What Is a Workflow?

Neil Miller

November 21st, 2018 workflow  

What Is a Workflow?

A workflow is a sequence of tasks that processes a set of data. Workflows occur across every kind of business and industry. Anytime data is passed between humans and/or systems, a workflow is created. Workflows are the paths that describe how something goes from being undone to done, or raw to processed.

Workflow Types

Workflows happen throughout the workspace. Some are very structured, and others are unstructured, but workflows exist anytime data moves from one task to another. Here are three major types of workflow.

Process Workflow

A process workflow happens when the set of tasks is predictable and repetitive. This means that before an item begins the workflow, you know exactly what path it should take. Process workflows are set up to handle an unlimited number of items going through them. An example is a purchase requisition approval workflow. As soon as it starts, the workflow is set with few variations, and you can process any number of items in a single workflow.

Case Workflow

In a case workflow, you don’t know the path required to complete the item at the start. The path reveals itself as more data is gathered. Support tickets and insurance claims are good examples of cases. It’s not clear right from the start how these items will be processed; only after some investigation will the path reveal itself. Similar to process workflows, case workflows can handle any number of items, although they are dependent on a human or an intelligent bot to discern the right path.

Project Workflow

Projects have a structured path similar to processes, but there may be more flexibility along the way. Think about releasing a new version of your website. You can predict with good accuracy the sequence of tasks required to complete the project. However, a project workflow is only good for one item. Another website release may not be done for a long time and will not likely follow exactly the same path.

Most resources you’ll find online will only refer to workflows in the sense of a process workflow, but the other two are just as important to consider as much of the work around the office falls into those two categories.

What Isn’t a Workflow?

If data isn’t moving, you don’t have a workflow. For example, if you are managing a list of unconnected tasks (walk the dog, go to the grocery store, pick up the dry cleaning), this isn’t a workflow, but task management. For it to be a workflow, the tasks have to be connected in a way to be a part of something bigger.

How Can I Spot Workflows Around Me?

Workflows hide in many places. If you have a lot of emails you mindlessly pass down an invisible chain, that’s a workflow. If you print the same form over and over again, that’s a workflow. If you find yourself turning to a spreadsheet to organize dynamic data, that’s a workflow. If you find your work is getting held up because someone else isn’t doing their job well, that’s a workflow.

Here’s an example of an employee onboarding workflow.

Employee Onboarding Wokflow

Are Workflows and Processes the Same Thing?

No. Workflows only describe the sequence of tasks. A process is a broader term that also encompasses the data, forms, reports, and notifications required to get an item from start to finish in a structured environment.

For example, the workflow for purchase orders might be Initiator => Manager Approval => Procurement Processing. But the process also involves a data set of approved vendors to choose from, the individual sequential number assigned to the purchase order, how procurement is notified, the budget available, and many more factors.

Are Workflows and Checklists the Same Thing?

No. A checklist is an elementary version of a workflow. Checklists only work for processes and projects but often lack the ability to share across team members. Checklists also make it difficult to track items that need to go back to an earlier stage in a workflow.

Checklists do a poor job processing workflows that are conditional on certain data. For example, if you are making marketing campaigns, but you want to follow a different workflow based on what platform will be used to distribute the campaign, you would need to have as many checklists as you have platforms. Whereas with a more sophisticated workflow, you can handle all the items in a single workflow.

Be careful before choosing a workflow tool that looks more like an automated checklist as you will quickly find limitations in how it can handle your items.

Human-Centric vs. System-Centric Workflows

In human-centric workflows, most of the tasks are assigned to humans. These might require approving data, creating something new, or double-checking information.

In system-centric workflows, most of the tasks are done by a machine and require little to no human involvement. For example, to create a financial report, a workflow might be triggered at the same time every month to grab certain data from different systems, parse it into a report, and email the report to all the stakeholders. A system can perform all of these tasks.

There are also document-centric workflows where the entire workflow is built around a document. A good example is a contract for leasing some office space. Everything that happens as a part of the workflow needs to be added or modified on the document and the end result should be a contract that correctly captures all the data in the workflow including digital signatures.

Automated vs. Manual Workflows

In a manual workflow, a human is responsible for pushing each item from one task to another. For example, when an employee fills out a reimbursement claim, she must email it to her manager for approval. After approval, she must email it to the finance department. The finance department must go into the software and schedule a payment and then email the employee to say it is complete.

In an automated workflow, when a human completes a task, she is not responsible for passing the data on to the next task. The workflow is programmed to handle this. The system manages the flow of tasks including notifications, deadlines, and reminders.

In the same reimbursement example, the employee might fill out a form and hit a submit button. It would automatically trigger a notification for the manager to review it and click Approve. This would automatically take it to the finance team for processing, or if the amount is small enough, it would trigger a task to release the payments and send an automated email to the employee.

Tracking items is much easier in automated workflows. To track items in a manual workflow, you must either manually update a spreadsheet, or send lots of messages and emails to know the status. Automated workflows will show you instantly where the item is in the workflow.

Automating workflows has many other benefits including:

  • Eliminating redundant tasks
  • Improving efficiency
  • Simplifying delegation of tasks
  • Reducing processing time
  • Giving greater visibility
  • Establishing accountability

How Can I Create and Manage Automated Workflows?

There are many tools out there that will digitize your workflows, but you really want to find one that can be automated as much as possible to help you manage workflow better.

To automate your workflows, you’ll need to use workflow management software. Workflow management software will allow you to create a visual representation of the workflow including all conditional tasks and exceptions. The best tools will let you create a robust form which acts as a carrier for all the data required to process the item correctly.

Then, the software will take care of running the workflows automatically on its own. A user should be able to fill out an initial form and the software takes care of moving the item from one task to another until it is completed.

Most workflow management software is only geared toward process workflows (those that are predictable and repetitive). However, you should try to find a solution that can also let you handle case workflows and project workflows from the same platform rather than using different tools for all of these situations.

Organizations that are serious about workflow management usually have a central workflow management software that each department can use to create their own workflows.

Try KiSSFLOW

If you are looking for a way to organize and manage your workflows, try KiSSFLOW. It’s trusted by over 10,000 companies because it understands workflows and lets you manage the things that are important to you.

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