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Illustration showing workflow diagram and business process management
What is a workflow?

A workflow is a system for managing repetitive processes and tasks which occur in a particular order. They are the mechanism by which people and enterprises accomplish their work, whether manufacturing a product, providing a service, processing information or any other value-generating activity.

Within business process management, a workflow can be defined as a simple series of individual tasks, while a business process is considered more complex, consisting of multiple workflows, information systems, data, people and their activity patterns. A workflow is distinguished by its simplicity and repeatability, and it is generally visualized with diagram or checklist.

Workflow management software assists in simplifying and optimizing a business process within an organization. It largely does this by coordinating interactions among different stakeholders or between individuals and information systems. Workflow management systems route tasks to the appropriate employee at the right time, providing the pertinent information and nudge to expedite work along the overall process. It also supports manual and automated tasks through document management for activities, like expense reports.

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Workflow: its origins and evolution

Frederick Taylor, a mechanical engineer, is credited with the scientific management theories that are foundational to workflows. He sought to increase industrial efficiency by analyzing manufacturing processes empirically with the goal of reducing waste and standardizing best practices.

His theories along with those of Henry Gantt—the developer of the popular Gantt chart— continue to inform project management and industrial engineering today. Workflows help to plan and monitor projects in a methodical and logical way, allowing teams to achieve important deadlines and milestones.

The concept of workflow has also been used within the related discipline of operations research, which applies analytical methods to examine the nature of work. In operations research, techniques from statistics, game theory, and artificial intelligence are utilized in combination with management science to solve complex real-world problems.

Workflow mapping and diagrams

Since workflows are composed of discrete step-by-step tasks, they can be easily visualized through a diagram or flowchart. Workflow mapping, also known as process mapping, provides a deeper understanding of the overall workflow process, enabling optimization and/or full or partial automation.

Workflow diagrams are built using the following steps:

  1. Determine a process to map. Some types of workflows are self-contained with very narrow parameters and little variation in their internal processes; others are more loosely defined. To make the biggest impact, you may want to prioritize a process that’s struggling to achieve outcomes, or a process that impacts customer satisfaction.

  2. Gather information and identify stakeholders. Gather those who have deep knowledge of the process that you’re looking to optimize. These subject matter experts (SMEs) provide more understanding around where handoffs in the process occur, such as stakeholders, sequence of steps, timelines, resources, etc. They can also highlight some of the problem areas, such as bottlenecks and redundancies, which may compromise efficiency. During this stage of the process, you want to document all relevant information around the process. 
  3. Outline the workflow steps. Determine where the current process starts and end and the sequence of steps in between. While the level of detail can vary, information around inputs, outputs, metrics, and stakeholders are typically included.

  4. Represent the workflow process as a flowchart. A workflow tool would be ideal for documentation, providing a paperless, centralized place for team members to easily share and access process information. During this stage, redundancies in the process can be more easily seen, inspiring ways to streamline a given process. 

  5. Get feedback. Review this workflow template with stakeholders for validation and feedback. As teams identify areas where errors or bottlenecks frequently occur, they can collectively align on process improvements—e.g. the consolidation, elimination, or re-ordering of steps. Popular process methodologies, such as Six Sigma and the Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement, can also be applied during this stage.

  6. Finalize the flowchart. This should include adjustments based on feedback. Workflow engines partially automate how teams operate, progressing individuals to the next task in a given process.
Workflow use cases

Manual processes are susceptible to human error, inefficiencies and inconsistencies that can disrupt product quality and customer experiences while automated systems are inherently efficient, consistent and scalable. Business process management (BPM) can assist in automating mundane tasks using technology known as robotic process automation (RPA). RPA is well-suited to perform repetitive tasks such as automatically generating an email response when a customer fills out a request form, transaction processing or communicating with multiple databases while processing an insurance claim.

Almost any operational procedure in any industry can be described as a workflow, assuming that it’s composed of repeatable steps. Some use cases include:

  • Company purchase orders: Approval workflows support managers and finance and procurement teams within organizations. Management goes through an approval process to establish budgets with their finance teams and procurement assists in them in ensuring that third-party agencies meet company and legal requirements for partnership.
  • E-commerce: After a customer submits an order and credit card information, a transaction is processed, and payment is received. The ordered item is then picked from a warehouse and packaged for shipment. The parcel is then shipped to the customer.

  • New employee on-boarding: When a new employee joins a team, the new hire must complete an onboarding workflow which usually includes legal paperwork, access to IT resources, and relevant training and orientation to the organization.

  • Customer service and support: Ticketing systems are part of digital workflows. They are designed for support teams to answer a variety of questions in real-time and resolve problems systematically by following routine steps.

  • Bank Account Sign-Up: When a new customer opens an account, they go through a series of sequential tasks. The customer provides identity verification and then the financial institution supplies disclosure statements and relevant account information. Records of the transaction are documented and maintained for audit purposes.

  • Healthcare management: For every patient who visits a medical clinic, a standard triage, diagnosis and management procedure is followed.

  • Job and flow shops in manufacturing: Products can move through the process in a linear sequence of steps that never changes (a flow shop) or they can move through different machines in a varying pattern depending on what’s being manufactured (a job shop). Industrial processes are where concept complex workflows were first used, and it remains a commonplace term in manufacturing to this day.
Benefits of workflow automation and business process management

By employing automated systems or formal analytic strategies to improve workflows across an enterprise, stakeholders can see many benefits, including:

  • Improved decision-making (becoming data-driven, rational and consistent).

  • Reduced costs and risks.

  • Faster operational processes and removed bottlenecks.

  • Deeper understanding of operations and ways of bridging the gap between the current state and a desired future state.

  • Better and more consistent customer experiences.

  • Removal of boring and repetitive tasks from job functions, freeing employees to focus on more creative, higher-value work.

  • Integrated applications, systems and advanced cognitive technologies.
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