Workflows help organizations organize, track, and optimize the processes they rely on every day. They’re the reusable instruction manuals of the business world, saving time and resources on every repetitive task, from manufacturing a successful product to handling expense reimbursement.
If you’re interested in becoming the team member who gets the most done in the least time, and demonstrating how your organization can do the same, you need to start using workflows. Let’s take a look at exactly what workflows are, how they can benefit your business, and how you can start using them.
What is a workflow?
A workflow is an organized series of tasks that must be completed in order to achieve a specific goal. This may be a checklist that someone in human resources completes during the onboarding process, the procedure a sales team member follows when moving a lead through the sales pipeline, or even the steps of a fully automated expense reimbursement process.
Workflows range from simple tasks that can be performed by individuals to massive processes that involve hundreds of team members across business units. Despite this variation, all workflows are repeatable. This means that workflows should be used to delineate objectives and processes that are performed regularly, and that they are usually not appropriate for ad-hoc or one-time work. Think of them as directions for achieving a common business activity many times as needed.
Workflow diagrams and documentation
Workflows are often represented visually, both in digital and paper form. These visualizations can be as simple as a bulleted list, but more complicated processes are better represented using flow charts that can be produced with the help of dedicated software. Here’s an example of a workflow diagram for managing customer onboarding:
Workflow documentation is an important supplement to diagramming — an engineer’s in-depth instructions for bug resolution wouldn’t fit on a concise flow chart. Workflow documentation should include detailed information about individual tasks as well as the stakeholders involved and their responsibilities. It provides all of the important context, guidelines, and reference data that can’t be included in a graphical representation.
A brief history of workflows
The concept of workflows in business first began in manufacturing with the contributions of Frederick Taylor and Henry Gantt, who studied how work could be more consciously and rationally organized in that industry. Workflows became increasingly useful as the industrial revolution progressed, as the complex processes that came with it could benefit greatly from optimization. Henry Gantt famously created the eponymous Gantt chart that shows the schedule for a specific project and displays the relationships between its dependencies. Now workflows are an important part of almost every industry, forming a backbone for effective planning, tracking, and managing processes the world over.
Types of workflows
Sequential workflows are the simplest. This type of workflow arranges tasks linearly so that they always progress forwards, and each dependency only affects the next part of the workflow. Sequential workflows never loop back to previous steps or cycles in any way, each task directly leading to the next once completed. Expense reimbursement might be an example of a sequential workflow: the reimbursement request is submitted, reviewed, approved or denied, and any funds are then disbursed.
If the expense reimbursement process described above allowed the reviewer to ask for further documentation from the requesting employee, it would instead be an example of a state machine workflow. State machine workflows allow dependencies to affect previous steps and tasks to cycle back. 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 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 set of latter tasks like in sequential workflows, though this rules-driven model does exclusively progress forwards as well.
Benefits of using workflows
There are many advantages to using workflows. They organize tasks better, create ways to directly measure performance, and can codify business procedures that would otherwise be difficult to visualize or understand.
In sales, lead generation, research, follow-up, proposal writing, and negotiation are all repetitive tasks that are easy to organize into a workflow, making the whole sales pipeline more efficient and standardized:
Start creating and managing workflows today
Whether you need to make sure new team members are engaged, streamline your expenses, or generate and close leads more quickly, workflow management software can help. Workflows can make your business more agile and collaborative, improve employee performance, and boost your bottom line, all while automating repetitive tasks and creating useful documentation for critical processes.
Workflow documentation is an important supplement to diagramming — an engineer’s in-depth instructions for bug resolution wouldn’t fit on a concise flow chart.