A Very Brief History of Workflows

Benjamin Babb

Most of us think about our work in terms of how it flows and as a series of independent tasks that must be completed in a particular order. These workflows set the pace of our work, organize our tasks, and coordinate effort and energy from multiple players and tools. 

But workflows are still a relatively new concept. That’s because the nature of the way we work began to change about 200 years ago. In this article, we’ll quickly trace the history of workflows and why they’ve had such an important impact on our world. 

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Age of craftsmanship

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most products were crafted by individuals who specialized in the complete end-to-end creation and delivery of their goods. These craftspeople handled all aspects of their businesses, like production, sales, and service were all delivered by the craftsperson or their family. 

This model of production produced mixed results for customers. On the one hand, there was a single point of contact for all matters pertaining to the product, and the customer had direct access to the person producing the goods or service. Another positive: depending on the craftsperson’s level or experience, the goods may have been very high quality and quite possibly made to order.

On the other hand, this means of production was hampered by severe limitations in terms of production speed, output capacity, and consistency. With just one person managing all the work, the process was neither scalable nor efficient.

It was also highly susceptible to disruption. If the craftsperson needed time away from work, there was no backup. Work simply came to a halt. 

craftsmanship prior to the advent of workflows
In earlier models of production, a craftsperson managed all aspects of their business, often working alone. Capacity was limited. 

Specialization of labor

The Industrial Revolution radically altered the production process. During this time, the introduction of mechanical power increased production capacity exponentially. In order to keep up with the new production pace made possible by machines, the human side of work was broken down and divided into specialized tasks.

This change meant that different workers would focus on a single aspect of production instead of an end-to-end process. No single worker was responsible for the entire process and work would now “flow” between them. 

By breaking down complex processes into a sequence of smaller, more specialized tasks, manufacturers were able to dramatically increase the speed of production and improve the consistency and reliability of their output. Manufacturing took a giant leap forward in terms of efficiency and capacity.

More recent models of production scaled capacity and speed by breaking complicated work down into smaller, specialized tasks. 
Henry Ford’s Model-T Assembly Line

One of the most well-known examples of the level of efficiency achievable through optimized workflows is the introduction of the assembly line by Henry Ford in 1913

The assembly line method reduced the time it took to build a single car from 12 hours to 1 hour and 33 minutes. It also lowered costs, raised wages, and helped cut the workday from 9 hours to 8. 

More complexity, more collaboration

In this new production model, each worker in the team (and each machine) completed a different type of work in a particular sequence. The end result of the process now depended on the movement of work between different persons, departments, and machines. All of this movement needed to be planned, managed, and tracked. 

Enter the concept of the workflow. People now had to think about and coordinate different types of work, as well as the relationships, time, and resources that made up the production process.

As businesses grew and became more complex, the division of labor that became characteristic of the manufacturing process was built into other areas as well. Different teams were now responsible for process areas such as finance, human resources, customer service, and sales. 

Within each team, processes were broken down into subprocesses and workflows, and the work of each was distributed to workers who specialized in a specific type of work. This is the way most business processes are managed today and the reason why workflows need to be continually analyzed, modeled, diagrammed, and optimized. 

Future of workflows

Since the Industrial Revolution, work has become increasingly complex. As new technologies emerge and workers continue to focus on more specialized skill sets, this trend will only continue.

What’s most exciting about workflows (and workflow management) are the opportunities they create for making work better for people, and for making processes more efficient. New technologies are making it possible to automate tasks and simplify work so that people can focus on activities that are more meaningful. (This is what we refer to as “human-centric automation.”

In both cases, workflows unlock time and other resources so that they can be redirected towards activities that create value for the enterprise and better experiences for people. The future belongs to those who can manage their workflows best. 

See why companies choose Pipefy to optimize and automate their workflowsPipefy Workflow Software
Written by
Benjamin Babb
Senior Writer at Pipefy, where I focus on helping businesses manage workflows, optimize processes, and deploy automation. I'm also a ghost story aficionado who listens to more Enya than anyone should.

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