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What is a Workflow? A Beginner’s Guide to Workflow Management

If you look at Google’s front page for “what is a workflow,” the first result is literally the dictionary definition. 

“The sequence of industrial, administrative, or other processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion.”

Then you have Kissflow’s definition, which isn’t any clearer:

“A sequence of tasks that processes data through a specific path from initiation to completion.” 

And then there’s, well, this page. And how do we define a workflow?

A workflow is how you get work done. 

Now we’re getting somewhere.

What is a workflow? 

Workflows are a series of steps that need to be completed in a process.

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).

Why are workflows important?

For businesses, workflows can become extremely complicated.

Think about your employee onboarding process. Several different departments have to coordinate to complete that process correctly. In addition to losing your new talent, bad onboarding can also lead to serious compliance issues.

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.

What’s the difference between workflows and processes?

Workflow and process often get used interchangeably. Considering they often come as a matched set, this is understandable. 

The above image lists the major differences between workflows and processes, but the main point is:

A process is a method used to perform a sequence of activities

A workflow is a tool used to facilitate that method.

If we go back to the employee onboarding example, the process is all of the different steps that need to be taken such as: 

  • Paperwork filled out
  • Workstation set up
  • Training

The workflow maps out those steps in a clear structure so it’s easy to visualize what needs to be done in a diagram or checklist. 

Workflow best practices

To build an effective workflow you need to answer three important questions:

  • What exact jobs need to be done?
  • Who is responsible for each job?
  • How much time will each task take?

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

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.

Stages of a workflow

Building a workflow comes down to 5 stages:

  1. Identify the tasks that need to be done
  2. Determine who’s accountable for those tasks
  3. Organize the tasks into a sequence
  4. Test the workflow
  5. Review and repeat

It’s essential to practice continuous improvement when it comes to maintaining your workflows. Making these little tweaks along the way will ensure your workflow only includes the most necessary and update-to-date tasks – and you won’t have to spend time on a major overhaul down the line.

The 3 basic components of a workflow

While the number of tasks in each workflow can vary from 8 to 80, every workflow is made up of 3 basic components:

  • Trigger: The event that begins the workflow. This can be an action, decision, specific time, or a response to something.
  • Series of tasks/the work: This includes all of the tasks, people, and deliverables involved in the workflow. 
  • Results: What the workflow produces. A result or outcome can be something tangible like purchasing a service or more abstract like accessing certain information.

The series of tasks will take up a majority of the workflow, but both the trigger and the results are equally important. If you don’t know where your process should start and finish, your workflow is going to be pretty useless.

Types of workflows

Because it’s always best to do things in threes, there are three primary types of workflow that you’ll encounter:

  • Project workflows
  • Simple process workflows
  • Conditional process workflow

Parsing out the exact difference between these types can be tricky at times, but, as with everything, you need to make sure you’re using the right tool for the job. 

Project workflows are the most simplistic type. They’re generally one-off workflows designed to keep a project on track so deliverables are on time, accountability is clear, and your team doesn’t experience any bottlenecks. 

You may be able to reuse parts of a project workflow. For example, the content team creates multiple pieces of content. 

Each of these is a small project. Depending on a variety of factors, the exact steps aren’t always the same. Since the overall process is, though, we can reuse the content creation workflow for things like research, reviews, and image requests. 

Next, you have the simple process workflow. This type of workflow covers all of your predictable, repeatable tasks. Sending an invoice or approving time off are simple process workflows. 

No matter what: Nothing changes. The workflow follows the exact same times the exact same way every time the workflow is run. 

Simple.

Finally, there’s the conditional process workflow. These workflows use a form of if/then logic to structure the process. 

It’s the Choose Your Own Adventure novel of workflows: If you want to explore the dungeon, go to task 13. If you want to investigate the town, skip to task 22. 

At Process Street, we refer to it as conditional logic, which creates branching pathways within the same workflow. It’s great because it means that for things like onboarding or help tickets you only need one workflow for multiple situations.

Payroll Processors’ client onboarding workflow is a perfect example of exactly what conditional logic can do:

 How Payroll Processors Uses Process Street’s Conditional Logic for Client Onboarding

Workflow optimization

I came across a post on LinkedIn not long ago that talked about business buzzwords and jargon. These buzzwords got divided into two types:

  • Too vague to be described in any other way (think “dynamic” and its cohorts)
  • So obvious they didn’t need to be said (“innovative,” “customer-centric,” etc.)

“Optimization” is a little bit like those buzzwords. We all know what “optimize” means in the dictionary. We all know that it’s a good thing. Things are always better when they’re optimized. 

But what does optimization mean in relation to a workflow? What is an optimized workflow and how do you get it?

Continuous improvement

Building a workflow is only the first step. Without proper attention, workflows can easily become bogged down by inefficiencies and redundant tasks. 

That’s where continuous improvement comes in. By periodically checking your workflows you can make sure they stay current and fit your needs. You can then decide whether you need to make incremental or breakthrough changes to your processes and how your workflows run.

Incremental changes are basically what they sound like: Small tweaks and improvements you make as and when you come across them. 

Breakthrough changes are large changes typically made by a group review and decision-making process. While you might find yourself making incremental changes fairly often, if you find yourself making mostly breakthrough changes, you need to reevaluate your workflow (and possibly even your process).

Six Sigma, DMAIC, lean, and kaizen are all really useful tools for implementing continuous improvements.

Workflow automation

Automation is the raison d’être of a workflow. 

Workflows take all those wild, intuitive processes and brings order to them. But that doesn’t mean that automation is built into the workflow – or even that every workflow needs automation.

Confused yet?.

Workflow automation is identifying which parts of a process can be done without much – or any – human involvement. 

Some examples of things you might automate are:

  • Sending a standardized welcome email
  • Transferring data to a spreadsheet
  • Adding an event to your calendar
  • Processing a payment

These are all repetitive tasks that may only take a few minutes on their own, but those minutes add up. 

Plus, the greater the chance of human error. Think about it: You have hours of data entry ahead of you. Just sitting there, putting numbers in columns all day with the most excitement being when Tony showed up with donuts that morning. 

You start out with good intentions, but at what point do you go on autopilot? At what point do you accidentally hit an extra zero and end up charging a client $5000 instead of $500? Or vice versa? They’re both bad.

That’s why you automate.

Once you’ve identified which tasks to automate, implementation is pretty straightforward. With software like Zapier, you can set up integrations to link a trigger in one app to an outcome in another. 

You enter data once. It gets sent to all the places it needs to be. You have complete accuracy across all channels and it only costs you the time it takes to click a button.

Benefits of a workflow

Workflows reduce waste. Wasted time, wasted effort, wasted resources. 

As you map out your processes, you’ll be able to identify where you have bottlenecks and redundant tasks. Once you know where they are, you can eliminate them. Then you and your team can focus on the necessary tasks. 

Workflows are also great for communication, accountability, and transparency. A workflow should make it clear who is responsible for what and when a deliverable should be completed. You don’t have to micromanage your team. Your team doesn’t need to be micromanaged. Everyone’s happier. 

Since every aspect of a process is documented in the workflow, everyone on the team has the information they need when they need it. Reducing miscommunication improves productivity – and leaves your team much less frustrated with their tasks and each other. 

Challenges of a workflow

Workflows need constant attention. You can’t simply build one and expect it to run perfectly forever. You need to maintain it. 

Workflow maintenance can be time consuming and complicated – especially if you haven’t been practicing your continuous improvement principles. 

But not performing regular maintenance causes serious problems:

  • Inaccurate time/cost estimates
  • Miscommunication errors
  • Skipping or forgetting important steps
  • Approvals applied without testing – or not applied when needed
  • Costly bottlenecks 

Think of a workflow like a car. Cars are really useful and efficient. You can usually get more done in less time by driving than walking. 

Plus you don’t have to carry everything.

But cars need checkups. Some are small – new tires, oil changes, emission tests, and so on. Sometimes you have to invest a little more – like a new starter or fan belt. On their own, these things aren’t really a big deal. 

If you’ve ever gone too long without an oil change, though, you know exactly how important regular maintenance can be. 

Workflow software tools and vendors

If you Google “workflow” (which you did, obviously), you’ll see exactly how many types of workflow software are out there. When you’re just getting started with workflows – which you are – it’s difficult to pinpoint which one offers exactly what you need for the best value. 

So here are a few of our favorite workflow-building tools:

Airtable is how we stay organized. With Airtable you can set up personalized views, custom kanban boards, and automate everything from creating a record to sending an email.

Miro is the perfect tool for outlining your workflow. Miro acts like a collaborative whiteboard where your entire team – whether remote or in-person – can work together to build that thing you need building.

Slack is the universal messaging hub for just about every team out there. And why not? Slack integrates with pretty much all the apps you work with. You can jump into huddles, record videos, and share files with everyone on your team – or just one. And there are the GIFs. Who doesn’t love a good GIF?

Process Street. You knew that was coming, right? Process Street workflows are the central core for everything we do. PTO requests, onboarding, help desk, creating this page… All done using a workflow. And – either through Zapier or our first-party Automations – all of those workflows can be connected to Slack, Airtable, and the rest of our software suite. 

What does a workflow look like?

This is the outline of a process:

Specifically, this is the outline of our content creation process. The workflow for this process has many, many more steps, a variety of conditional pathways, and a whole lot of automating.

But this is where it started. Eight steps to get from the beginning of an assignment to publication. 

If you asked someone on the content team to describe this process, I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t be so succinct or so specific. Some steps would be elaborated on, some would be skipped over, and the description itself would probably be pretty nonlinear. 

That’s just how people’s brains work. That’s why it’s important to outline your process before you build the workflow. 

Now, each of those eight steps becomes a section within a workflow. Then we break each step down to individual tasks. 

For example, in the first step, “Writer receives an assignment,” the workflow tasks look something like this:

  1. Topic is chosen (Airtable record generated via Slack)
  2. Due date set (added to calendar via Process Street workflow)
  3. Publication date set (added to calendar via workflow)
  4. Editor is assigned (Airtable record updated via workflow)
  5. Design team is assigned (Airtable record generated via Airtable)
  6. Writer receives assignment (notification received via Slack and Process Street)

Those six tasks are each broken down into a single action. This simplifies the process and ensures that nothing gets left out. Without those automations, it’d be very easy to accidentally set a due date but not the publication date. 

If those dates were manually entered in for everyone, each team member might end up working towards different due dates – which could cause major bottlenecks down the line.

How to make the most out of your workflows

Remember that a workflow is a tool. It’s a useful tool and a versatile tool, but it can’t do everything. 

When building your workflow, you need to have a clear understanding of the process your working on and the outcome you want to achieve. Identify which tasks can be automated and which need a more hands-on approach. 

Most importantly, keep working on it. A good workflow is constantly changing because your process – and your needs – will constantly change. If something in your workflow has gotten redundant or irrelevant, get rid of it. If you add a new step to the process, make sure you add it to your workflow as well. 

A good workflow should make work easier, not more complicated. 

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