What is a Workflow? A Guide to Workflow Management

A workflow is a repeatable sequence of tasks or activities that produce a desired result. In a business context, a workflow defines the steps and resources involved in getting work done and how they interact. For example, an accounts payable workflow might include the following steps:

  1. The Accounts Payable (AP) team receives an invoice from a supplier.
  2. An AP team member checks that the invoice matches the purchase order.
  3. An AP team member verifies with the Operations team that the billed products or services have been received.
  4. Once verified, the invoice is approved for payment. (If there’s a variance, an AP team member sends the invoice to the Purchasing department to investigate and resolve).
  5. Payment is made, and the invoice is marked as paid in the accounting system.

Workflows ensure that important business processes are done the right way every time. They delineate a start and endpoint for a process, the direction of movement through the workflow, key decision points, and responsibility for each step of the workflow.

Workflows can be manual or automated. In a manual workflow, people are responsible for moving an item through the process; in an automated workflow, a workflow management system manages the flow of tasks via notifications, deadlines and reminders.

What is workflow management?

Put simply, workflow management is the coordination of the various workflows within a business. Workflow management seeks first to understand the workflows used across an organisation, then looks at ways to optimise them to boost efficiency and productivity – often by using automation.

What are the benefits of workflow management?

Effective workflow management allows your business to operate more efficiently. Regardless of your company’s type or size, you’ll have a number of common processes – some that you barely even think about – that you repeat regularly.

Hiring and onboarding new employees, managing your roster, conducting stocktakes, responding to customer service requests and managing your social media marketing efforts are all examples of repeatable processes. Defining a workflow for each of these tasks will support you to:

Improve your operational efficiency

Formalising a workflow will ensure tasks are completed by the right people, in the correct order, within the required timeframe. With everyone clear on the process and their role within it, you’ll enjoy better employee productivity, and your business will run more efficiently.

Eliminate unnecessary activities

Creating workflows and updating them regularly will allow you to identify tasks or entire processes that are not adding value to your business. Interrogate your workflows to check for unnecessary steps, roles and activities.

Reduce costs

Workflow management will support you to drive down costs by spending less time on duplicate tasks, employee onboarding and training, supervising staff and fixing problems. An optimised workflow will help you and your employees to manage your time more effectively and deliver the same results with fewer resources.

Automate processes

By documenting your processes, you can easily identify opportunities to optimise and automate aspects of your operations. Effective workflow management will support you to improve all aspects of operations management.

What are the key components of workflows?

Each element of a workflow is designed to demonstrate the flow between each step. Workflow components are either:

Inputs

The materials needed to complete a task. This might be people, capital, systems, equipment or information that’s required to complete a step in the workflow.

Transformations

The actions that move the input to its next state. This might be submitting an online form, approving an invoice to be paid or assigning a job to a team member.

Outputs

The result of each transformation. This might be an approved leave application, an order that’s ready to be fulfilled or a marketing message that’s been approved to go live.

How to create a workflow

It’s easy to create a workflow for various processes across your business using the following steps.

1. Identify your resources

This will help you to understand how your processes currently work. Are they managed manually, or is the process partly or fully digital? Which people or teams take part, and what role do they play?

2. List the tasks to be achieved

Be specific about what needs to happen at each step for the workflow to be completed successfully.

3. Identify who’s responsible for each step

Capture all stakeholders, their responsibilities, and what they need to perform that task efficiently and effectively. Differentiate between those who need to take action (for example, to initiate an action or approve a request) and those who only need oversight of the process.

4. Create a workflow diagram

A workflow diagram is a visual representation of an entire workflow. You don’t need specialist software – tools like PowerPoint or Google Slides will allow you to create a simple workflow diagram using standard symbols for actions and decision points.

5. Test the workflow

This is an opportunity to find and fix any problems before you implement a new workflow. Involve key stakeholders to help you figure out if you need to make any adjustments.

6. Train employees on the new workflow

If you want a new workflow to stick, you’ll need to convince your employees of its benefits and give them the confidence to use it.

7. Implement the new workflow

Once it’s tested and your people are trained, your workflow is ready to be deployed. Check in with stakeholders initially and every few months to ensure the new workflow is serving its purpose.

Although many business owners understand why workflow is important, it can often be challenging to carve out time to focus on it. Start by capturing and optimising a small number of workflows and measure the impact on your overall business performance.