Workflow vs Process: Understanding the Key Differences

In business, you often hear that a certain type of process will improve your workflow. Other people use the terms “process” and “workflow” interchangeably.

Process and workflow do share common elements, but they’re not one and the same, and you should not approach developing them the same way. 

What is a Process?

The International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, defines a process as a “set of interrelated or interacting activities that use inputs to deliver an intended result.” 

That last part—to deliver an intended result— is the most important element of this definition. A process always focuses on the achievement of a particular business goal. 

For instance, if you’re creating a process for accounts payable, your goal might be to reduce the number of late payments charged to the company. You would design each phase of the process—request intake, approval, disbursement, and so forth—around the goal of minimizing delays.

The success of a process depends on progress toward that goal. 

What is a Workflow?

A workflow is any series of steps that make up a process, involve at least two people, and add value to a company. 

There are three basic types of workflows:

  1. Sequential: each step depends on the completion of a previous step. Progress is defined by a set of internal rules and conditions to govern whether the task moves forward, loops back for quality control or sidetracks for additional attention.
  2. Rules-Driven: the workflow moves forward when certain requirements are met. Each task is evaluated against its own set of rules, so different tasks can be in progress simultaneously, but each can only count as finished when it has met requirements. 
  3. State: An external event triggers the workflow from one phase to the next. For example, a team knows that a widget is ready to go into production, but it can’t move into the production phase until the client approves its design.

The goal of a workflow is task completion, but quality control remains important. Many teams implement workflow management software to help them complete tasks more efficiently and with fewer errors.

Workflow vs Process: The Key Differences

It’s hard to distinguish processes from workflows, mostly because they dovetail in so many ways. It’s common to have a workflow that fits within a process, taking the team from one phase to the next.

Other workflows stand alone. These are the tasks that need doing as routine maintenance, although they don’t relate to any particular goal. Consider payroll processing or expense reimbursement, both of which are important but don’t necessarily relate to a particular outcome. These are stand-alone workflows.

To know whether you have a process or workflow on your hands, consider these two qualities:

1. Input and Output

All processes take input and transform it into valuable output, where the latter is tied to the intended goal. 

For instance, if you’re developing or refining a hiring process, your input will be the collection of candidate résumés and your output will be a new employee. Your reason for hiring that employee would be the process’s goal.

Workflows don’t always have a specific output. Take quality control, for example, which is a common workflow across many if not most companies. Employees will perform certain checks and tests on a product and report on those results, but the output—the product—was already present at the beginning of the workflow.

2. Scope

A process has a much broader scope and is more end-focused than workflow. 

Consider the way you evaluate success. 

  • Analysis of a process always focuses on the end goal. How efficiently does each step move the team toward its intended goal? 
  • Workflow is all about task completion. How do you delegate tasks? Can one workflow connect to another? Is there a potential for automation?In a workflow, automation is a step you can take to eliminate the amount of time wasted and reach an endpoint.

The Takeaway

Processes are goal-focused pathways from input to output. Workflows are the steps you take to complete a task, which may or may not be part of a defined process. 

It’s important to understand the differences between the two, but remember there are also plenty of similarities. Most importantly, whether you have a process or workflow, be sure to follow a sequence of steps and move toward an outcome. 

In most cases, you can use the same software to manage both. Look for one like Pipefy that lets you automate simpler steps and analyze your performance using data.