What is a Workflow? A Simple Guide to Getting Started

what is a workflow

If you look at the Wikipedia definition of a workflow, you’re probably going to get confused as I did:

“A workflow consists of an orchestrated and repeatable pattern of business activity enabled by the systematic organization of resources into processes that transform materials, provide services, or process information It can be depicted as a sequence of operations, declared as work of a person or group, an organization of staff, or one or more simple or complex mechanisms.”

Let’s put this simply…

Workflows are the way people get work done, and can be illustrated as series of steps that need to be completed sequentially in a diagram or checklist.

Think of it literally as work flowing from one stage to the next, whether that’s through a colleague, tool, or another process. You can execute a full workflow alone (like writing, editing and publishing a blog post), or it can involve multiple people (like invoicing a client).

Here’s an example of a workflow diagram:

Here’s a simple example of a workflow where multiple people are involved:

  • A freelancer creates an invoice and sends it to their client
  • The client sends the invoice to their finance department
  • The finance department approves the invoice and processes the payment

A workflow you use on your own might be something like this:

  • Write a blog post
  • SEO optimize it
  • Check for spelling and grammar
  • Publish

Often, in business, workflows are much more complicated. Something like employee onboarding might involve multiple meetings, reports, tasks, and departments. It’s at this level that they need to be properly monitored, managed and optimized to make sure they’re as efficient as they can be.

Another way of displaying a workflow is with a checklist — a simple set of instructions, like this:

In this post, I’m going to go through, why you should use workflows, their components, and getting started creating your own.

Why should you spend time creating workflows?

The origins of workflows can be traced back, unsurprisingly, to Henry Gantt. Yes, that’s the same person responsible for Gantt charts!

The industrial revolution was the catalyst for smart thinkers like Gantt to come up with efficient ways of organizing a workforce. Business owners were suddenly able to mobilize huge workforces with powerful machinery, but needed to answer a question before they knew exactly the best way to harness that energy:

What’s the most efficient way to get this work done?

Breaking that question down, Gantt concluded he needed to know:

  • The exact jobs being done
  • Who is responsible for what
  • The time each task takes

By answering those questions and structuring the answers into a chart or process, you get a workflow.

As the old adage goes, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”. By measuring the work that needs to be done, you can manage how optimally it’s executed. Otherwise, you have no idea what’s going on or where the bottleneck in your team’s activity lies.

How to document workflows in your business

You need to scrutinize your business processes before you document them. Check out this episode of our podcast Tech Out Loud to learn how Noah Kagan went about scrutinizing and growing his 8-figure business:
Tech Out Loud is the only podcast that brings you the most impactful blog posts from the biggest names in tech, straight to your ears.

You can also listen to this podcast on other platforms. Click to see the full list! If you enjoyed this podcast, subscribe for a new episode each week.

The same way Gantt started out by measuring the workforce’s activities, your starting point should also be to get an idea of what each workflow in your company looks like.

You can do this by mapping out the process, as explained in this guide:

The idea is to hold meetings with your team to find out how they’re working and to create workflows for them to execute on. If you’re running a small business or working remotely, asking them to record a screencast is a great option because it’s precise and easy to do.

Once you have enough information to start creating your first formal workflow, it’s time to transfer that to a template in workflow software like Process Street.

Creating Process Street templates for your workflows is as easy as writing a Word document. And, once it’s done, you can see work being completed as checklists on your dashboard; one checklist for each time the workflow is ran by an employee:

In the example above, you can see a client onboarding workflow with three checklists — one for each time a client has been onboarded.

Process Street makes it simple to track your team’s workflow activity, and then optimize any bottlenecks or obstacles. In addition, documenting your workflows will ensure compliance with any industry regulations and facilitate your risk management planning.

Creating a workflow in Process Street

Process Street was created to help businesses create workflows easily, then execute them and generate progress reports.

In this section, I’m going to walk you through the first part: creating a workflow.

First, you’ll need to sign up for Process Street and create a new template.

Click ‘New Blank Template…’ to make a blank workflow template you can fill in.

Name your template with the title of the workflow. For example, ‘Content Approval Workflow’.

Once inside the template editor, you’ll see a blank list down the left-hand side; these are your workflow steps (or tasks). Fill them in with the rough steps you or your team would need to follow. Any details for each step will be added later.

Invite your team to Process Street using ‘Add Members…’. This allows you to assign your team to the steps they’re responsible for, and make it clear to others what the bigger picture of the workflow is.

When you’ve got your steps typed out, and members assigned (optional), you can hit ‘Save changes’ and start running your workflow.

On the next screen, you’ll notice you can run a checklist from the template. Hit ‘Run checklist…’ to execute the workflow.

Name your checklist to reflect the instance of the workflow. For example, for a content approval workflow, you’d title that one checklist with the name of the content to be approved.

As you progress through the workflow, you can check tasks off and leave comments to keep your team updated.

Example workflows for inspiration

To get a better idea of what a workflow is, examples are key.

Here’s two from the most complex workflows ever dreamt up, to simple, everyday tasks.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes assembly

Boeing’s process for manufacturing an airplane from scratch is mind-blowing. Each individual workflow isn’t likely to be so complex, but the sheer scale of the task, from start to end would need serious thought:

“Boeing Commercial Airplanes performs major assembly of all 737s at its factories in the United States; however, parts for the airplanes come from suppliers all over the world.

Assembling a 737 is a complex job. Factory employees must take 367,000 parts; an equal number of bolts, rivets and other fasteners; and 36 miles (58 kilometers) of electrical wire; and put them all together to form an airplane.

The fuselage, or body of the airplane, is produced at a Boeing plant in Wichita, Kan., in the American Midwest. At that facility, employees attach the nose section of the airplane’s fuselage to the center and tail sections. When the fuselage is complete, it is strapped aboard a railroad car for a 2,175-mile (3,500-kilometer) train ride across the United States…”

Accepting, editing, and publishing a guest post

Here’s a more tangible example that you might be able to relate to.

At Process Street, we often receive guest post pitches. When they’re accepted, we run the below checklist to get everybody on the same page as to the progress. If you need edits, you can even add the guest writer into the checklist and work with them that way.

Your next steps with workflows

Once you get the general idea of what a workflow is and how you can use them, you’ve opened yourself up to a whole lot more possibilities.

With documented workflows in business process management software like Process Street, you can even start automating steps — read here for a complete guide on that and here for an introduction.

Here’s what you can do next:

  • Brainstorm the workflows you and your team use
  • Optimize workflows to cut out inefficient steps
  • Create a library of processes and workflows to future-proof your business
  • Automate tedious work by connecting Process Street to Zapier

Process Street can be your workflow software, standard operating procedure software, or onboarding software.
What’s the first workflow you want to document, and why? Let me know in the comments!

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Benjamin Brandall

Benjamin Brandall is a content marketer at Process Street, and runs Secret Cave on the side. Find him on Twitter here.


I can’t count how many of my solopreneur clients have workflow in this year’s list of ambitious goals to make their work more fun and profitable! I call my popup lecture on the topic, The Process Process, and include a list of resources for documenting what we first draft in post its. Natch, Process Street is on the list. Thanks for this great post I’ll be adding to their homework for more insight and imstruction.

Great post, adding workflows and checklists to our customer onboarding process and business configurations are helping us reduce our setup time. Thanks, great article!

Hi, I love this post and Process Street, thanks for great article.
I want to create these cool and great-looking images along with the procedures which are in your post (Named: “Workflow daigram example”)
Procedures are great but giving a short visual about it would be beneficial for outsourcing and delegating and training purposes.
Can you share how did you create it? What tool you used?
Maybe can you add this in Process.st , the feature to include visual diagrams for processes?

I am a CEO with 100 employees, 8 departments and LOTS of processes to be documented. I realize now the TONS of work I should go thru to document all and every process in the company. I need to go thru hell to reach heaven 🙂

Nice article, well done!

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