Workflow Efficiency: Definition and How to Improve It (With Examples)

In both our professional and personal lives, we all have methods we use to get tasks done. Businesses use workflows to complete most tasks, from entering a purchase order to manufacturing goods and delivering a service. 

As companies seek to be more agile and responsive to global and business changes, it’s imperative for workflows to operate as efficiently as possible to eliminate waste, cut costs, and maximize productivity.

What makes an efficient workflow?

Workflows vary among industries — and even the businesses within them. However, their basic functions and end results are often the same: follow multiple chronological phases that conclude with the accomplishment of a task. 

No matter how much they differ, efficient and friction-free workflows typically share the following traits: they provide visibility, align employees on changes and requirements, foster accountability, and create a positive business impact.


Each step in a workflow should be visible. This is most often achieved by mapping the process from end to end and creating a visual representation of it (more on that later). Once stakeholders see the details of each part of the workflow, inefficiencies become easier to spot and, most importantly, resolve. 

Visibility is an attribute that benefits process owners, employees, and customers. When we ship a package, order food, or file an insurance claim, we expect to be provided with a number or code that allows us to track the status and/or location. This assures customers — whether internal or external — that the workflows set up to govern these transactions are functioning efficiently. 


Each individual involved in a workflow plays a role in its success and efficiency. When workers don’t get the training they need to perform a task, the resulting workflow inefficiencies can have serious real-world consequences. They risk work stoppages, product recalls, incurred costs, and — in some cases — even lawsuits or compliance failures.

Efficient business workflows are almost always designed with intention. Mitigating worker and customer safety risks and adhering to regulations and industry requirements are crucial. Prioritizing these values means thorough employee training at every stage, providing the foundation of any business workflow.


Most workflow phases consist of multiple tasks to be completed before the process can progress. Each stage in a workflow, therefore, needs an owner, or a person or persons responsible for its proper completion.

Accountability clarifies the parts everyone plays in a workflow. When teams get clear guidance and goals, performance and participation improve; roles and duties become clear, and all stakeholders have a sense of ownership in the workflow’s success. As employees achieve their goals, morale improves, as well. The workplace can evolve into one of efficiency and productivity.

Positive business impact

When all is said and done, the success of a workflow comes down to results. Business workflows usually have time constraints: ETAs, service requests, and payments are all governed by deadlines. Deadlines, therefore, are a good measure of efficiency. 

If each step is performed correctly, approved by the process owner, and the resulting product or service is distributed to the customer within the time allotted, then the workflows behind them are most likely functioning efficiently.

Learn more: What Is Operational Excellence? A Complete Primer

What makes a workflow inefficient?

Efficient workflows share common traits — and inefficient ones do, too. In fact, inefficient workflows may be less complicated than their efficient counterparts because the majority of efficiency loss occurs in one form: waste. That waste can appear in several iterations, including time, costs, and resources. 

The reasons to avoid cost and resource waste are self-explanatory, but the concept of wasted time is a bit more complicated. For example, when deadlines loom closer, any additional time spent on an activity or task — such as spending time searching for information or following up on the status of tasks — can be considered wasted time. 

This is detrimental to efficiency because:

  • It takes up time and resources better spent on more value-driven work. 
  • It’s difficult to detect waste until it has occurred.

There is usually no recuperating what was lost, so it’s crucial to plug these gaps in efficiency before losses become frequent and widespread. Let’s look at three significant sources of waste in workflows. 

Manual or unnecessary work

The biggest source of waste in workflows is manual, repetitive work. This work includes but is not limited to hand-keyed data entry and the constant update/upkeep of multiple spreadsheets. 

This sort of work is a waste of valuable time and resources (think: wasted hours of employee time that very quickly turn into wasted days and weeks). Manual data entry and gaps between systems also expose a workflow to the risk of errors caused by humans and delayed data transfers (we’ll talk more about that later).

Duplicated work, also known as redundant work, is an insidious part of repeated, manual tasks. When one person must enter a large amount of data to finish a task, others likely have to enter that data, as well. 

Skill gaps 

When employees don’t have the knowledge and skills they need to perform required tasks, workflow inefficiencies are never far behind. The time and costs of redoing botched work add up quickly. 

While some businesses may feel the need to replace employees, upskilling them — or providing education/training for new or more advanced work — is less costly in the long term and helps improve employee retention and engagement. 

Upskilling is often a win/win because: 

  • It grants workers opportunities for new responsibilities and advancement.
  • It provides leadership with a proven source of reliable, hard-working employees.
  • It addresses the often-overlooked issue of business succession planning.  

Outdated tools

In common annoyances such as a frequently jammed copier to more insidious issues like limited mobile access or lagging company-wide databases, outdated equipment and software can be major sources of workflow bottlenecks. We tend to dismiss them as mere inconveniences until these issues lead to missed deadlines and deteriorated customer relationships. In hindsight, leadership will look back and wonder why they didn’t address these often simple fixes sooner.  

Human error

Missed emails. Forgotten service requests. Mathematical miscalculations. These simple mistakes humans make when carrying out workflows don’t often seem detrimental. 

When businesses add up the real-world hours spent locating and fixing those errors, however (including work by IT, manufacturing, or any employee re-doing careless work), they’re shocked at the amount of time and costs that were wasted. 

Those wasted hours, coupled with the catastrophic mistakes that risk the safety of employees and customers, make it painfully evident that workflows riddled with human errors are neither efficient nor smart.

Learn more: Operational Efficiency Example & Strategies

Impacts of inefficient workflows

Inefficient workflows impact the entire organization. While they may not grow or innovate, some businesses do survive inefficiently — for a time. However, this time is often made up of quality risks and a possible trouncing in the market by savvy competitors. 

Other effects businesses feel from inefficient workflows are: 

High or increased employee turnover 

People forced to work through continual inefficient workflows will leave. Period. 

Performing the manual, repetitive tasks we mentioned earlier for long periods of time has a tendency to bore and frustrate employees who were hired to use their experience and expertise for value-added, analytical work.

Increased workloads that inevitably arise from inefficiencies like flawed strategies and micromanagement will also send employees to turn to greener, less demanding pastures. The global workforce is becoming more attuned to symptoms of stress and burnout; as a result, people are now more likely to leave negative workplace circumstances in the pursuit of better mental health practices.

Customer dissatisfaction

Unhappy customers and inefficient workflows often work as a duet. When even one workflow contains a bottleneck, each subsequent workflow or process is detrimentally affected. Those inefficiencies trickle down to the customer’s experience.

How? A malfunctioning machine or delayed approval can take an entire workflow offline until it is repaired, replaced, or completed; meanwhile, deadlines sail by. If a solution isn’t provided in a timely manner, it translates to even longer delays and increased frustration for the customer (and employees). 

Communication silos and breakdowns

Workflows with inefficiencies play a big role in communication breakdowns within organizations. A workflow should, by definition, flow smoothly from one stage to another, which can involve a transition from one team to another. An interruption in that flow indicates a lack of internal communication.

When employees develop a sense of team loyalty over larger organizational goals, it is known as silo mentality. Whether or not silos actually exist, silo mentalities create mistrust between teams, halt important tasks, and stop the flow of potentially critical information. 

A common example is that of the approval signature process. When an employee must track down a colleague for a signature (or the hard copy itself, in limbo on an unknown desk), a communication and workflow breakdown has occurred. An efficient workflow establishes and clarifies the actions needed to progress the document to the next approver quickly.

Compliance failure

Another sure sign of workflow inefficiency is a business’ failure to comply with regulatory requirements. Because health, safety, and laws are often involved, risk mitigation should be the foundation of any associated workflow.

Workflows that form or affect regulatory/quality compliance can be detailed and confusing; some inefficiencies or failures may occur due to a lack of sufficient compliance training. Lapses in planning for audits and routine inspections are also responsible for compliance failures. 

Regulations are updated routinely, so continuous improvement is a crucial aspect of workflows associated with compliance. Businesses’ internal compliance and quality assurance programs must consistently work ahead to anticipate updates and pass audits and inspections.

How to measure workflow efficiency

Whether you’re planning to introduce new workflows to your business or are simply seeking to evaluate existing ones, you will need to measure their efficiency. 

The best way to calculate workflow efficiency is by using what is known as the process cycle efficiency formula:

Process Cycle Efficiency = Value-Added Time / Total Cycle Time

Value-added time is the amount of time spent on a task within a larger process. 

Total cycle time is the amount of time that elapses between the start and finish of that entire process. Note that this includes both value-added and wasted time (time spent on activities that did not contribute to end results, like waiting for responses from coworkers or re-doing work performed incorrectly). 

A higher percentage correlates to higher workflow efficiency. In most cases, 25% is considered a high level of efficiency. 

5 strategies to improve workflow efficiency

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link” is an adage that perfectly describes workflows. A breakdown in even one stage can render the rest futile. Almost any business workflow can be improved. We suggest trying the following five strategies to find and quash those weak workflow links for optimal performance.

1. Improve visibility

Have you taken a deep dive into your business workflows in a while? If not, try it: what you find may surprise you. Factors like fluctuating markets, quickly developing technology, and corporate restructuring can acutely affect business operations. It’s easier than ever to fall behind.

In this case, begin as you normally would: at the beginning. When building workflows from scratch, it’s customary to first note every step and team member in vivid detail, then create a map or visual representation of the workflow for clarity. This renders existing workflows completely transparent. 

A breadcrumb view of a workflow often reveals insights that might otherwise have been missed. The retirement of your manufacturing manager, coupled with the recent closure of a major supplier, for example, could explain a slowdown in productivity. Or, a kit part that consistently fails inspection may, upon close review, be attributed to one employee who needs a bit more training.

2. Integrate systems

Chances are that you have one (or both) of these problems with your tech stack:

  • It’s grown out of control.
  • You’ve become too dependent on the inefficient apps or workarounds established for daily operations and the idea of eliminating even one just isn’t possible. 

For both of these, system integration is the answer. Some business process management platforms (which we’ll discuss in detail below) offer integrations with frequently used software to combine their functions. 

For example, HR teams integrate their business process management tool with DocuSign to quickly issue documents to new hires, obtain signatures, and file them. 

That filing action can then be set as a trigger to enter the new hire and all relevant information in the ERP system. It’s a thorough, efficient way to ensure that new employees can log into the system on their first day and begin training.

3. Leverage real-time data analysis

Data analysis has become a must-have feature for any business looking to optimize workflows. Teams with the ability to capture and interpret up-to-the-minute data on their operations can identify problems and solve them faster. 

They generally follow these steps to harness the power of data analysis:

  1. Clearly define the workflow’s end goals and establish methods for measuring their success.
  2. Collect the data.
  3. Organize the data into an understandable format and look for trends, anomalies, and event causations. Ask: Do any of these findings correlate with the goals we’ve set? If so, what can be gleaned?
  4.  Use the findings to devise a plan that will focus on the set goals and monitor its results. 
  5. It may be necessary to test and repeat steps 2-4 a few times to ensure accuracy and data relevancy. 

4. Brush up on time management best practices

Most of us learn time management as we go through school or begin our careers, but those skills can get lost in the shuffle as we are faced with new routines and work settings. 

Here are a few useful tips for making the most of your workday and optimizing your workflows for efficiency:

  • Make a daily to-do list. It keeps your focus on the most important tasks and ensures that no essential tasks are forgotten. 
  • Tackle a few short tasks first. This is a great way to get things accomplished at a time when most people aren’t at peak performance. It can jumpstart your day and get you in the headspace for productivity.
  • Set time limits. People sometimes say, “I can’t work without a deadline.” There’s a reason for this: Work generally takes as much time as we allow it. Setting time restraints on tasks makes it easier to avoid unnecessary tangents and distractions.
  • Get (and stay) organized. If you often forget meetings, lag behind in completing work, or misplace critical information, it may be time to reorganize. Decluttering your desk, computer files, and inbox is a great way to get back on track and maximize your contribution to your team.   
  • Use a task tracker. Try a time management template to help keep you on track with automated deadline alerts.

5. Use tools and technologies for workflow efficiency

Organizations use several methods to optimize their operations. Let’s explore a few of these increasingly popular tools for a glimpse of their power to make business workflows efficient. 

Agile methodology

Agile methodology is a project management strategy created in 2001 with the software development process in mind. Its structure is circular and fluid rather than linear in order to address the constantly changing nature of software (updates, patches, etc.). 

The main idea behind Agile is continuous product improvement. It involves constant customer contact and feedback to ensure that the product precisely meets guidelines. 

The four main tenets of Agile are:

  1. Individuals and interactions over products and tools.
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  4. Respond to changes over following a plan.

Business process management (BPM)

Business process management (BPM) is the orchestration of people, systems, and information to support a business strategy. It begins by breaking down workflows involved in the strategy at hand and visually mapping them to become familiar with and understand all aspects of them. It purports that, only when workflows are totally transparent can we fully understand them and spot errors, waste, and inefficiencies to eliminate.

BPM stresses the management of processes by standardizing them from end to end. Many BPM tools function as software, but BPM itself is not a software product.

Business process automation (BPA)

Business process automation (BPA) directly correlates to BPM; its purpose is to optimize processes with the same philosophy of standardization but focuses almost entirely on automating them with digital tools. No-code BPAs offer advanced automation tools requiring no previous coding experience. 

When companies decide to make a digital transformation for workflow improvement, no-code BPA technology is often their top choice to replace or enhance legacy systems. BPA’s automation functions perform manual, repetitive tasks, lifting the burden of boring, time-wasting work from employees — all primary drivers for business leaders adopting process automation software, according to a recent Pipefy survey.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

Artificial intelligence (AI) is software programmed to simulate human thinking and learning. It is included as part of some BPA and BPM solutions, contributing powerful functions like bots that analyze data at previously unheard-of rates (robotic process automation) and the ability to draw conclusions and make logical recommendations based on its findings within that data (machine learning). 

Chatbots are currently the most widely used form of AI in workflow management, showing great potential with service request flows and customer service.

Learn more: Process Efficiency Guide to Unlock Your Business’s Potential

More efficient workflows with Pipefy

Pipefy’s no-code BPA platform integrates with the apps and systems you use on a daily basis for smooth processes. Get real-time, organized data analysis with dashboards, and generate reports instantly. 

If your workflows lack easy request submittal functions and fast, accurate information retrieval, Pipefy’s user-friendly forms, portals, and databases orchestrate and streamline processes from start to finish — all from one platform.  

Try Pipefy for free. Click the blue “Start for free” button at the top right!

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