Every business has certain processes that must be followed frequently. Businesses need to recruit and onboard new members of staff, set up and manage new projects, compile monthly reports, or field customer queries. And while you surely know how to complete each of these processes (having done them many times, no doubt), you likely aren’t working with optimal efficiency.
Workflow management ensures the design and optimisation of these processes so that they take up less time and are less vulnerable to human error. With good workflow practices in place for a complex project, it’s much easier to assign tasks and responsibilities, ensuring that nothing is missed and the project is completed on time.
To use such workflows effectively, of course, you need strong workflow management. This involves clearly understanding what needs to happen, making informed decisions about how long particular tasks will take, and confirming that everyone involved is fully aware of what’s required of them and how things are progressing overall.
Starting with the basics and finishing with actionable tips, this guide to designing effective workflows will help you get to grips with workflow management and how you can effectively reshape your business to take advantage of it.
What is a workflow?
A workflow is a sequence of activities designed to produce a certain result. You assemble a series of steps, explain how they tie together, define the objectives, and list all the resources needed to complete them. The point of this is that a well-built workflow will in essence produce the same result every time it’s executed correctly.
Sensible businesses rely on workflows because they provide structural and organisational stability, making it possible to quickly and efficiently deliver consistent results. They also readily support the vital process of iterative improvement. Let’s look at an example of how.
In a customer service department, the receipt of a query or complaint should lead into a set process that results in the provision of a response and a suitable resolution. This process should include first recording the message, tagging it appropriately, acknowledging receipt, and assigning it to the most relevant team member. After that, it should involve manually assessing the issue, finding a solution, issuing a response, and marking it as resolved.
Having that process clearly set out in a workflow will allow you to analyse each step and figure out which parts are slowing things down. Perhaps the tagging process is holding everything back, in which case you can look for a faster way to get it done. By repeating a workflow over and over again, you can steadily turn it into a hyper-efficient process.
Workflows are important because they provide structure and organisation, helping with process optimisation. They make it easy to predict the outcome and measure the result of processes in your business.
What is workflow management?
Tying into the iterative process we just looked at, workflow management involves the ongoing optimisation of your workflows. Every time you execute a workflow, you can draw upon the results and the holdups to identify which parts worked smoothly and which caused problems. As a result, you’ll always have some idea of what you can improve.
What is workflow automation?
Most workflows contain minor or major tasks that don’t fully warrant manual effort. Drawing upon the wonders of modern technology, workflow automation uses myriad automation tools and systems to account for those tasks without needing much human intervention. The result is vastly-improved efficiency, lowered costs, improved speed, and reduced risk.
What’s the difference between workflow management and project management?
Workflow management and project management might seem very similar on the surface, but there are some key differences between the two concepts.
Workflow management arranges clearly-defined actions into fixed sequences that don’t fundamentally change over time. Particular actions in those sequences can be tweaked and streamlined (customer service enquiries can be dealt with much more quickly, for instance), but the sequences themselves — with their steady goals — aren’t intended to be adjusted.
Project management involves change at a much greater level. The proposal for any given project contains unique tasks and is fundamentally flexible. While there will be a strong idea of what the main goal is, the actions eventually used to achieve it will likely differ significantly from those set out in the initial proposal.
Strong project management is about adaptability, knowing how to pivot based on results, move deadlines, rearrange lists of priorities, and remove or add tasks as needed. Strong workflow management requires consistency, brevity, and creativity.
Workflow vs process
The terms workflow and process are often used interchangeably, but there are instances in which it’s necessary to use them with clear distinction. In such instances, bear the following definitions in mind. A process is a sequence of steps used to reach a particular outcome, while a workflow is the coordination, implementation and improvement of that sequence.
What is workflow management software?
Workflow management doesn’t necessarily require software, but using workflow tools such as Workiro can help you keep track of progress and handle the automation of relevant parts. If you’re looking at how to promote workflow efficiency, then finding and using the right software isn’t a task you can afford to take lightly.
A workflow management system will create the infrastructure to organise, control and track a business process as a workflow. It will allow you to specify a workflow, create a user interface for entering workflow data, upload files, assign tasks, notify relevant people or departments, set permissions, and report on progress.
There are three workflow types that you can create in such a system:
- A sequential workflow that progresses from one task to the next as soon as the former has been completed.
- A state machine workflow that can go backwards if a dependency requires it to.
- A rule-driven workflow where rules assigned to each task can automatically reroute the workflow according to certain conditions.
How to write a workflow
If you’re going to use a workflow to improve your business, it’s essential that you set it out and record it completely. This will provide you with a road map to use in the future, improve visibility across the board, and grant you further insight into how to improve the workflow.
Complex formal workflows (sometimes referred to as analytical pipelines) can require the use of several different software systems.
Each step in the workflow will have three parts: input, transformation, and output. Input concerns the resources required to complete a step. Transformation concerns the rules that guide how these resources are used. Output concerns the resources produced by the step — resources that will feed into the following step.
Furthermore, the workflow will define actors, activities, results, and states. These things concern the people (or systems) responsible for particular steps (actors), the steps themselves (activities, or tasks), the outcomes being pursued (results), and the monitoring elements that connect the steps and ensure they’re progressing as needed (states).
More simple workflows, on the other hand, can be recorded as straightforward sequences of steps in diagrams or flowcharts. Having established this, let’s go through how you can write your own workflow:
1. Decide the outcome
Before you can write a workflow, you need to clearly define the job or task you’re trying to handle (and what you want to achieve in the end). Depending on the scenario, you might already have a process in place that you could codify, or you might need to start with a blank slate. To find out, talk to your relevant employees.
2. Break down each step in the process
With your overall task and outcome/s decided, you need to pick out the steps that must be taken to get the results you’re looking for. Start by listing everything needed. When that’s done, you should start ordering them. This will depend to some extent on their relative importance, but it will mainly come down to dependencies. If step B needs resources that only step A can produce, there’s clearly only one way you can order things.
3. Assign responsibilities for each step
At this stage, you must make it clear who is responsible for each task in the workflow, how they’ll be notified of their responsibilities and deadlines, and who’ll be in charge of ensuring that everyone involved is doing their part (in other words, who’ll oversee the workflow — this could be you, or someone you trust with the task).
4. Establish a time frame
Through estimation and your existing analytics, come up with an average completion time for each step and add it in as a broad target. Once you have your workflow up and running, you’ll be able to steadily refine your time expectations, so don’t expect to start out with an accurate total of how long the entire workflow will take.
5. Create the workflow
Once you’ve been through all the steps up to this point, you can set out your workflow in a formal document. There are many different ways to format a workflow: you could use a simple step-by-step text document, a flow chart, or even a Gantt chart.
6. Review and automate steps
Your workflow is now ready to use, but your work isn’t done. As the steps are implemented, continue to look for opportunities to automate elements of the work or streamline particular tasks. For instance, a support-centric workflow that’s taking too long could benefit from a reworked contact form capable of collecting much more valuable information, as that information could speed up the rest of the workflow. You can also look for interesting new workflow tools that could bring something to the table.
What are agile workflows?
Agile workflows don’t follow the same linear process that other workflow types use. Instead, the focus is on delivering small parts of large projects so they can get feedback as soon as possible. Two of the most popular agile workflow frameworks are Scrum and Kanban.
The Scrum framework is made up of short ‘sprints’ of work (no longer than two weeks) in which certain pieces of work are completed. After each sprint is done, the team responsible gets valuable feedback that ultimately informs the course of the next sprint.
At the start of each day, the team has a ‘daily scrum’ meeting for discussion of what they did the previous day, what they will do with the rest of that day, and what blockers they face.
A Kanban workflow, meanwhile, is based on the full list of tasks that need to be completed for a project (otherwise known as the ‘backlog’). This list is ordered by priority so that team members can decide which tasks they should work on next.
On a Kanban board, tasks are divided into three columns: to do, in progress, and complete. The benefit of this workflow is that it's easy to see who is working on what and how much progress is being made.
Workflows are key to streamlining business processes and ensuring that work is completed with optimal efficiency and minimal mistakes. If you’re going to use them effectively, you must take advantage of workflow tools like Workiro — only then can you smoothly keep track of tasks, monitor progress, and adhere to all deadlines.