Workflow definition

A workflow is an organized series of tasks that must be completed in order to achieve a specific goal. This may be a checklist that someone in human resources completes during the onboarding process, the procedure a sales team member follows when moving a lead through the sales pipeline, or even the steps of a fully automated expense reimbursement process.

Workflows range from simple tasks that can be performed by individuals to massive processes that involve hundreds of team members across business units. Despite this variation, all workflows are repeatable. This means that workflows should be used to delineate objectives and processes that are performed regularly, and that they are usually not appropriate for ad-hoc or one-time work. Think of them as directions for achieving a common business activity many times as needed.

Workflow diagrams and documentation

Workflows Diagrams are often represented visually, both in digital and paper form. These visualizations can be as simple as a bulleted list, but more complicated processes are better represented using flow charts that can be produced with the help of dedicated software. Here’s an example of a workflow diagram for managing customer onboarding:

Example of Workflow Diagram, that visually represents one workflow

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. Workflow documentation should include detailed information about individual tasks as well as the stakeholders involved and their responsibilities. It provides all of the important context, guidelines, and reference data that can’t be included in a graphical representation.

A brief history of workflows

The concept of workflows in business first began in manufacturing with the contributions of Frederick Taylor and Henry Gantt, who studied how work could be more consciously and rationally organized in that industry. Workflows became increasingly useful as the industrial revolution progressed, as the complex processes that came with it could benefit greatly from optimization. Henry Gantt famously created the eponymous Gantt chart that shows the schedule for a specific project and displays the relationships between its dependencies. Now workflows are an important part of almost every industry, forming a backbone for effective planning, tracking, and managing processes the world over.

Types of workflows

Workflows fall into three broad categories: sequential, state machine, and rules-driven. Let’s take a brief look at each.

Sequential 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.

State machine workflows

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.

Rules-driven workflows

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.

For example, a workflow might evaluate a customer’s credit rating with a statement such as “if credit rating > 700.” If the statement was false, then the workflow would move the process into a “rejected” resolution. If it was true, then the workflow would automatically proceed with the next step in the process.

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.

  • Make processes more efficient. Using workflows, stakeholders can align dependencies and arrange prioritized assignments better, completing tasks in less time and with fewer resources.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Delegate effectively. 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.
  • How to get started with workflows

    Workflows should make your work easier, note more complicated, so it’s important to follow a clear set of steps for identifying, designing, documenting, and diagramming them.


    The first step is to identify the processes that would benefit from codifying into workflows. At this stage, managers should gather information about their employees’ tasks and objectives, how dependencies are arranged, and how much time it currently takes to complete processes. Holding a meeting to walk through assignments and responsibilities is usually a good idea, and employees may also write reports or generate recordings and screencasts of their work. Interviews are also helpful for inviting feedback about work that is difficult or chaotic, potential bottlenecks, and objectives that are ill-defined or ambiguous. During the identification stage, remember to focus on repeatable processes rather than those that are performed ad hoc. Creating a workflow for a weekly roll-up and report of sales statistics makes more sense than for a one-time, freeform analysis request, for example.

    Design and documentation

    After you’ve completed identifying processes, it’s time to document the workflow. At this stage, the processes are mapped and written down so they can be effectively discussed and improved. All of the information gathered about tasks previously goes into this documentation. Refining the processes should be done with the whole team so that all those executing the work can provide feedback and oversight.

    Diagramming and implementation

    Once a consensus is reached, you can use workflow software to finalize a draft of the workflow. This digital version should include the workflow’s documentation, as well as the all-important diagram that everyone can use to track tasks and progress. 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 before rolling it out generally, so you can analyze the results and work out any kinks while their impact is limited.

    Practical workflow examples

    Finally, below are some examples to give you a sense of what workflows look like in practice. These are workflows for some of the most commonly performed tasks in any organization, and you can use them to both validate your current processes and as a jumping-off point for structuring similar activities.

    Employee onboarding

    As one of the most important parts of the hiring process, employee onboarding requires a standardized procedure for welcoming new hires, teaching them what they need to know about the company and their responsibilities, and integrating them into the workforce. Here is an example of a typical onboarding workflow, and a template you can modify and use yourself:

  • Before arrival: Ensure that the physical workplace is ready, set up and input new hire information into office software, set expectations for the first month.

  • First Day: Meet with HR, company tour, introductions, schedule first week of activities and relevant training.

  • First Week: Delineate employee’s first assignment, first weekly team meeting, 5-day checkup evaluation.

  • First Month: Evaluate first month performance, schedule regular performance evaluations, get employee’s feedback, set professional goals.

  • Expense reimbursement

    Expense reimbursement is another common and ongoing workplace activity. Using a workflow for expense reimbursement to track requests, receipts, and payment status can help set expectations and streamline the whole process:

  • Screening: Receive information about the requester, specific purchases, and attachments; forward request to an approver.

  • Approval: Validate information in the request and decide whether the purchase is reimbursable.

  • Payment: Add payment information for the approved request, schedule reimbursement.

  • Sales pipeline

    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:

  • Prospect: Receive potential opportunity, research client background and gather information on company size, industry, and history.

  • Discovery: Evaluate customer needs, size, and priority of the opportunity; schedule follow-up and meetings.

  • Proposal: Write an initial proposal, log value, sent date, expected closing date.

  • Negotiation: Field client questions, overcome any objections, complete the sale, log win/loss analysis.

  • The role of a workflow management platform

    Incorporating workflows into your business is hassle-free thanks to dedicated workflow management software. This software makes it easy to share workflows across an organization, centralize process information inside one common repository, and simplify workflow design and tracking activities. It also allows for an automated workflow to increase efficiency even further.

    There are many workflow management platforms available.

    To choose the right tool for your team, consider the following questions:

  • Does the platform integrate well with the applications you currently use?
  • Is it software as a service (SaaS), cloud-based, and easy to deploy across the organization?
  • How complex is the software? Will implementing and managing it requires technical expertise, or can it be rolled out immediately for everyone?
  • Is the software flexible? It should allow you to create and modify workflow templates on a case-by-case basis, as well as to integrate workflows for separate processes.
  • Does the software give you automation options for workflows that allow them to proceed without manual input?
  • Does it provide a centralized location for managing all your processes?
  • Are its visualization options sophisticated enough to create clear and visually appealing diagrams for every planned workflow?
  • Does the software have built-in metrics, logging, and reporting options? Can its monitoring capabilities help you manage time and resources or track performance and profitability?
  • 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.

    Pipefy offers a workflow management platform you can use to solve problems across every business unit. Try a free trial if you’re ready to deploy effective, hassle-free workflow management software.

    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.