Workflow vs Process: What’s the Difference?

Arunkumar Balakrishnan

January 10th, 2018 workflow  

When you start researching workflows vs processes, you might start wondering if there is any difference at all. It is confusing for many people, but it doesn’t end with just the definition of the two words. Understanding the conceptual differences between workflows vs processes can help you organize your business better.

Laying Tracks

Let’s talk about trains for a bit. It takes a lot of thinking and design to get materials from one station to another. One essential element in a train system is the tracks. 

The tracks are a predetermined direction for the engine and cars to follow. The tracks might lead to different stations before getting to the final destination. They also will have some built-in flexibility to bypass certain stations or take an alternate path when needed.

In the world of business processes, the tracks are the workflow. They’re the path the train must follow. A workflow can be very long and include multiple stops. Or, it might twist and turn and go to different stations depending on what the predetermined path is.

When you create a workflow for your business process, you are laying the tracks to show it where to go.

More Than Meets the Eye

When we start using the word “process”, we are no longer just talking about the tracks, but everything that is involved to get things from point A to point B.

To keep the train metaphor rolling, here are other important elements involved in the whole process:

Train Cars are Forms. While most train systems are transporting physical goods, business processes primarily work with data. Your form is the place where all the data sits while it is being transported from one place to another. An advanced workflow platform lets you automatically fill up your cars with data based on certain conditions, or hide data that different stations don’t need to see.

Stations are Tasks. The different stations or stops for a train system are places where the goods need to be dropped off. For business processes, stations are places where the data needs to be reviewed, edited, approved, or new data needs to be added.

Sometimes the train sits at a station for a long time. This might be for a manual task with someone who is very busy and can’t get to the task right away. Just like a busy train station, the backlog can create a lot of havoc for the whole system.

Some tasks can be automated. In our analogy, the train would still go to the station, but wouldn’t need to stop to spend any time there. Take an example where an email needs to be sent out to a vendor informing them that an invoice has been paid. If the task is manual, the train needs to sit at the station until someone from AP sends the email. If the task is automated, the train speeds by while a signal trigger the email.

Engines are Engines. Without powerful locomotive engines, it’s impossible to transport goods across the country. Similarly, a great process system needs a powerful engine to take tasks where they need to go. In the business environment, a system like KiSSFLOW gives you all the power you need make sure your processes stay on time.

There are many other parallels with train systems and processes as well such as timetables, reports, notifications, and integrations with other systems.

An Example

An easy example of a complete process might be of timesheet approvals.

The process starts with loading data onto the train cars, in this case, the number of hours worked. A highly functional form will be able to be templatized and will automatically pre-populate all the information for each employee.

Your workflow might be a fairly simple track that leads to manager approval and then to payroll processing. However, you may need to build another track that would conditionally go to another approval if overtime pay is requested. You could also create situations were approvals were automatically granted if the data in the cars matched certain criteria, so the engine wouldn’t need to slow down at that station.

Once the engine pulls into the last station, it can send a signal, like a telegram, to trigger a different system to make the payment and also create a journal entry in your financial system.  

Building Your Own System

If you are thinking about workflow vs process, think in terms of trains. Workflows are an essential part getting things done, but they aren’t the only piece you need to think about. A great process system also includes highly functional forms, notifications, communication and a powerful engine to pull everything along.

If you limit your thinking to just workflows, you might miss out on all the other essentials that are part of a process.

Try out KiSSFLOW and see what it is like to work with the system that was created for building entire processes rather than just workflows.