May 7, 2018

How to Create a Workflow

We all have informal processes for the things we do every day, from getting ready to go to work to deciding which emails to respond to first thing in the morning. Processes help us make sense of the complex things we do, and getting them down on paper helps cement them in our minds and gives us a chance to scrutinize and improve them.

This is where workflows come into play.

See "Simplify to Succeed: 6 Quick Workflow Tips" for tips on how to improve your workflows.

Workflows are essentially visual representations of repeated processes. They guide users through the process step-by-step and give them information about who is performing each task. Workflows were created by Fredrick Taylor and Henry Gantt for manufacturing teams, but today, workflows are used by teams in virtually every industry.

Here’s why your team should be using workflows and how to create one that works for you.

Why Workflows?

First, workflows bring consistency to processes and projects in your department. They make processes easier and more efficient, and they help your team produce consistent and predictable results.

Secondly, documented workflows also measure your process to identify problem areas or bottlenecks. If you are constantly missing deadlines or finishing a process only to find that your final product has errors or missing pieces, looking back at a documented process helps you see exactly where things are going wrong.

Even the process of creating a workflow is a useful opportunity to find places where you can improve.

Finally, documented workflows make training new team members and working with other departments easier. For people who are unfamiliar with your processes, a documented workflow created with thought and consideration is a lot more helpful than a verbal rundown of a process that hasn’t gone through any trial and error.

Building a detailed and useful workflow can take some time, but it’s well worth the investment. Building one will be different each time depending on how familiar your team is with the process and how complex it is. However, the following steps will guide you through building a workflow that will help your team with any of the processes you use regularly.

1. Decide What You’re Documenting

If there is a process that your team members repeat often, it’s probably worth documenting. This is especially true for processes that are complex or involve multiple people, that have an end product that is visible to clients or stakeholders, or that your team has had trouble with in the past.

However, you’ll want to strike a balance between having no documented processes and documenting everything that every member of your team could possibly do on any given day.

There are no set rules about what processes you should or shouldn’t document, so look at the processes your team is using, talk with them, and use your own knowledge of their performance to determine which processes you want to document as workflows.

2. Determine the Scope of the Workflow 

One of the benefits of having a documented workflow is that it can work similarly to a project scope and help you avoid unnecessary additions. With informal processes, it’s easy to add new work in along the way because there’s nothing guiding or limiting what you’re doing.

Anyone who is involved with the workflow should give input on its scope. If the process has been undocumented up to this point, it’s likely that everyone uses different strategies and achieves different outcomes. Take the best strategies and outcomes for the task and eliminate tasks that are redundant or otherwise slow progress.

Take some time to talk with your team about what should and shouldn’t be included in this particular workflow that you’re defining and how expansive the end result will be.

3. Determine the Steps of your Workflow

To start out, simply list the steps of the workflow as you know them. Assemble everyone involved in this workflow, in-person if possible, to lay out these steps in more detail.

As you discuss each steps, ask your assembled team this question: will each step in this workflow help your team achieve its goal? As number four in this list of workflow tips explains, you should begin with your end goal in mind.

You should also think about ways to improve the workflow. That is one reason everyone’s input is so important: some people may have found ways to streamline or automate parts of the workflow that can help the entire team.

Lastly, look for steps in the process that might add extra time or expense, such as outsourcing work or waiting on approval from someone outside your team. Extra time and expense adds complications to your workflow, so eliminate them whenever possible.

4. Estimate a Length of Time for Each Step

Once your team agrees on the steps in your workflow, estimate the time it takes to complete each step and document it. Don’t think of this as a time limit; instead, think of it as a tool for people who are new to the process. Even a rough estimate can provide context for new team members or people outside your regular team.

If your team has used this process for a long time, this should be simple. If it’s a process that is new to your team, it’s okay to skip this step for now and come back to it when you have a better grasp on it.

5. Translate the Process Steps into a Visual Workflow

When you build this workflow, you’ll use shapes and colors to represent steps in the workflow and designate who is performing them. If your organization doesn’t have established guidelines for creating workflows, you have some freedom with how you use them, but there are some standards for shapes you should stick to.

Each shape signifies a different step. An elongated circle represents the beginning or end of the workflow, a diamond represents a decision that must be made, and a rectangle represents a process within the workflow. These shapes are all connected by arrows to define their relationship.

In the example below, the creation and approval process for content would go through drafting, editing, and design before ultimately going live on a blog or website.

Adding colors will help you describe the process in even more detail while keeping your workflow simple and clean.

For example, you can use a different color to represent each member of your team so that anyone looking at the workflow knows exactly who they need to talk to about each step. You can also use colors to identify optional steps or those that need to be singled out.

Keep in mind that workflows don’t have to be a straight line. Workflows with built-in reviews and approvals will have different routes depending on if a task is approved or sent back for revision. Workflows that represent processes with various outcomes will branch out at the end to show each one.

When it comes to creating a workflow, you can purchase a specialized program made specifically for building workflows. These programs are useful if you spend a lot of time creating workflows or if the ones you’re building are especially complex.

You can also use programs like Word and Excel, using online tutorials and templates to get started. What you use will depend on your unique team and processes.

6. Revise and Refine the Workflow

Process changes are common and normal, and your workflows can and should evolve along with them. The beauty of defined workflows is that they make the details of a process visible, giving you the opportunity to consider different, and possibly more effective, ways of doing things.

As you implement newly defined workflows, watch for bottlenecks or problem areas. You should also solicit feedback from your team and listen to what they have to say. You can even set aside a regular time to review your workflows with your team and suggest changes. Embrace the process of creating and revising workflows and work toward being a more efficient team.

Creating a workflow is not just about getting a process down on paper; it’s also about looking at the process with a critical eye and finding ways to improve. This allows your team to think about the things they do every day and work toward being more efficient and effective, both individually and as a team.

Get our free download "How to Manage Compliance Workflows and Mitigate Risk" for advice specific to compliance workflows.

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