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How to Create a Workflow in Excel

Microsoft Excel workflows are a real thing that exists. Did you know that? I didn’t. I thought Excel was just for making charts and graphs, but it’s true! 

You can actually make workflows using Excel. And it doesn’t have to be particularly complicated, either. I thought it would be terribly difficult, but a basic workflow can be made by following 15 simple steps.

In this article, I’m going to break down the steps of building an Excel workflow along with what you can use them for. 

We’ll also discuss whether Excel workflows are really up-to-snuff in the modern workflow world, and look at some great alternatives.

Let’s go!

What is a workflow?

To start, let’s get back to basics and break down what a workflow actually is.

A workflow is a sequence of interconnected steps or tasks necessary to complete a specific process or achieve a particular goal. It represents the flow of activities, information, and resources within an organization or individual’s work environment.

Workflows are designed to streamline and automate repetitive or complex tasks, ensuring that work progresses efficiently and consistently. They provide a structured framework that defines the order, dependencies, and interactions between different activities involved in a process.

Workflows can be manual or automated, depending on the complexity and the availability of tools or software to support the process. Automation tools, including software applications or workflow management systems, can help automate and streamline tasks, reducing manual effort and human error.

How to create a workflow in Excel

Creating workflows with Excel isn’t as straightforward as using workflow software because it wasn’t designed to be a workflow tool, it’s a spreadsheet tool. However, there are still ways you can make and even automate workflows using Excel, so let’s look at the process step-by-step.

Step 1: Identify the workflow 

Determine the specific process or task you want to streamline using Excel. It could be anything from data entry and analysis to project management or inventory tracking.

Step 2: Define inputs and outputs

Identify the inputs (data, forms, or other resources) required to initiate the workflow and the desired outputs (reports, calculations, or notifications) you expect from the process.

Step 3: Plan the steps

Break down the workflow into individual steps or stages. Consider the order and dependencies of each step. For complex workflows, you may need to use flowcharts or diagrams to visualize the process.

Step 4: Create worksheets 

Open a new Excel workbook and create worksheets for each step in your workflow. Name each worksheet descriptively to represent its purpose.

Step 5: Design data entry forms 

If your workflow involves data entry, create user-friendly forms on separate worksheets. These forms should include relevant fields and validation rules to ensure accurate data entry.

Step 6: Enter data 

Start entering data into the appropriate worksheets or forms. Depending on your workflow, you may need to enter data manually or import it from external sources.

Step 7: Use formulas and functions

Leverage Excel’s formulas and functions to automate calculations, data manipulation, and data analysis. Use functions like 

  • SUM 
  • AVERAGE 
  • IF
  • VLOOKUP 

to perform calculations and generate desired outputs.

Step 8: Apply formatting and conditional formatting 

Format your data appropriately to improve readability. Utilize conditional formatting to highlight specific conditions or patterns within your data.

Step 9: Create visualizations

Excel offers various chart types to represent your data visually. Generate charts or graphs to summarize and present key information in a more accessible way.

Step 10: Utilize macros 

If your workflow requires repetitive tasks, consider using macros to automate them. Macros can be recorded or written using VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) to perform actions and execute specific tasks with the click of a button.

Step 11: Implement data validation

Apply data validation rules to ensure data integrity. Use validation techniques to limit data entry to specific ranges, formats, or lists.

Step 12: Add hyperlinks and navigation 

If your workflow involves jumping between different parts of the workbook, create hyperlinks or navigation buttons to facilitate easy navigation.

Step 13: Test and iterate

Once your workflow is set up, test it thoroughly to ensure it functions as expected. Identify any issues or areas for improvement, and make necessary adjustments to optimize the workflow.

Step 14: Document the workflow 

Create clear documentation outlining the workflow, its purpose, and the steps involved. Include instructions on how to use and maintain the workflow to ensure consistency.

Step 15: Train users (if applicable) 

If others will be using the workflow, provide training to ensure they understand how to use and follow the workflow effectively. Make sure they know it’s more than a simple spreadsheet.

Remember, workflows in Excel can range from simple to complex. Start with a straightforward process and gradually add complexity as you become more familiar with Excel’s features and capabilities. There are even some templates that you can check out!

Excel workflow use cases

Excel is a versatile tool that can be applied to various workflow use cases across industries and functions. Here are five common use cases where Excel workflows can significantly improve efficiency and streamline processes:

Data entry and analysis

Excel is widely used for data entry and analysis tasks by creating structured data entry forms, applying data validation, and utilizing formulas and functions. You can automate calculations, perform data analysis, and generate reports.

Project management

Excel is a valuable tool for project management, enabling you to plan, track progress, and manage project-related data. You can create Gantt charts, task lists, and timelines to visualize project schedules. 

It has conditional formatting that can be utilized to highlight milestones, deadlines, and critical paths. By integrating project data with formulas and functions, you can automate calculations, monitor resource allocation, and track project expenses.

Budgeting and financial planning

Excel is commonly used for budgeting and financial planning workflows. You can create comprehensive budget templates, track expenses, forecast revenues, and calculate financial ratios. 

Its built-in functions, such as SUM, AVERAGE, and IF, enable you to perform calculations and analyze financial data. By linking worksheets and utilizing Excel’s data validation, you can ensure accurate and consistent financial planning.

Inventory management

For inventory management workflows, you can track and manage inventory levels, stock movements, and reorder points. The conditional formatting feature can highlight low stock levels or upcoming reorder dates. By utilizing formulas and functions, you can automate inventory calculations, such as reorder quantity and total inventory valuation.

Human resources

Excel is valuable for human resources (HR) workflows, including employee data management, attendance tracking, employee onboarding, and performance evaluations. It can be used to create employee databases, record personal details, track leaves, and calculate payroll. 

By using formulas and functions, you can automate attendance calculations, generate reports, and perform HR analytics. Conditional formatting can be utilized to identify overdue evaluations or training requirements.

Excel workflow features

Here is a breakdown of some of Excel’s features we already saw in the use cases, along with some other really useful ones:

Data entry and validation

Excel provides a user-friendly interface for data entry. You can design custom data entry forms using Excel’s features like Data Validation, drop-down lists, and input restrictions. This ensures that data entered into the workbook follows specific rules or conforms to predefined criteria.

Calculations and formulas 

You can use formulas to perform basic arithmetic operations, aggregate data, perform conditional calculations, and more. These calculations can be embedded within your workflow to generate outputs and streamline processes.

Conditional formatting

Conditional formatting enables you to highlight specific conditions or patterns within your data. By setting up rules, you can automatically format cells based on the criteria you define. 

This can be useful for visually identifying important data, errors, or trends, making it easier to analyze and interpret the information.

Data analysis 

There are various data analysis tools, such as PivotTables, Power Query, and Power Pivot, that allow you to analyze and transform large datasets efficiently. These tools can help you filter, sort, group, and summarize data to extract meaningful insights.

Conditional logic and automation 

The conditional logic functions and features, like IF statements, nested functions, and macros, enable you to automate processes and create decision-making workflows. 

By setting up conditional logic, you can instruct Excel to perform different actions based on specific conditions. Macros, created using VBA, allow you to automate repetitive tasks and execute a series of actions with a single click.

Why Excel is not the best place to create workflows

While Excel can be a useful tool for certain workflows, there are limitations that may make it less suitable for complex or scalable workflows. Here are a few reasons why Excel may not be the best choice for workflows in certain scenarios:

Limited scalability 

Excel’s scalability is limited by the size and complexity of the data and the number of users accessing the workbook. 

Large datasets or workflows involving extensive calculations can cause performance issues and slow down the application. As the workflow grows in complexity and the number of users increases, Excel may become less efficient and more prone to errors.

Lack of real-time collaboration 

While Excel does offer collaboration features, such as shared workbooks and track changes, it is not designed for real-time collaboration. Multiple users cannot simultaneously work on the same Excel workbook, and updates made by one user may not be immediately visible to others. 

Limited workflow automation 

Excel provides basic automation capabilities through formulas, functions, and macros. However, creating complex and sophisticated automated workflows may require more advanced tools or programming languages. 

Excel’s automation capabilities may not be sufficient for workflows that involve intricate conditional logic, integration with external systems, or complex data manipulation.

Data integrity and security risks

Excel files can be prone to data integrity issues, especially when multiple users are working on the same workbook concurrently. 

Simultaneous editing, incorrect formula references, or accidental deletion of data can lead to data inconsistencies and errors. Additionally, files may lack robust security features, making them vulnerable to unauthorized access or data breaches.

Alternatives to Excel workflows

If Excel workflows are working well for you, great! I’m not here to rain on your parade. You do whatever if best for you and your team. Go forth!

However, if you’ve tried Excel workflows and they’re not the right fit for you, consider this alternative: workflow management software.

I touched on it a bit in the first section when we defined workflows, but it’s worth looking at at little more closely. Excel was not designed for workflow management. While it does have the capability to do it, setting it up and maintaining it can get really complicated really quickly. 

Workflow management software is designed to make building automation workflows fast and easy. They are much more user-friendly, come with many of the same features as Excel but with less manual setup, and they allow for real-time collaboration.
Process Street is an excellent workflow tool that you can use in place of Excel, and if you would like to see it in action and experience how different it is, book a free demo! A member of the team will gladly show you how it works and how it can improve your workflows.

Take control of your workflows today