What is a workflow?

A workflow is an organized series of tasks that must be completed in a particular sequence in order to achieve a specific goal. Workflows are how we organize tasks, time, and relationships. 

Components of a workflow

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.

All workflows, no matter how simple or complex, are made up of the same 3 basic components: a trigger that starts the flow, work or activity, and an outcome. Learn more about the basic components of every workflow

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

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.

State machine workflow example

Rules-driven workflows

Rule-driven workflow

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.

Common workflow examples

Employee onboarding workflow

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.

Employee onboarding workflow illustrated as a swimlane diagram

Employee onboarding swimlane diagram
  • The far left column displays each actor in the flow

  • Each actor (team, department, person) has a lane which identifies when they have control of the work

  • The far right column shows the end result for each actor in the workflow

  • The trigger for this workflow is the acceptance of an offer letter from the recruiter

  • The successful outcome for this workflow occurs when the new hire completes onboarding and meets with their new team

  • Procurement workflows

    Some processes are made up of related workflows. Procurement is a good example of how multiple workflows build a business process that helps the organization meet its goals. 

    procurement process workflow
  • Procurement includes several related workflows

  • The workflow begins with vendor approval

  • A second workflow is the creation of a purchase order

  • Once a PO has been approved and sent to the vendor, goods are received

  • The final workflow in the procurement process is invoice payment

  • Expense reimbursement

    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. 

  • Workflow begins when an employee submits a reimbursement request

  • The next step in the workflow is manager approval

  • Approval must be sent to the finance department either manually or through automation

  • The successful outcome for this workflow occurs when the employee receives payment

  • 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.

  • Building workflows

    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

    Identification

    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. 

    Design and documentation

    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.

    Diagramming and implementation

    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. 

    workflow diagram

    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.

    Automation

    Today's no-code and low-code tools make it easier than ever to automate elements of your workflows. Whether that means the hands-free movement of work once information is updated, automated emails or notifications, or consolidating multiple workflows into a single stream, automation can help optimize your flows. 

     

    Most of the time, we think of automation as a means to efficiency, but that's not the primary benefit of workflow automation. What automation really offers is the chance to redirect resources (time, energy, creativity) away from redundant tasks and towards value-creating activities. Most importantly, automation makes work better for your team. That's what we refer to as "human-centered automation."

    Using a workflow management system

    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:

  • Does the platform integrate with your other applications?

  • Is it a cloud-based SaaS that’s easy to deploy across the organization?

  • How complex is the software? Will implementing and managing it require 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?

  • Does the software include customized dashboards to help manage and track your resources and performance?

  • 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.

    See why companies choose Pipefy to help them optimize and automate workflows

    Workflows are how most of us think about and organize our work. Workflows unify tasks, time, and relationships.