What is a workflow?
A workflow is a series of tasks and other activities that lead to a specific outcome. Workflows are how we organize tasks, time, and relationships. All workflows — no matter how simple or complex — share one universal characteristic: they’re repeatable.
All workflows are made up of the same three basic components: a trigger, work or activity, and an outcome. Learn more about the basic components of every workflow.
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Types of workflows
Workflows can be sorted into categories based on their structure and complexity. There are three main types of workflows: sequential workflows, state machine workflows, and rules-driven workflows.
Sequential workflows are the simplest. This type of workflow arranges tasks linearly so that they always progress forward, and each dependency only affects the step or task directly following the current step or task in the workflow.
Sequential workflows never loop back to previous steps or cycles in any way, so each task leads directly to the next once each is completed.
State machine workflows
In contrast to the simplicity of sequential workflows, state machine workflows allow dependencies to affect previous steps and for some tasks to cycle back to the previous step.
Processes in these workflows aren’t modeled as a series of tasks, but rather as distinct states that allow for more complex interactions.
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,” 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 subsequent task each time. The next step in the workflow depends on the input or action taken in the previous step.
Benefits of using workflows
Organizing tasks and other activities into workflows has several advantages, most of which stem from the increased standardization and control that workflows offer. Workflow benefits include:
Simplify process automation
Workflows make it easy to automate and coordinate a group of related tasks and activities, rather than automating each one independently. Low-code automation software enables business users and citizen developers to automate some workflows using a drag-and-drop interface.
Using workflows, stakeholders can align dependencies and arrange prioritized assignments better, completing tasks in less time and with fewer resources.
Deepen visibility into 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 types of business processes and provide direction on process improvement.
Collaborate more easily
Workflows make it easier to collaborate across the business, or even across industries. Cloud-based software means that specific workflows, templates, or general ideas about task planning are easily shareable and available to everyone anywhere, at any time.
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.
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Common workflow examples
One of the best ways to learn about workflows is by seeing some examples. Below, we’ll look at an employee onboarding workflow (as a swimlane diagram) and procurement workflows (as a simple flowchart). We’ll also describe examples of typical reimbursement and sales pipeline workflows.
Accounts payable workflow
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 workplace. Here is an example of a typical onboarding workflow, and a template you can modify and use yourself.
Employee onboarding workflow
- The column to the far left displays each actor in the flow.
- Each actor (team, department, person) has a lane that identifies when they have control of the work.
- The column to the far right 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.
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. Below is an example of a procurement workflow illustrated as a flowchart.
- The procurement process 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.
Another common and ongoing workplace activity is expense reimbursement. Using a workflow to track requests, receipts, and payment status can help set expectations, manage deadlines, and streamline the process.
- The 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.
Learn more about managing an efficient reimbursement workflow.
Sales pipeline workflow
These workflows follow a lead as they progress through the sales pipeline. Lead generation, research, follow-up, proposal writing, and negotiation are all repetitive tasks that can be easily organized into a workflow, making the whole sales pipeline more efficient and standardized.
Learn more about the sales pipeline stages.
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How to build a workflow
Workflows should simplify your work, not complicate it. 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. Use this simple three-step guide to help inform your workflows.
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 version should include the workflow’s documentation, the all-important workflow diagram that helps everyone visualize each task in the process, and 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 so-called test drive gives you another opportunity to fine-tune the workflow before implementation.
Learn more about flowchart symbols, and how to create a workflow diagram.
Using a workflow management system
A workflow management system (WMS) makes it easy to build, organize, and monitor workflows throughout the enterprise. The WMS integrates with the components of your existing tech stack to dissolve data silos and improve collaboration across apps, systems, and teams.
There are many workflow management systems available. To choose the right tool for your team, consider the following questions:
- Does the platform or software integrate with your other applications?
- Does it offer a low-code interface that empowers business teams?
- Does it meet your IT team’s security requirements?
- Does it provide a centralized view for monitoring all your workflows?
- Is it flexible enough to use in every department?
Essential WMS features
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Business team agility depends on being able to build, modify, and automate workflows quickly, in response to competitor activity or customer feedback. That’s not always possible when every workflow change needs to go through IT.
Low-code automation ignites digital transformation by giving business users more agency in workflow management. Low-code automation provides an IT-approved, secure workflow management system that integrates with existing apps and requires no coding experience from the business team.