Workflow Analysis: What It Is, Benefits, and How to Conduct One
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.
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What is workflow analysis?
Workflow analysis refers to evaluating the sequence of tasks and activities that produce a specific workflow outcome. The 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.
What are the benefits of a workflow analysis?
Analyzing workflows is a way businesses can exert control over their processes and identify opportunities for (or obstacles to) process improvement. Sometimes the analysis happens in response to missed targets or poor performance. Other times the analysis may be preemptive and anticipatory.
No matter when or why it takes place, the benefits of workflow analysis often include:
1. Productivity gains
Problems in the workflow cannot be fixed until they are identified. An analysis can reveal issues with handoffs, data silos, bottlenecks, and visibility. Once these problems are addressed, the workflow’s output capacity may increase.
2. Standardized processes
The presence or absence of standardized processes can have a major impact on workflow efficiency, data visibility, customer experience, and security. An analysis can help teams identify workflows that vary across teams, departments, or locations. Standardized processes are an essential component of operational excellence.
3. Risk reduction
Security vulnerabilities can lurk in any workflow or process. For example, an unoptimized workflow may expose sensitive information or present a data leak, or it may lack proper user management protocols. In other cases, a workflow may be prone to errors which can also present a source of risk. Workflow analysis can bring these types of vulnerabilities to light and give businesses an opportunity to proactively address them.
4. Stronger collaboration
An analysis can raise awareness of silos in terms of both data and collaboration. This is especially helpful in organizations where the existing stack is complex and data has to move between many apps or systems. But silos can also occur when workflows cross department barriers and not all stakeholders have the level of access or visibility that they need.
5. Better user experiences
Organizations, technology, and roles change over time. This means that a workflow that made sense at one point in time may become obsolete or untenable unless it’s updated. One of the most common consequences of outdated, unoptimized workflows is that they produce a low-quality user experience for employees. Routine analysis can help keep workflows relevant and frictionless.
6. Better customer experiences
Workflows that fail to meet customer expectations can put a business at a serious disadvantage. Customer experience is often the single most important differentiating factor between competitors, so workflows often need to be optimized for customer centricity. Workflows related to sales, marketing, customer service, and order fulfillment are good candidates for this type of workflow analysis.
7. Deeper visibility
Finally, one of the most important benefits of workflow analysis is that teams will have a better understanding of how work gets done. This means identifying all the actors in the workflow, including people, documents, data, systems, apps, and time. This allows for a more accurate measurement of workflow performance and makes it easier to identify blockers or optimization opportunities.
When is a workflow analysis appropriate?
Businesses find many reasons and occasions where workflow analysis is appropriate. The most common impetus behind an analysis is the failure of a workflow to produce its target outcome. It’s also possible that workflow will be analyzed as part of a broader strategy to identify potential efficiency gains. (These larger strategies are a common element of business process management.)
In some other cases, the analysis will precede or follow a transition. For example, when changes are made to the business operations. Below are the most common instances in which a workflow analysis is appropriate:
- Workflow outcomes are not meeting targets.
- Business processes are no longer working.
- New tools are being integrated or developed that impact the workflow.
- The quality of user experiences has decayed.
- Items in the workflow get lost or delayed.
- Organizational change has impacted the workflow.
- Business strategy and goals have shifted.
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 triggers||Improperly sequenced tasks||Missing or incomplete information|
|Transitions and handoffs||Roadblocks||Bottlenecks|
|Unnecessary work||Redundancies||Repetitive tasks that can be automated|
|Tasks that get stuck in an endless loop||Tasks or activities that continue after the workflow is completed||Outputs that do not meet expectations|
How to conduct 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: evaluating, 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 the 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.
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.
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.
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.
All of the tasks and activities must be completed — in a particular sequence — in order for the workflow to produce its 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.
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.
How we go about mapping the workflow will depend on the complexity of the workflow and 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 pen and paper and standard flowchart symbols. For more complicated workflows, a workflow visualization tool may be useful.
Tip: work 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 the 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 backward 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 that need to be reworked altogether.
Pay special attention to handoffs in the workflow. These points in a flow where work items change hands are susceptible to delays and communication breakdowns, and these can be excellent opportunities for workflow optimization.
Workflow analysis examples
At one time, the structure of most workflows was relatively straightforward. A physical document could only be at one place at a time, so workflows were usually performed sequentially. The introduction of information systems and databases made it possible for multiple people or systems to work on an item at the same time. Suddenly, the workflow structure became much more complex.
A structural analysis considers how the tasks and activities of the workflow are arranged, as well as the impact of information access (like who can do what and when) and whether or not related workflows can happen simultaneously or must be sequential.
A performance analysis focuses primarily on the quantitative aspects of a workflow. For example, the number of requests a workflow can manage in a given period of time, the amount of time it takes to complete a single instance of the workflow, or the number of physical resources the workflow consumes. A performance analysis ultimately tries to answer the question of whether or not a workflow meets its targets in terms of efficiency, productivity, and accuracy.
The purpose of a capacity analysis is to better understand the current level of output that a workflow can produce with a given set of resources. Capacity analyses are then used to adjust workflows in response to fluctuations affecting input (such as the availability of materials or employees) and changes in demand, which impact target output.
Improving workflows: 6 fast fixes
1. Clarify handoffsPoints 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 informationMissing 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 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.
3. Automate repetitive tasksIndividually, 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. Low-code automation can also improve workflows that cause employee frustration or that are often bogged down by delays or missed deadlines.
4. Add visibility and controlEffective 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.
5. Integrate with other toolsWorkflows 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.
6. Use a templateInstead of building every workflow from scratch, consider starting with a template. Templates provide fast access to a workflow structure so teams can get to work sooner. Workflow management software provides customizable templates that teams can set up and fine-tune workflows using an intuitive visual interface.
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 all types of business 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 Automation?
- The Future of Workflows