What Is Workflow: Types and Examples

Author: Karolina Matyska

If you’re on a quest to improve work efficiency in your team, understanding ‘workflow’ is essential. Whether you’re exploring workflow management software to streamline complex processes or advocating a specific path for workflow implementation to save time and reduce errors, this article covers it all.

Dive into workflow definition and discover the many benefits effective workflow management can bring. We provide examples of different workflow types to illuminate your starting point and offer a brief overview of workflow automation and workflow management software, showing how these tools can significantly enhance project management, making it faster and more effective.

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Definition: What is a workflow?

A workflow is a series of individual tasks organized in a particular order from initiation to completion, like steps in a cake recipe.

The concept of workflows is applied across multiple disciplines, from business to IT, and works like a roadmap that describes what needs to be done and who is responsible for the steps involved.

The main goal of workflows is to complete tasks in a logical, efficient, and systematic way.

What are the benefits of an effective workflow?

Business workflows help to improve the quality of the work provided by the entire team, automate processes, spot redundant tasks, eliminate human error, and shorten the processing time.

By following procedural rules and a structured path of a sequential workflow, you also ensure improved productivity, faster project progress, and improved decision-making.

  • Improved quality: Tools like workflow templates and workflow diagrams provide a structured path, ensuring that all team members consistently adhere to the same high standards when working on specific tasks or activities.
  • Cost savings: Workflows contribute to cost savings by streamlining processes and eliminating inefficiencies like redundant tasks, thereby reducing the time and resources required to complete tasks.
  • Improved productivity: Workflows, especially when coupled with automation, streamline manual tasks into efficient sequences, positively impacting productivity by enabling faster completion and more effective resource use.
  • Better customer experiences: Workflows ensure consistent and efficient service delivery, leading to better experiences through improved response times and higher quality interactions.
  • Smooth project management: In business process management, workflows make it easier to manage projects smoothly, by clearly defining responsibilities and workflow steps, ensuring that each team member can handle tasks more effectively and meet deadlines with greater ease.
  • Elimination of human error: Workflows reduce human mistakes by automating the necessary tasks and standardizing processes, ensuring consistency and accuracy in task execution.

Manual vs. automated workflows

In an era where technology, especially artificial intelligence, plays an increasingly significant role in our daily lives, understanding the distinction between manual and automated workflows becomes crucial.

The key difference between these two lies in the amount of human intervention involved in each process.

Manual workflow

A manual workflow depends significantly on human effort, with individuals actively managing and progressing tasks through each stage, either through physical actions or digital inputs.

Consider the example of time tracking in a project setting.

In a manual workflow, employees would record their hours spent on different tasks using methods like paper timesheets or spreadsheets.

These records are then manually collected, reviewed, and processed by a manager or team lead, who verifies the accuracy and completeness before they can be used for project management or invoicing purposes.

This approach requires consistent human interaction and oversight throughout the entire process.

Automated workflow

An automated workflow, particularly in the context of time tracking, involves using dedicated software to significantly reduce human involvement in routine tasks. Once an employee logs their time, the system automatically processes this data, integrating it with other business functions like payroll or project management.

This workflow automation also extends to generating reports, sending notifications for unrecorded hours, and alerting managers about project time overruns.

By handling these repetitive tasks, automated workflows free up human resources for more complex activities, thereby increasing productivity and improving business efficiency

TIP: Increase your productivity and efficiency with the best task automation tools

Workflow examples: Manual vs. automated workflows

Let’s explore a practical scenario: the process of invoicing clients in a marketing agency.

This example will provide insight into how workflows can be structured and the differences in efficiency and effectiveness when utilizing various methods. The focus will be on contrasting manual and automated approaches to highlight the impact of workflows on everyday business operations.

Manual time tracking in client invoicing workflow:

  • Manual time entry: Employees record their hours on projects or tasks using spreadsheets or paper timesheets.
  • Timely submission reminders: Managers send regular reminders to employees to submit their timesheets by the deadline.
  • Collecting timesheets: Employees submit their timesheets through email or physical handover, often leading to a collection bottleneck.
  • Detailed verification: Each timesheet undergoes a detailed verification process to ensure accuracy of the hours logged.
  • Approval process: Verified timesheets are then sent for final approval by supervisors or project managers.
  • Data compilation: The finance team compiles these approved timesheets and calculates billable hours.
  • Error correction: Potential errors identified during compilation are sent back for correction, adding to the time consumed.
  • Invoice preparation: Finally, invoices are prepared based on the corrected and compiled billable hours, susceptible to delays due to the extensive manual process.

Automated time tracking in client invoicing workflow:

  • Automated time tracking: Employees log their hours directly into a time tracking software, which automatically records and compiles time data.
  • Efficient timesheet review: Supervisors quickly review and approve the automated time records within the software, eliminating the need for multiple checks and timesheet chasing.
  • Rapid invoice generation: The finance team accesses verified time records which are automatically sent to the the billing software and generate invoices, significantly speeding up the process and reducing error margins.

Did you know that creating and organizing workflows is one of project manager’s responsibilities?

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Types of workflow

There are three primary categories of workflows you can use in your work: Process Workflow, Case Workflow, and Project Workflow.

Process workflow

Firstly, the process workflow is the most popular business workflow. It happens when you have a set of repetitive and predictable tasks to handle.

As it’s always the same, you always know how this workflow starts and will end, even before it starts — it’s quite straightforward.

This type of workflow is designed to manage an infinite number of items that go through them. The expense submission workflow we talked about before is a great example this type of workflow.

Once initiated, the process workflow configuration remains fixed with minimal deviations, also enabling handling multiple items within a single workflow instance.

Case workflow

Secondly, the case workflow serves as a workflow management solution that establishes a starting point but does not have a predefined endpoint at the outset. The pathway unravels as data emerges.

Cases, such as support tickets insurance claims, are good examples of the unpredictable nature of their processing pathways. The path only unfolds after a thorough examination. 

Unlike process workflows, case workflows require human or intelligent bot intervention to determine the correct course of action. Despite this, case workflows can handle an indefinite number of items.

Project workflow

Lastly, the project workflow is similar to a process workflow in that it’s well-suited for particular tasks. The necessary sequence of tasks to achieve the desired outcome can be accurately predicted. 

Nonetheless, it’s limited to a single item since projects are not continuous. Another difference is that project workflows allow greater flexibility during the course of execution, as each project is unique in its own way. Consider the launch of a new app, for example.

TIP: It might be a good idea to create a workflow to include in your project management communication plan

Key components of a workflow

How to create workflows? Building effective workflows involves understanding the essential elements that make up the overall workflow process.

Let’s take a deep dive into the basic components and multiple steps of a typical workflow:

  1. What starts it: This is the event or moment that triggers the workflow. It could be anything from a set time to a specific action that sets things in motion.
  2. Individual steps: These are the various actions or tasks that form the workflow. Each one is a small part of the larger process.
  3. Decision points: At these junctures, choices are made based on certain conditions or information, which can influence the direction of the workflow.
  4. Inputs and outputs: Inputs are the resources or data needed for each task, while outputs are the results or products from each task.
  5. Who’s responsible: This details who is in charge of each task, whether it’s individuals, teams, or departments.
  6. Sequence and connections: This outlines the order of tasks and how they are linked, including dependencies between tasks.
  7. Guiding rules: These are the guidelines or standards that direct how the workflow should proceed, ensuring consistency and adherence to necessary standards.
  8. Tools used: These include any systems, software, or tools that help facilitate the workflow, from basic tools to more complex applications.
  9. Monitoring and improving: This involves keeping track of the workflow, gathering feedback, and adjusting for better efficiency and effectiveness.
  10. Documentation and reports: This involves keeping records and documentation of the workflow process, tracking progress, and generating reports on outcomes.

TIP: Read everything you need about the project lifecycle and how to document it in our post.

Read also: Find the best ways to increase productivity in our article

Workflow management software

Workflow management systems streamline business processes by automating and organizing tasks. It offers functionalities like task assignment, progress tracking, and automated notifications, ensuring that all team members are synchronized. This type of software is essential for maintaining efficiency, reducing errors, and providing clear visibility into various stages of a workflow.

For example, time tracking software within a workflow management system offers a practical illustration of these benefits.

It automatically records the time spent on tasks, aiding in project management and employee productivity tracking. When integrated with billing systems, it ensures accurate invoicing based on the actual work done.

This is particularly valuable in environments like remote work, where it helps in monitoring distributed teams and maintaining consistent work output.

How to introduce workflow automation

Transforming your business processes into a digital workflow involves streamlining how work passes from one to the next task. This shift to digital means replacing manual tasks with automated systems, the fundamental building blocks of your entire workflow.

By adopting this approach, you ensure each subsequent task is conducted more efficiently. Embracing a digital workflow is essential for staying agile and responsive in today’s fast-paced business world.

Assess current processes

Begin by evaluating your existing workflows to identify areas that can benefit from automation. Look for routine duties, bottlenecks, and tasks that require significant manual input.

Set clear objectives

Define what you aim to achieve with automation. This could be reducing errors, saving time, or improving process transparency. Setting specific, measurable goals will guide the implementation.

Choose the right tools

Research and select a workflow management system that aligns with your business needs. Consider factors like scalability, integration capabilities, user-friendliness, and cost.

Plan the implementation

Develop a detailed plan for rolling out automation. This should include timelines, resource allocation, training needs, and a process for monitoring and adjusting the implementation as needed.

Train your team

Ensure that your team members are well-trained in the new tools and understand the benefits of workflow automation. Adequate training reduces resistance to change and enhances adoption.

Test and refine

Start with a pilot phase, testing the automated workflow in a controlled environment. Gather feedback and make necessary adjustments before a full-scale rollout.

Monitor and evaluate

Continuously monitor the automated workflows to ensure they meet the set objectives. Use data and feedback to refine processes and make improvements over time.

Read also: How to create a project monitoring plan?

Scale and expand

Once the initial implementation is successful, consider scaling the automation to other areas of the business. Gradually expand the scope to maximize the benefits of workflow automation.

Conclusion

In the digital era, effective workflow management is crucial for optimizing business processes. Whether manual or automated, workflows involve steps that transfer work from one duty to the next, following specific rules and requiring certain data. This structure keeps everyone on the same page, enhancing efficiency and addressing any workflow problems and issues.

The choice between manual and automated workflow process depends on the nature of the tasks required and available resources. Automated processes, particularly in time tracking, reduce monotonous duties, freeing up staff for complex work and streamlining workflows for greater business efficiency.

Understanding each aspect of a full workflow business process management,, from beginning to end, is essential for businesses aiming to refine their operations and achieve goals efficiently in today’s digital landscape.

FAQ

Are workflows and processes the same thing?

No, they aren’t. They are related and often used together but they are not the same.
A rules-driven workflow consists of a series of activities that are performed by people, systems, or a combination of both to complete a specific process or project. 
A process is a series of steps or actions taken to achieve a specific outcome or goal using sequential workflows. While workflows account for small details and small-scale objectives, processes refer to more comprehensive results.
Examples include: product development, customer service, order fulfillment.

What is a workflow in Salesforce?

In Salesforce, a workflow is an automated process that can trigger tasks, emails, and other actions based on specific criteria. It allows businesses to streamline each business process and automate repetitive tasks, improving efficiency and reducing errors.
TIP: Discover the best Salesforce time tracking integration to increase productivity and efficiency.

Are checklists and workflows the same? 

No. Checklists are lists of activities or items to complete, often as reminders. Workflows are a series of tasks or activities to complete a process or project.  While checklists can be a part of a workflow, they do not provide the same level of detail.
TIP: Discover the best Salesforce time tracking integration to increase productivity and efficiency.

Is workflow a flowchart?

A workflow can be represented by a flowchart, but it is not limited to that format. A workflow can be represented in multiple ways, including as a flowchart, a diagram, or a written description.
Workflow is a fundamental concept that plays a crucial role in any organization nowadays, whether it’s a small business or a large corporation.
It provides structure and organization to the business processes, that are necessary for achieving business goals, streamlining operations, and improving efficiency.
Now that you know what a workflow is and why it matters, it’s time to identify areas of improvement, eliminate redundancies, and optimize your operations!
Whether you’re an entrepreneur starting a new venture or a seasoned project manager looking to optimize your existing processes, investing in these workflow management systems can help you achieve greater success!