What is a workflow, exactly? It’s a word that’s thrown around like confetti but often applied incorrectly. Is it a task list? A procedure? A process?
As with all ambiguous terms, there’s a little bit of truth in all three. But despite the fuzzy definitions, workflows are a highly specific thing — and knowing both what the term means and how to master them will be a big help when it comes to smashing those goals.
What is a workflow?
Workflows define the steps needed to complete a task. They:
- Depict end-to-end processes
- Connect people to data, including role assignment
- Are repeatable
- Often contain decision points
- Can be diagrams, or outlined in documentation
- Are completed in a specific sequence
Whether visualized through diagrams or outlined in documentation, workflows are integral in helping organizations streamline processes, from simple daily routines to complex project management tasks.
Workflows and not workflows: common mix-ups
Part of the fuzziness surrounding the term ‘workflow’ is due to people using it when they actually mean something else. Here are some of the most common mix-ups.
Workflow vs. process
The terms ‘workflow’ and ‘process’ are often used interchangeably, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same thing.
Both ‘workflow’ and ‘process’ refer to sequences of tasks and activities, but they have distinct nuances and applications:
A process is a sequence of tasks or steps taken to achieve a particular end, usually a product or service.
It’s a broader term that refers to a series of actions that help you accomplish a specific activity. These are either operational (things that keep the business running), managerial (things that oversee the operations), or supportive (things that support the business operations).
- Scope: Processes tend to be more general and can encompass multiple workflows within them. A process might provide the broader picture of what the team needs to do, but not necessarily the detailed steps on how to get there.
- Flexibility: While processes are structured, they might not always be strictly linear. They can be more flexible, allowing for variations based on specific scenarios or conditions.
A workflow is the detailed, step-by-step coordination of activities required to complete a task within a process. It defines the sequence and conditions needed for each step.
- Scope: Workflows are typically more specific than processes. They map out the exact sequence of tasks, including who does what and when.
- Representation: Workflows are often visualized via diagrams like flowcharts to detail the flow of tasks and highlight decision points.
Workflows vs. checklists
A checklist is a simple tool used to ensure consistency and completeness in carrying out a task. It is essentially a to-do list that ensures all necessary steps happen in the right order. They’re great for simple tasks that don’t require a lot of decision-making.
Workflows, meanwhile, map out the entire process. They might incorporate decision trees, showing different routes a process can take depending on certain variables. This makes workflows more suited to complex processes with multiple participants and those requiring decision-making at various stages.
Workflows vs. flowcharts
A workflow represents the sequence of operations, signifying the steps in a task, the persons or entities involved, and the order of steps necessary to complete the task. Workflows often come with an automation feature, which triggers the next action once you’ve completed the previous one.
A flowchart, however, is a type of diagram that represents a process, showing the steps as boxes of various kinds, and their order by connecting them with arrows. It’s a graphical representation used to illustrate the flow of control in a process, helping to understand a process and perhaps also to find flaws and bottlenecks.
A workflow is a practical implementation and could be part of a larger process, whereas a flowchart is more of an abstract graphical representation.
Workflows vs. Gantt charts
Workflows display sequences of tasks to standarize processes and improve efficiency. They often include decision-making steps, and are designed to facilitate processes of all stripes.
Gantt charts, on the other hand, are graphical illustrations of a project’s schedule, showing the start and finish dates of different tasks and their dependencies. Gantt charts excel in showing the relationships between tasks, their sequence, and the overall project timeline.
While workflows focus on the steps involved in performing tasks, Gantt charts are more about scheduling and timing. In many cases, they work together: workflows define the tasks, and Gantt charts provide the timeline.
Workflow management vs. project management
If you’re a workflow manager, you’re focused on optimizing and automating routine business processes to improve efficiency. The role involves defining the sequence of tasks, allocating resources, setting timelines, and monitoring the progress of work from start to finish. It’s ongoing and repetitive, and focused on regular tasks that occur within an organization.
Project managers, on the other hand, focus on planning, executing, and controlling a specific project with a defined start and end date. The role involves setting goals, managing risks, and ensuring the project sticks to its allocated budget and timeline. Projects are unique and non-repetitive, so project management tends to involve more planning and coordination. Project management often encompasses workflow management.
Workflow management vs. Business Process Management (BPM)
Workflow management focuses on the execution of individual processes or series of tasks within a larger process. BPM, on the other hand, takes a broader view.
It’s an overarching approach that covers the management and optimization of all business processes within an organization.
BPM involves analyzing, designing, implementing, controlling, and continuously improving business processes. It not only includes workflows, but also focuses on improving business performance by managing and optimizing a company’s business processes as a whole.
The main difference lies in their scope and purpose. Workflow management is typically a part of BPM, focusing on task-level execution within processes. BPM, however, considers the business as a set of interrelated processes, aiming to improve the organization’s efficiency and effectiveness from a higher, more strategic level.
Types of workflow you need to know
Now the definitions are behind us, let’s take a closer look at the different types of workflow available.
- Sequential workflows: These are workflows where tasks happen in a specific order. One task follows another in a sequence, and the next task doesn’t start until you’ve ticked off the one before.
- Parallel workflows: These are workflows where multiple tasks happen simultaneously. It shortens the total execution time as different individuals or teams work on different tasks at the same time.
- State machine workflows: In these workflows, the process can be in one of a finite number of states. Based on certain conditions or triggers, the workflow can move from one state to another.
- Rules-driven workflows: These are workflows where specific rules or conditions need to be in place before a task can happen.It’s highly adaptable and can handle complex scenarios.
What are the key components of a workflow?
1. Tasks: These are the basic units of work for completion. They can be simple or complex, depending on the process.
2. Sequence: You’ll need to complete some tasks before starting others. This defines the order in which the team works on tasks.
3. Roles: These determine who is responsible for completing each task. You can assign roles to individuals or teams.
4. Conditions: These are rules or guidelines that determine when you can begin or complete a task.
5. Data: This refers to the information required to complete each task. It can be documents, forms, or any other kind of data.
6. Triggers: These are events that initiate or end a task or a workflow. They can be time-based or based on the completion of another task.
How do different teams use workflows?
1. Human resources workflows: HR workflows could cover anything from the recruitment process (from job posting to candidate interviews and finally hiring) to employee onboarding (assigning tasks, setting up IT accounts, arranging first-day inductions), performance reviews, and even offboarding.
2. Sales workflows: In the sales department, workflows can manage processes like lead qualification, sales quotes, follow-up activities, and contract approvals. They help ensure a smooth, consistent approach to sales that keeps the pipeline moving and maximizes the chance of closing deals.
3. Marketing workflows: For marketing teams, workflows can automate processes like content approval (from idea submission to publication), email campaign management, social media posting schedules, and lead nurturing programs.
4. Finance and accounting workflows: In the finance department, workflows streamline things like invoice approvals, expense reimbursements, budgeting, and financial reporting. These workflows improve accuracy, expedite processes, and ensure compliance with company policies and regulations.
5. IT workflows: IT workflows cover things like issue ticketing (from issue report to resolution), software updates, IT asset management, and data backup procedures.
6. Customer service workflows: In customer service, workflows can manage the process from when a customer contacts the company with a query or complaint to its resolution. They can help ensure that all issues are dealt with promptly and consistently, leading to happier (or at least less angry) customers.
7. Operational workflows: These could include any repeatable processes within a company’s day-to-day operations, e.g. inventory management, order fulfillment, quality assurance, or maintenance scheduling.
Why is workflow management so important?
1. Efficiency: By streamlining and automating routine tasks, workflow management helps eliminate redundancies, reduce errors, and save time, making them a must for all managers.
2. Consistency: Workflow management helps you add consistency to your task process via predefined standards that must be met in order for a task to be considered ‘complete’. This leads to better consistency, improved quality, and fewer mistakes.
3. Transparency: Workflow management provides visibility into the progress of tasks. It helps managers track performance, identify bottlenecks, and make informed decisions.
4. Accountability: With clearly defined roles and responsibilities, workflow management ensures every team member knows what they’re working on. This increases accountability and improves performance.
5. Collaboration: Workflow management facilitates better communication and collaboration between team members, which in turn helps teams work together and achieve their goals.
What is workflow automation software?
Workflow software, aka workflow management software, aka project management software (which usually comes with workflow management features) automates and streamlines business processes. With it, you can map out task sequences, assign roles, set deadlines and track work in real time.
It’s a great way to reduce manual effort, eliminate errors, and improve productivity and communication. It gives you an all-in-one visual interface for designing workflows, and the best of the bunch integrates with other business tools and give you reporting capabilities so you can analyze performance.
When should you invest in workflow automation tools?
So, you’ve got the basics of workflow management down, but the million-dollar question is — when’s the right time to invest in the tech that automates it all for you? Here’s some food for thought: choose automation software when…
- You’re looking to crank up efficiency. Are your team members spending more time on repetitive tasks rather than focusing on strategic ones? If you nodded in agreement, it might be time to automate those routine tasks.
- Errors are becoming a common sight. Everyone makes mistakes, but if those mistakes are due to repetitive tasks and are affecting your business, automation can help eliminate human error.
- Compliance is causing headaches. If your business processes need to stick to certain rules and regulations, workflow automation can help enforce these and keep you on the right side of compliance.
- You need more visibility. If you’re finding it tough to track the status and performance of your workflows, automation can offer much-needed transparency.
- Collaboration feels like chaos. If coordination between teams feels more like a game of broken telephone, workflow automation can streamline communication and improve collaboration.
How to choose the best workflow management system for your needs
But by knowing what to look for, you can transform this daunting task into a straightforward one. Here’s a detailed guide to help you make an informed decision:
Invest in automation
Automation is the heart of workflow management. It allows for routine tasks to be handled swiftly and accurately without manual intervention, thereby boosting productivity and reducing the likelihood of human errors. Look for a system that offers robust automation capabilities including conditional logic, event triggers, and auto-assigning tasks to appropriate team members.
Avoid legacy solutions
Legacy solutions can often be rigid, bulky, and difficult to adapt to the ever-changing needs of modern businesses. They often require significant resources to maintain, too. Instead, opt for agile, cloud-based solutions that are continually updated and improved by the provider, are easy to scale as your business grows, and offer flexible customization options to suit your unique needs.
Integrate your existing tools without altering your tech stack
Seamless integration with the other tools you’re using is crucial. The best workflow management systems can fit smoothly into your existing tech stack, allowing for uninterrupted data flow between systems. This reduces the need for manual data entry and minimizes the risk of data discrepancies.
Enable secure collaboration
Collaboration is pretty important, right? Your workflow management system should allow real-time communication, collaborative editing, and task assignments. But as collaboration expands, so does the need for security. Make sure your chosen system also offers advanced security measures such as role-based access control, data encryption, and audit logs.
Look for easy reporting and dashboards
Choose easy-to-understand dashboards that offer real-time visibility and a range of reporting features. Having an intuitive interface also makes it easier for your team to get up and running with the tech, as well as orgainze information in a way that makes sense to them.
Keep improving and iterating
A perfect workflow doesn’t exist; you’ll need to review and refine your processes for maximum efficiency. So — choose a workflow management system that enables you to easily alter and improve workflows based on changing needs and insights from performance data.
Look for good scalability
Lastly, consider the pricing structure and scalability. Does it fit within your budget? Does the system offer plans that can scale with your business? Be wary of providers who charge for each ‘extra’ feature. The best value often comes from providers that offer a comprehensive set of features at a flat rate.
7 steps to creating an effective workflow (automated or otherwise)
Creating a stellar workflow involves strategic planning and a deep understanding of your operations. Here’s a step-by-step guide.
Step 1: Ideation and information gathering
Begin by identifying the process you want to streamline. It could be anything from an HR onboarding process, a marketing content approval flow to a sales lead qualification process.
Next, gather as much information as possible about the existing process. How is it currently handled? Who is involved, and what are their roles? What steps do they take, and in what order? What tools do they use? Where are the bottlenecks?
Talk to the people who are directly involved in the process to understand their challenges and needs. Their input will be invaluable when it comes to designing a workflow that truly works. Also, consider the desired outcome of the process. What would success look like?
Document all the information you gather. This will be your foundation as you move onto the next steps.
Step 2: Request intake
This is the entry point of your workflow where tasks or projects begin.
Decide on a standardized way for employees to make these requests. For example, it might be via a form on your workflow management system or a discussion in a team meeting. Whatever method you choose, it should be easily accessible and simple for team members to use.
Finally, make sure your request intake system captures all necessary information for the task. This might include the request’s purpose, any associated deadlines, personnel involved, required resources, and so on.
Step 3: Prioritization and resourcing
Some requests are more urgent or important than others. You might prioritize based on things like the deadline, the project’s importance, the client’s needs, or any other criteria that make sense for your organization.
Once you’ve prioritized, next comes resourcing. This is about assigning the right people to each task or project. Consider factors like the skills needed, the workload of potential team members, and their availability. Remember, effective resource allocation isn’t just about who’s free but who is most suitable for the task.
Step 4: Development
The development phase is where the meat of the project happens. It could involve writing a report, designing a product, creating a marketing campaign, or any other tasks specific to the workflow you’re setting up.
Constant communication is key. Ensure everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing and when their tasks are due. This is also the time to provide support and resources to help your team members succeed in their tasks.
Step 5: Review
After kick-off, it’s time for review. This is where you check the completed work for quality, accuracy, and completeness. Who conducts the review will depend on the nature of the task — and in some cases, you might have multiple rounds of review.
This development and review phase is cyclical. After you’ve reviewed a piece of work, it may go back for further development, then go through another review stage, and so on until the work meets the required standards.
Step 6: Progress tracking
Progress tracking involves monitoring tasks as they move through different stages of the workflow.
An ideal workflow management system gives you visibility into the status of all tasks in real time, so you can stay on top of developments and catch issues before they snowball.
During this stage, have regular check-ins to give feedback, address any issues or roadblocks that might be hindering progress, and keep the team motivated and on track.
Step 7: Approval
The approval process should be clearly defined from the start. Who is authorized to approve the task? What are the criteria for approval? These are some of the questions you should answer.
In some workflows, there might be multiple layers of approval required. For instance, a piece of content might need the approval of both your content manager, and the legal team. Your workflow should handle these complexities and ensure that tasks smoothly navigate these multiple approval stages.
Finally, make sure you keep stakeholders on top of all the developments. Transparency in this final stage of the task workflow is essential for keeping trust high.
Master your workflow with these tips and tricks
Ready to conquer the world of workflow management? Of course you are! Here are some tips to help you make the most of your efforts.
1. Focus on your business goals: Workflows are great, but they need to be in line with your overall business objectives. Whether it’s improving customer service, increasing productivity, or reducing costs, keep your eye on the prize as you design and implement your workflows.
2. Respond to what your client wants: At the end of the day, your business revolves around your clients. Use their feedback to shape your workflows. If a step doesn’t add value for your client, consider revising or eliminating it. Oh, but make sure you have your scope all planned out to avoid them asking for more than agreed.
3. Collaboration is key: Workflows are a team sport. Encourage open communication, foster teamwork, and create a culture of collaboration. It’s all about working together to achieve your goals.
4. Use tech to automate the admin: Don’t shy away from tech! Workflow management software like Backlog can automate repetitive tasks, give useful insights, and make collaboration a breeze thanks to real-time notifications and commenting. Remember, the right tool can make all the difference.