a “final” version.
This digital version should include the workflow’s documentation, as well as the all-important diagram that helps everyone visualize each task in the process, as well as the end result.
Completing the workflow diagram is the final step before communicating and distributing the digital version of the workflow to team members and other managers.
Test the workflow with a subset of the team prior to rolling it out. This “test drive” gives you another opportunity to fine tune the workflow before implementation.
Learn more about creating workflow diagrams.
Benefits of using workflows
There are many advantages to using workflows. They organize tasks better, create ways to directly measure performance, and can codify business procedures that would otherwise be difficult to visualize or understand.
Workflows make processes more efficient. Using workflows, stakeholders can align dependencies and arrange prioritized assignments better, completing tasks in less time and with fewer resources.
Workflows make it easier to measure work performance and productivity. Workflows create a paper trail, allowing managers to audit previous tasks, access a history of work activities, and make future planning more transparent. These metrics can be used to monitor all business processes and provide direction on process improvement.
Workflows improve collaboration. Workflows make it easier to collaborate across the business, or even across industries. Cloud-based software means that specific workflows, their templates, or general ideas about task planning are all available anywhere, any time, and are easy to share.
Workflows help with task delegation. Responsibilities that were formerly the sole domain of service managers and other decision-makers can be delegated to team members who now have a clear set of instructions to follow.
Workflow management software makes it easy to share workflows across an organization, centralize process information inside one common repository, and simplify design and tracking activities. It also allows you to bring automation into your workflow, to further amplify efficiencies.
There are many workflow management platforms available. To choose the right tool for your team, consider the following questions:
Start creating and managing workflows today
Whether you need to make sure new team members are engaged, streamline your expenses, or generate and close leads more quickly, workflow management software can help. Workflows can make your business more agile and collaborative, improve employee performance, and boost your bottom line, all while automating repetitive tasks and creating useful documentation for critical processes.
Start creating and managing workflows today
Workflow documentation is an important supplement to diagramming — an engineer’s in-depth instructions for bug resolution wouldn’t fit on a concise flow chart.