What Are Workflow Diagrams?

8 min read

Learn about what workflow diagrams are, the most common types, how to create a diagram and the benefits of using them for your business.

In most professional fields, industries and organizations today, it’s likely that at some point, you'll engage with workflow diagrams. These are invaluable tools that simplify learning and make business processes clearer. They’re fundamental to making better business decisions and employing efficiency for better business outcomes.

Because workflow diagrams are such a foundational part of many business operations, it’s optimal to understand the basic elements of a workflow diagram, the common types and how and when to use them.

What is a workflow diagram?  

A workflow diagram is a visual layout of a process, project or job in the form of a flow chart. It’s a highly effective way to impart the steps more easily in a business process, how each one will be completed, by whom and in what sequence.

Workflow diagrams are commonly used to do the following:    

  • Employ a holistic visual of business processes and information flows
  • Equip employees with a better understanding of their roles and responsibilities  
  • Reveal process redundancies and bottlenecks
  • Safeguard against risk

You can create a workflow diagram manually or use software automation to create one more easily. There are many software options on the market today that enable you to make workflow diagrams. Likewise, many organizations use software to automate the workflow process.

The benefits of a workflow diagram 

Workflow diagrams make work easier and your organization more secure overall. Generally, using a workflow diagram benefits your business in four primary ways: 

  1. Optimizes operations: Workflow diagrams create greater efficiency by streamlining business processes. For any-sized business, optimizing workflows increases productivity, decreases inefficiencies and can result in cost savings or increased revenue.  
  2. Provides documentation: Not only do workflow charts serve as a helpful visual representation, but they provide the necessary documentation for areas like legal, compliance or audit requirements.  
  3. Creates clear communication: The tool provides employees, different departments and organizations as a whole with a meaningful visualization for a job or process flow. Workflow diagrams clarify communication channels and simplify understanding of specific responsibilities for new employees and large departments. 
  4. Strengthens security: Lastly, workflow diagrams create a more secure organization. Maintaining workflow diagrams to track information security processes ensures your business stays on top of any security gaps. These visual guidelines help to implement and support security best practices.

Efficiency is best realized when organizations strike a balance in managing costs and value. To that end, workflow diagrams are a helpful means of analyzing and mediating these business goals for better growth outcomes.   

What is the difference between a workflow diagram and flowchart?  

It should be noted that a workflow diagram and flowchart are not one and the same. A workflow diagram is a type of flowchart, and a flowchart is used for system diagrams other than workflows.    

Basic workflow shapes and elements

Workflow diagrams are composed of standardized simple symbols, shapes or pictures that illustrate each step of a workflow. First, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the common shapes and how they are used:

  • Oval: Defines the starting and ending point of a workflow diagram.
  • Rectangle: Conveys a step in the process or an action that needs to be taken.
  • Arrow: Shows what step to take next and the flow of the direction.
  • Diamond: Symbolizes a decision that’s required to be able to take the next step.
  • Parallelogram: Indicates an input or output of data in a workflow process.
  • Cylinder: Depicts data used in a process and how and where it can be accessed.

These are the most elementary symbols. Of course, it can take time to become proficient with these shapes and symbols. Many organizations today opt instead to use pictures with arrows.

Workflow diagrams are either a linear or conditional process

There are several types of workflow diagrams (more on these below), but there are only two process structures: linear and conditional diagrams:

  • Linear sequence: A linear workflow diagram is the simplest type. It’s a straightforward step-by-step path with no alternative steps. You might find this as an evacuation path located in office buildings.  
  • Conditional sequence: These are more complex workflow diagrams. They illustrate that certain conditions or actions are necessary to move to one step or opt for a different step or path altogether. Most workflow diagrams will include some conditional sequences. A student admission process or timesheet approval process are just a few examples of this kind of conditional sequence diagram.

The origins of the workflow diagram

The Industrial Revolution precipitated the need for more efficient systems due to the complexity of managing resources and big industry.

Henry Gantt, a nineteenth-century mechanical engineer and management consultant, first developed a workflow diagram as a process map to sequence and prioritize tasks. Gantt partnered with Frederick Winslow Taylor, a management science specialist, to originate workflow processes as a new form of scientific management related to business. The result is the Gannt workflow diagram, which is still in use today.

The pair’s work jumpstarted deeper study into workflow diagramming for better processes and quality management.  

Workflow diagrams and business operations approaches  

Six SIGMA approach

As a direct result of Gantt and Winslow's work, the workflow diagram evolved as a starting point for the widely used operational approach known as "Six SIGMA."

Much has been written on this common business approach. In sum, the Six SIGMA method enables businesses to streamline processes, customer interactions and experiences by using common metrics and five to seven steps. Workflow diagrams can better address any area within these Six SIGMA steps and methods, such as workflow analysis of production to fine-tuning steps in a customer's e-commerce journey. 

Theory of Constraint 

Complimentary to the Six SIGMA approach is the "Theory of Constraint." In business practice, the "Theory of Constraint" holds that there will always be some limiting factor to consider in a business process. Bottlenecks, for example, due to resource constraints are one such factor. Consequently, workflow diagrams can reveal and offset these factors to decrease workflow inefficiencies.

Types of workflow diagrams and their functions

Workflow diagrams were originally developed to better illustrate repeatable tasks and work processes. Today, they convey work processes, systems and disciplines as process flowcharts, workflow charts, and workflow templates. 

There are several types of workflow diagrams. However, these diagrams are the most common ones used in business today:

  • ANSI diagram: The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) diagram standardized workflow diagram symbols, which originated from this type of diagram. This diagram is considered one of the original standards for workflows, and its symbols — the ones you learned about above — are used as a universal language of workflow symbols.  
  • SSD flowchart: Structured Systems Design (SSD) flowcharts are useful for large or complex projects. They allow for greater efficiency by breaking each leg of a project into more manageable steps. These are ideal for use-case scenarios.  
  • Swimlane diagram: A swim lane flowchart is constructed in a vertical fashion, like swim lanes in a pool. It shows the responsibilities for each task by each employee “lane.” It is useful for uprooting blocks in processes between departments.   
  • Data Flow diagram: This diagram is not typically considered a workflow diagram, per se. Instead, it charts the flow of data, not work, from sources (and departments, for example). However, it's a helpful means of illustrating a data flow process for which specific responsibilities and stakeholders can be included.   
  • UML Activity diagram: Unified Modeling Language, or a UML diagram, is a visual way to show system models. Software developers originally created and used this visual language as a standard way to construct system processes. Today, UML diagrams are not necessarily software-specific, but rather a visual depiction of conditional behavioral flows. For instance, UML activity diagrams are used for online shopping and ordering processes or developing an enterprise business website.  
  • SIPOC diagram: The Six SIGMA approach originated this form of workflow diagram. Supplier-Input-Process-Output-Customer (SIPOC) diagrams are often created as tables. They are used for organization-wide process improvements.
  • BPMN diagram: Business Process Model Notation (BPMN) diagrams are a type of diagram that depicts a flow of any business process. It is used for a high-level view analysis of enterprise processes, and across industries. In many instances, you’ll find that a BPMN diagram is made up of more than one chart. It is comprised of many sub-charts that display a business ecosystem, enterprise or industry as a whole.    
  • Warehouse flowchart: This type of chart conveys workflows for materials, operations and warehouse employees’ responsibilities and actions. It serves three main purposes: 
    • Materials management processes and responsibilities within a warehouse 
    • Customer-facing inventory flow 
    • Supply-chain path from origin to warehouse and distribution paths 

When to create a workflow diagram  

Though workflow diagrams are helpful for most processes and jobs, there are strategic points at which to implement one:

  • When you want to create a new process or improve existing ones 
  • When you introduce and integrate new software 
  • As a regular yearly or bi-annual update for security considerations

In other words, organizations use these visual tools to flesh out a process or make existing processes better and easier.

For many organizations, adopting new technology and software is a process wherein a workflow diagram can increase adoption and adoption of more advanced software features.  

Finally, organizations should consider updating workflow diagrams at commonly scheduled times within the year as a best security practice. For instance, use a workflow diagram to convey security policies related to remote work devices, third-party application usage and third-party software authorizations. 

How to create a workflow diagram  

Again, there are many workflow diagram software programs that allow you to create any type of workflow diagrams. These are typically no-code software that are drag-and-drop applications.

To create a workflow diagram, start by determining the goal of the workflow process:  Are you improving processes or creating new ones? 

Next, define the starting and ending points of a workflow, what determines these and consider whether there are conditional sequences that must be included:

  • Do employees or stakeholders need to take certain actions based on each step? What information is needed?
  • Who will access this information and how is it accessed? 
  • Are employee, customer, different departments or stakeholder feedback supported in the final workflow process?  
  • What data and decisions are necessary to take these steps? 

After completing the diagram, review it. Determine if there are duplicate processes or bottlenecks.

Overall, does the process match your high-level business goals? As a form of business analysis documentation, workflow diagrams enable you to quickly see whether processes support overarching priorities, such as customer or employee engagement, or an improved company culture.        

Workflow diagram use cases and applications 

Indeed, any organization can benefit from implementing workflow diagrams. Below are just a few fields where you will use these:

  • IT: IT departments and organizations use workflow diagrams for security monitoring. They can also be applied to equipment usage best practices and administration. 
  • Healthcare: In healthcare, workflow diagrams can greatly improve intake flows. They are also used to update employee protocols.   
  • Education: In education, institutions use them to map multiple department approval workflows as well as interdepartmental processes.  
  • Retail: Retail, as well as procurement, are industries in which workflow diagrams are often used. They help optimize supply chain processes and manufacturing. They are widely used to enhance customer experience

Workflow diagrams and IBM   

IBM solutions allows you to create any type of diagram with the Diagram Editor.

From business process mapping to business process modeling, the Diagram Editor enables secure workflow diagram solutions for businesses of any size. To learn more about how process mapping can benefit your business, visit IBM Solutions Process Mapping.

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