What is a Workflow?

Neil Miller

September 21st, 2018 workflow  

A workflow is a set of tasks that processes a set of data. Workflows are used across every kind of business and industry. Any time data is handed back and forth between humans and/or systems, a workflow is created.

Workflows have three essential qualities.

  • They must be a predictable progression of steps.
  • They must be repetitive.
  • They must involve at least two people.

If it doesn’t involve at least two people, it’s a checklist. If it’s a one-time activity, it’s a project. If you can’t predict the steps, you must be working at IDEO.

How can I spot workflows around me?

Workflows hide in many places. If you have a lot of emails you mindlessly pass on down an invisible chain, you might have a workflow. Anytime you print the same form over and over again, you might have a workflow. When you get frustrated that one person’s lack of initiative seems to prevent you from doing your job, you might have a workflow.

How is workflow management different from task and product management?

Task management is best for individuals who need a way to organize everything they have to get done. Project management handles one-time projects that aren’t likely to be repeated in exactly the same way.

Workflows are for processes that are predictable and repetitive. The data in task and project management is usually unstructured, but it is highly structured in workflows.


Workflow management system is a way to digitize repetitive and complex tasks so that they become efficient and bring about effective results. Read More


Example Workflow:

what-is-wokflow

Different types of workflows:

Manual Workflow

If workflows are manual, individuals are responsible for passing the data along from task to task.

For example, when an employee fills out a reimbursement claim, she must manually send it to a manager for approval who must manually send it to finance for processing.

Automatic Workflow

If a workflow is automatic, a system takes responsibility for managing the flow of the tasks including notifications, deadlines, and reminders. In an automated workflow, when a human or system completes a task, he is not responsible for passing the data on to the next task. The workflow automatically handles this.

In the same 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. Automatic workflows are helpful as they are very trackable so that you always know where in a workflow a certain item is.

What is Workflow Management?

Workflow management is what happens when you look at all the workflows in your entire organization. Typically each department has several workflows inside of it, but there are many workflows that flow from one department to another. Who is responsible for these?

Workflow management is the process of systematically improving and optimizing all the workflows that affect your teams. Workflow management can be a separate internal role, given over to consultants, or shared equally by department heads.

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

What is a Workflow Process?

Workflow process means something a bit larger than just the sequence of tasks. Process is a broader term that also encompasses the data, forms, reports, and notifications required to get an item from start to finish.

For example, if you look at the workflow process of a purchase requisition, you have the workflow of Initiator => Manager Approval => Procurement Processing. But on top of that, you also need to consider the data set of approved vendors to choose from, the sequential number of the Purchase Order, how procurement is notified, and the budget available.

Types of Tasks: Human or System

Tasks within a workflow may be done by a human or a system. Human tasks are completed by an individual. They might be data-entry, creating a document, or approving data.

System tasks are started by a trigger and the system completes the task assigned to it. These tasks might be translating data to a new format, taking data from one system to another, or analyzing data.

Arrangement of Tasks:

Workflows can include any number of tasks. They can be as simple as a single step or include hundreds of tasks. Some workflows tasks are sequential and are dependent on the previous task’s completion before they can start.

Simple-Sequential-workflow

Other tasks in a workflow tasks can happen simultaneously.

Simultaneous Workflow

Workflow steps can also be conditional (e.g. only if a purchase order crosses a certain amount).

Conditional Workflow

There can also be parallel branches for workflows. You can set up a workflow so that both branches always occur.

Parallel-Branches-workflow

Or the entire branch might be conditional on a certain data point.

Conditional-Parallel-Branches-workflow

Why should I automate a workflow?

Once you have your workflow in place, you can start thinking about automating it. When you automate a workflow, you are essentially handing the task of making sure each step gets completed to a workflow management software program. This means everyone can focus on their individual contributions.


Workflow automation is defining a series of tasks to complete a process and then removing all the manual steps. Learn More


Automating workflows can also help you:

  • Eliminate redundancies
  • Improve efficiency
  • Enhance delegation of tasks
  • Sequentially approach operations
  • Improve coordination and facilitate faster turnaround times
  • Facilitate greater visibility of progress
  • Establish accountability

What options do I have?

There are several workflow management software options out there. KiSSFLOW is trusted by over 10,000 users because it’s simple, intuitive, and priced right.

Take a free, 14-day test drive and start to see how addictive creating workflows can be!