But, what exactly is a workflow? Did you know there are different types?
Workflow often gets mixed up with related topics, such as project management or productivity. Managing workflow definitely is part of those things, but it’s also its own discipline. Sometimes there’s confusion around what exactly it means because it tends to get caught up in “management speak” and is the kind of word that might get trotted out because it sounds efficient.
So, what’s the deal with workflows? We took a look…
Workflow, according to the trusty Oxford dictionary can be defined as:
“The sequence of industrial, administrative, or other processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion.”
We kind of like the Urban Dictionary definition too. It helps to explain why people get confused over the term:
“A bullshit management word for a process which they don’t understand.”
Manager - "This action feeds into the workflow process."
Employees think; "What the **** is a workflow?"
So, simply put, it’s the steps a task or deliverable has to go through to become complete. A post for your blog might go through a workflow something like; idea > research > write > edit > publish > promote.
There are probably steps within each, but these are the key points along the journey from which you can build a workflow.
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Types of Workflow
The goal for any kind of workflow is that it gets you from Point A to Point B. You probably don’t have formal workflows for everything you do, but you probably have instinctively figured out a process which works for you.
Documented workflows become extremely important for more complex tasks and for keeping a consistent handle over how a team is managed. In general, you want the cleanest route possible that leads to the execution of the task or project (and ideally it's done well).
Workflow automation is another important component that has seen development recently. The more you can streamline your process and have tasks or components from other apps or areas added automatically, the less likely things are to get lost in the mix through manual handling and delegation.
There are three main types of workflow in use, let’s take a look at them and determine what they are best suited to;
Sequential workflows operate as your standard step-by-step flowchart does. You always move forward from one step to the next, without going back at all. The next step is always dependent on the previous step having already been completed.
What are sequential workflows good for? Well, think of any kind of process where the steps always remain exactly the same, without having to go back and forth. An example might be a manufacturing or production line task. When making cookies, a factory would always follow the same sequence of steps - you wouldn’t go back to mixing dough once cookies came out of the oven.
State Machine Workflow
State machine workflow is less about following steps A through Z and more about the actual state of the product or service at each stage. The workflow progresses from state to state and it is possible to regress back to a previous state if necessary.
Here’s how Microsoft Developer Network explains it:
“State machine workflows provide a modeling style with which you can model your workflow in an event-driven manner. A StateMachine activity contains the states and transitions that make up the logic of the state machine, and can be used anywhere an activity can be used.”
The diagram below gives some explanation as to what a state machine workflow might look like in practice:
[caption id="attachment_1066" align="alignnone" width="585"] Source: Microsoft Developer Network[/caption]
Where is a state machine workflow suitably used? A common area is software development, where the “state” may change according to new developments or feedback from stakeholders. This could also go for any other process with creative elements (the earlier example of “write an article” could fit in here if the article is being written for a client and has changes made based on feedback).
Rules-driven workflow is based on a sequential workflow. Progress through the workflow is dependent on any rules that are triggered. So, say for example at step A there were possible options of 1-4 that your customer can choose. Progress to step B would depend upon the option chosen and any rules that are attached to executing it.
Microsoft gives the example of a customer ordering a coffee at a cafe. If step A is to choose the beans, coffee size and whether or not the coffee is a decaf, the rules governing what happens at step B might look like this:
A rules-based workflow is particularly used in projects that have clear goals, but varying levels of specifications or “rules.” (“If customer picks option 3 at step A, then step B will look like this.”)
Better Workflow Management
You have the basic theory of workflow and the types that are commonly used, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t making a serious hash of things on a daily basis. Whichever type of workflow works best for your line of work, here are a few tips for better workflow management:
- Automate wherever you can. For example, Rindle allows you to pull in tasks from other apps and keep everything together in a kanban-style view.
- Document processes. This is especially important if you want to scale your operations. Who wants to explain the same thing repeatedly?
- Delegate responsibility. Ensure team members have enough autonomy to do their jobs without creating unnecessary bottlenecks.
- Always look to improve the process. Things change or technology updates - keep looking for ways to further streamline your processes.
- Ensure everyone understands their responsibilities. Workflows get held up or broken when deadlines are lacking or team members consistently hold up their part so that the next person is also put behind. Make sure your team members understand the process as a whole and their responsibilities to hand off to the next person.
- Measure productivity. How do you know your system is successful? Develop metrics to determine how efficient your system is and look for any areas to improve.
Better workflow means better productivity. It means that you take a process from stage zero to complete as efficiently as possible using the workflow type that best suits your work. These include:
- Sequential workflows.
- State machine workflows.
- Rules-driven workflows.
Develop a good system for review of your workflow processes and automate where you can. If you can show the way and demonstrate a good grasp of workflow management, it moves from the realms of “Urban Dictionary” definitions to something integral to the overall success of your business.