A Quick Guide to Workflows for Projects
Multiple project deadlines, decision fatigue, too much collaboration. Every day, we have to wade through information and distractions to get our core work done.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could reclaim this lost time and focus on important tasks? Workflows, a way of completing tasks, can improve your productivity and keep projects moving, with automation.
Keep reading to learn more about workflows and how to plan a workflow.
What is a Workflow?
A workflow is simply a way of getting tasks done in a logical sequence.
You are likely using workflows every day, both inside and outside of work!
Workflows are typically presented as diagram, linking small tasks together to reach a final goal.
Workflows were invented by Henry Gantt in the 1920s as a way of optimizing work. Gantt documented processes by asking three simple questions:
- What tasks were being done?
- Who was responsible for each task?
- How long did each task take?
The same principles apply to workflows today.
Where possible, steps are automated, for example, you could create a workflow to send an email reminder when a task is overdue. This way, you can keep on top of work without having to constantly check on progress and send manual emails.
Examples of workflows include:
- Submitting a vacation request.
- Collecting feedback on a document.
- Managing incoming requests.
- Moving files from one SharePoint library to another.
- Saving email attachments to a folder.
Workflows can take any length of time and can be carried out by one person or an entire team. It depends on the goal.
The aim is always to move between steps efficiently, freeing up time and energy for important tasks.
Unlike a checklist, each part of the workflow must be connected to a previous step. Using the example of project tasks, let’s say you want to tackle overdue work quickly.
During project set-up, tasks with deadlines are assigned to team members. Each individual receives a notification email and a reminder email 24 hours before the task is due.
If this deadline passes without completing the task, another reminder email is sent to the assignee. This email is sent daily until the task is complete.
Once the task is finished, the workflow ends. You could also send automated notifications to your own inbox when a task is late and when the task is completed.
Components of a Workflow
Workflows are made up of four elements. Let’s take a closer look at each component using the above example of a late project task.
- Actors, people or software responsible for the task. In this example, the failure to complete a task on time triggers an automated email.
- Activities, the task that is performed, often represented as a step. Here, this includes completing the task.
- Results, the desired outcome of each step, i.e. late tasks are finished.
- State, the movement between steps. In this case, the task moves from ‘due’ to ‘late’ and ‘complete’ with minimum effort.
Each step of a workflow has three parameters as follows:
- Input, the resources needed for a step.
- Transformation, what actually happens to the input, for example, working on the task.
- Output, the outcome of the step, which often acts as input to the next step.
There are also different types of workflows.
- Process: A process workflow refers to predictable and repetitive tasks. The workflow has a clear path with few variations, for example, a project plan is either approved or rejected.
- Case: A case workflow has an unclear path to conclusion, for example, a support ticket.
- Project: Project workflows are similar to process workflows with a little more flexibility to meet the needs of individual projects. These workflows help to drive the project forward.
Now that you know more about workflows, let’s look at the benefits of workflows for productivity and teamwork.
Why Should I use Workflows?
A workflow is a framework for completing tasks the same way, every time.
Having a documented way of working keeps your team on the same page and eliminates bottlenecks.
Workers waste up to 3.5 hours every week trying to find information. Using workflows to hand over documents and tasks as needed can reclaim this time.
In fact, an individual workflow can save an organization up to three minutes.This small gain adds up over time!
- Save time by automating repetitive tasks that don’t require decisions.
- Reduce errors and rework.
- Collect data quickly for informed decision-making.
- Standardize ways of working.
- Improve communication within and between teams.
Workflows are really powerful for project teams, helping to:
- Improve scheduling with clear insight into the duration of tasks.
- Increase visibility for stakeholders with approval workflows and notifications.
- Increase collaboration with insight into individual responsibilities and progress.
- Quickly introduce new team members to the project.
- Create an audit trail for key decisions.
- Provide easy-to-follow instructions for tasks.
- Clarify hand-off points for tasks and documents.
With workflows running in the background for various tasks, you can focus on the project itself and deliver the expected results more smoothly.
The team will know what is expected of them, what they need to focus on, and what is automated.
Hopefully, you are ready to start using workflows on your projects. In the next section, we’ll cover how to create a workflow.
How do I Create a Workflow?
A workflow represents a business process, a way of working in your organization.
A process defines all of the inputs needed for a task, for example, data, reports, and decisions. A workflow is a sequential ordering of the tasks and is part of processes.
Before turning to software, you need to document the process you want to automate.
Get the team together for a workshop to walk through the process from start to finish as many times as needed. Use a whiteboard to draw and re-draw the process until everyone agrees on the steps.
Focus on the current process, not the ideal process. In time, you can identify improvements but you need to start with the ‘as-is’ state.
Cover key elements like:
- The start and endpoint
- Key activities
- Task owners
- ‘What-if’ scenarios, for example, what if a developer is not available for a task?
- Documents associated with any steps.
Once the as-is process is documented, it’s time to create a visual representation, like a flow chart. This is your workflow.
Shapes are frequently used to classify elements of the process in an easy-to-understand way.
Depending on existing guidelines within your organization, you can use the standardized system of symbols for process maps from Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN).
According to these guidelines:
- A circle is used to mark an event, such as the start of the process.
- Rectangles indicate tasks.
- A diamond is a decision point
- An arrow marks the flow or movement between tasks.
Here is a sample business process map from the BPMN site:
When documenting the various steps of the process, keep things simple. If one person can complete a task alone, use a single box to represent this step.
Having created the workflow, it’s time to make improvements. Think about:
- Automating tasks using software.
- Removing unnecessary steps.
- Tasks that can be completed simultaneously.
Ask the team to review the final workflow before automating tasks with software.
Workflows are powerful productivity tools with significant benefits for project teams. According to a report by Forrester, employees who used workflow automation increased their productivity by 8 to 15 percent.
Start simple by working with your team to identify important yet repetitive tasks that are ideal for automation. In time, add more complex workflows to improve task management and collaboration.
In her free time, she enjoys a challenging session at the gym, tucking into a good book, and walking the beautiful Galway coastline with her dog.