What is a workflow? Types, benefits, and examples
By: Jill Huettich
If you’ve heard the term “workflow” floating around the office, you may have wondered what the heck people were talking about and why. In short, a workflow refers to the way people get work done.
Think, for instance, of buying groceries—you probably have a workflow you follow to shop for groceries week after week. Perhaps it goes something like this:
- Look at recipes online to plan meals for the week ahead
- Create a grocery list
- Search for coupons using a grocery store app
- Grab cloth bags before leaving the house
- Drive to the grocery store
- Select the items that are on your grocery list
- Drive back home
You may have also discovered that when you think about your grocery shopping workflow, there are ways you could streamline it. For instance, perhaps you might look it over and realize that all of your grocery buying activities take three hours each week. However, by using a meal delivery subscription service, you could cut down on meal planning, saving yourself two hours per week.
This, by the way, is a perfect example of why companies document their workflows. When you can view a workflow in its entirety, it’s easier to pinpoint procedural bottlenecks, improve operational inefficiencies, and ultimately, save money.
However, before creating a workflow, it’s helpful to understand the difference between the various types of workflows that exist. That’s what we’ll review in this brief introductory guide. We’ll also explain the benefits of each workflow type and provide relevant examples of when you might want to use each one.
Workflow vs. process: what’s the difference?
Sometimes you may hear the terms “workflow” and “process” used interchangeably. However, while they do have some similarities, these words actually mean different things.
A workflow refers to the sequence of activities that people or departments undertake to get work done. Workflows are considered tactical in nature, because they illustrate step-by-step which activities need to be performed to complete a specific task.
By contrast, a process is broader and more all-encompassing than a workflow. Rather than just looking at a sequence of tasks, a process actually supports a business goal. For instance, onboarding new customers is an example of a process.
To simplify this even further, let’s return to our grocery buying example. We might say we have a process of eating nutritiously. Buying groceries is a workflow, because it consists of repeatable tasks we’re performing to achieve our overall goal of healthy eating.
3 common types of workflows
As mentioned earlier, there are actually several different types of workflows. In this next section, we’ll examine some of the most common.
1. Project workflow
A project workflow is ideal for keeping complex projects on track. So, in a project workflow, a manager might make a list of all project deliverables. Then, a series of activities could be diagrammed out, illustrating which tasks need to occur and in what order, to create each project deliverable.
For projects that have a lot of moving parts to them, a project workflow can be invaluable. For one thing, once a project workflow is represented visually, it’s very easy for project stakeholders to get a bird’s eye view of what needs to happen for the project to run smoothly, as well as identify any potential project bottlenecks.
However, as you might imagine, one downside of project workflows is that they aren’t repeatable from project to project. Still, while your projects might not be exactly the same, you may find occasional opportunities to reuse some project workflow information over again.
For instance, say there’s an IT project to create new software. One of the deliverables for such a project would be a document detailing the software’s specifications. The process of gathering those specifications probably wouldn’t change much from project to project—allowing for that section of the project workflow to be reused.
2. Case workflow
When envisioning a case workflow, it’s useful to think in terms of a problem that requires a solution—like an incoming IT help desk ticket.
Unlike other types of workflows, a case workflow doesn’t occur in a sequential, orderly fashion. Instead, two help desk tickets might go through completely different workflows, depending on the initial problem.
So, a case workflow is unique because the actual progression of steps isn’t known at the onset of the problem. Those steps can change along the way, or you might even reach one step before realizing you need to return to an earlier one.
To better illustrate this, let’s look at a hypothetical example of two employees who can’t access the Internet. One employee might need their laptop settings reconfigured.
By contrast, the other employee might have their laptop configured correctly already, and even so, still can’t access the Internet. Now, perhaps the data security department will need to get involved, since the problem appears to be unrelated to the laptop’s settings.
At any rate, case workflows are used for items where the correct path isn’t known from the very beginning and is instead, determined along the way.
3. Process workflow
Of the three types of workflows mentioned in this article, process workflows are what most people tend to be familiar with. Process workflows are used to depict repetitive, predictable tasks.
So, for instance, a process workflow might illustrate how vendor invoices get paid, how website content gets created, or how vacation time gets approved. Within a process workflow diagram, the following things are clearly delineated:
- Which tasks need to be performed and when
- Which departments are responsible for handling those tasks
A process workflow also spells out what should occur if there’s a problem within the process. Say, for instance, that you have a process workflow illustrating how vendors get paid. The workflow diagram should include exceptions within the process, such as what occurs if a vendor’s invoice doesn’t get approved.
These are the main types of workflows, and as you can see, the type you’ll want to use will depend on what you’re trying to depict.
However, regardless of the workflow you choose, you’ll find that by documenting such important information, it’ll be even easier to improve your operational efficiency, cut costs, and make better business decisions.
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