A workflow lays out a plan for how a company can get from point A — an idea for a new product, for instance — to point B — the finished product. In many cases, a team can follow more than one workflow to complete a project. Think of a workflow as a road trip: Two groups may leave from the same place and arrive at the same destination, but they take different routes along the way and arrive at different times.

The goal of workflow management is to map out the most efficient directions for staff to follow, minimizing any wrong turns along the way. If a team encounters unexpected detours in the workflow process, a management plan that accounts for potential problems can get everyone back on track quickly. When a company’s workflow process is properly managed, the business runs more smoothly.

What Is a Workflow?

A workflow is a series of steps that workers, machines or systems take to accomplish a particular business objective. Some workflows are simple and entail only a few steps, like a retail transaction that starts with a customer purchasing an item and ends with the customer receiving the item in a bag, along with a receipt. Other workflows require several complex, interlocking steps, such as a manufacturer designing, producing and installing an intricate piece of equipment.

Businesses often use multiple workflows, and some, like the retail transaction, may be completed hundreds of times per day. More complex workflows may require multiple parties working together and are often accomplished through automating several repetitive tasks. Businesses that more effectively manage their workflows minimize wasting staff time and other resources, which can increase both productivity and profit margins. For example, an effective workflow may allow businesses to produce and sell more goods in a shorter period of time than a workflow plagued with redundant tasks or error-prone processes.

What Is Workflow Management?

Workflow management is the way that managers organize and oversee the step-by-step tasks that need to be completed to produce a specific outcome for a company. A workflow process typically turns inputs, such as raw materials, into outputs, such as sellable products. For example, an electronics manufacturer’s workflow may start with computer parts that, through a series of regimented steps completed by both employees and technology, ultimately create a computer that a customer can purchase.

By analyzing each step in the workflow process individually, managers can find places for improvement. For example, creating a more automated, less labor-intensive assembly method may save a company time and money. Workflow managers typically track a variety of workflows to ensure that teams are working together to create a streamlined and efficient operation from the first stage in a given project to the last.

Key Takeaways

  • Effective workflow management requires managers to plan and execute a clear path for a business project, outlining how to take an assignment from its initial idea to the completed result.
  • Businesses can employ four workflow types — sequential, state-machine, rules-driven and parallel workflows.
  • Most businesses follow several workflows on a regular basis. By implementing simple optimizations to help manage these workflows, businesses can save significant time and money while completing projects.

Workflow Management Explained

Businesses often employ a wide variety of workflows with dramatically different requirements and end goals, so a flexible management style is key when determining the type of workflow that will best meet the needs of each project. To begin outlining a plan, workflow managers can answer four basic questions about each workflow to determine what, when and how work will get done, as well as who will do it:

  • What needs to be done? The work that needs to be completed is the main mission of the workflow. Is the goal to create a new product or improve process efficiency? Each workflow typically has an explicit goal that justifies the effort and resources required.
  • When does it need to be done? Some workflows are completed quickly, like the work required by retail staff when a customer buys a product. Some may take years to implement, like designing and building a new factory. To manage a workflow, it helps to set realistic timelines and regular benchmarks to ensure that goals are met and resources are used wisely. After all, managers don’t want to keep pouring staff time and money into an inefficient project that will encounter constant delays and ever-shifting goalposts.
  • How can it be done? If a workflow is disjointed, staff may work on tasks that have already been completed or skip important steps in a project, causing costly delays and wasted resources. On the other hand, with a smooth workflow, managers not only create goals but also outline a clear and efficient plan for how to achieve those goals. When project teams have explicit steps and processes in place, they can effectively collaborate and communicate as they hand off different phases of the project from one group to the next.
  • Who will work on what? Once the workflow is outlined, managers can find the appropriate people to handle each stage of the job. By clearly laying out the steps and tasks ahead of time, they can make sure every team member is qualified and aware of the duties they are responsible for completing.

Types of Workflows

Workflows can be customized to accommodate a particular business process. In fact, two businesses with the same goal may each follow different workflows to achieve the same objective in different ways. Managers may prefer to stick with one style of workflow for a variety of functions, or they may need to be versatile enough to employ different types of workflows for different tasks. Managers designing workflows may want to start by considering one of four main types: sequential, state-machine, rules-driven and parallel workflows.

1. Sequential

A sequential workflow must be completed in a certain order, and one step cannot begin until the previous step is completed. For example, an employee expense management workflow typically uses a sequential format, since an employee cannot be reimbursed for expenses until receipts are received and payment is authorized, in that order. For sequential workflows that require input from multiple parties, quick communication between the teams responsible for each step is important. The operation will be delayed if Team A doesn’t quickly notify Team B that certain tasks are completed, allowing Team B to start the next phase of the project.

2. State-machine

State-machine workflows involve steps that go back and forth among various teams, with tasks that often await approval or feedback from multiple stakeholders. For example, a research and development (R&D) workflow may involve multiple engineers, product designers and managers who contribute to the final goal of a new product launch. The schematics may move from one party to another and back again several times before a particular design is finalized and production begins. The steps of state-machine workflows are more fluid than other workflows and don’t necessarily follow a set order.

3. Rules-driven

A rules-driven workflow proceeds sequentially and includes certain rules to follow, often described as conditional “if this, then that” statements. Rules-driven workflows tend to be more complex than other workflows, since the work may follow different branches of tasks, depending on the circumstances involved.

For instance, if a customer orders a sweater from a retail website and the product is available, then the company can prepare the sweater for shipment, notify the customer of the expected delivery date and mail the item. However, if a customer orders a sweater and a winter hat and only the sweater is available, the workflow for available products will apply to the sweater, but the company will have to use a different workflow for the hat, such as following up with the customer via email updates about the hat’s availability and expected delivery date. Rules-driven workflows can quickly become complicated due to their many branching paths, so many businesses rely on automation to handle the repetitive process of following the various roads the workflow can take.

4. Parallel

Parallel workflows comprise two or more workflows that occur simultaneously to help meet a final goal. For example, suppose a factory places an order for raw materials from a vendor selling the items on credit. Once the order is placed, several workflows may begin simultaneously. An accounts payable team can log the expense and initiate the steps necessary to pay the bill on time, while the loading dock manager can plan the delivery schedule to ensure staff members are available to unload the materials when they arrive. Meanwhile, manufacturing teams can prepare for the shipment and plan their production schedule around the anticipated arrival of the needed supplies. All these workflows can begin once the order is placed and don’t require input from the other teams to complete their tasks, creating several workflows operating in parallel.

6 Workflow Management Tips

Workflow management begins in the planning phase, when a workflow is being designed, but the workflow often requires periodic refinement throughout its life span. Here are some best practices to help managers regularly improve their workflows to fit their business’s current needs.

1. Write down everything.

If a missing piece of a workflow isn’t caught until several steps down the line, companies can waste time and resources. Documentation, both in the planning stages and during the workflow, can help employees avoid forgetting steps or missing deadlines. It helps to include a visual timeline in the documentation as well. Keeping records also helps prevent companies from repeating the same mistakes. After all, an idea that is tried at one time and is found to be ineffective should be jotted down, so a business doesn’t waste time trying the same faulty plan a year or two down the road.  

Comprehensive records are useful only if teams can access them. Employees who aren’t privy to the plan may get frustrated if they start on a task only to discover that it has already been completed, or they realize that a necessary lead-in step wasn’t done. As workflow tasks are finished, every step should be documented and stored in a centralized place, with shared access for the entire team. Maintaining proper documentation helps keep the best strategies and results available, allowing businesses to use successful methods repeatedly.

2. Analyze relationships and dependencies.

Because every step of a workflow leads to completing a particular objective, the work often involves more than one team. But the relationship between steps may not always be clear and may even cause confusion. Is Step 2 dependent on the outcome of Step 1, or can they operate in parallel? Managers should look for ways to optimize dependencies, so some steps can run side by side while others run in sequence.

For example, a manufacturing workflow may require two complex components to be built separately, so those two processes can run in parallel as Steps A and B. When the time comes to combine them, that process, known as Step C, is dependent on the completion of both A and B, which requires tight controls over production. By optimizing workflows, managers can make sure A and B are being completed on similar schedules, giving C a steady flow of both components.

3. Predict bottlenecks and failures.

Some project failures and interruptions are unavoidable — such as ones driven by supply chain breakdowns or natural disasters — but having a contingency plan and keeping a close eye on the workflow’s progress can help mitigate and prevent lasting damage. With careful analysis, managers can see warning signs of issues before they become major problems.

For example, let’s say a production workflow frequently experiences a delay between manufacturing and packaging due to an unreliable notification system. If left unchecked, this delay could create a bottleneck as the order volume increases. By automating the notification system, the packaging department could have access to real-time data on finished orders and minimize delays, creating a more reliable workflow capable of handling a higher order volume. Many managers rely on enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions to collect and display data and key performance indicators (KPIs) throughout an organization’s workflows, making it easier to spot and solve problems before they become failures.

4. Consider automation requests.

Many workflows rely on manual data entry and repetitive tasks. Not only do these tasks take up valuable time, but they’re also more likely to experience errors and lead to staff burnout. Especially for workflows that have multiple parties entering redundant data, automation can save time, increase accuracy and free up staff to work on tasks that do require a hands-on approach.

Automation can also help managers by generating reports based on data, not hunches; providing insights into workflow elements that are operating smoothly; and identifying those that need to be improved. Some systems may even use artificial intelligence to suggest ways to implement those improvements. Businesses can also automatically send alerts to staff about workflow progress, send deadline reminders, create fail-safe measures and notify relevant parties of any complications or delays.

5. Audit workflows and adjust accordingly.

When it comes to the actual work that goes into completing a workflow, staff members on the frontlines are likely the most reliable resources managers can rely on. They understand the biggest obstacles to success and how best to overcome them, plus they can identify the tools they need to make their jobs easier. Managers can rely on both feedback from staff and data from KPIs to audit their workflows, identify trends and find ways to streamline and improve processes.

Even successful workflows can benefit from being regularly audited and adjusted. A strategy may have been working well for years, but new technologies, techniques and ideas might persuade a business to shift away from a tried-and-true strategy to a cutting-edge technique that gives the business a new advantage over its competition. And when one workflow is improved, managers should check to see if that same improvement might also apply to other workflows, thereby raising the bar across the company’s operations.

6. Use a workflow management system.

The level of oversight and data needed to effectively manage complex workflows can present a challenge for managers forced to monitor everything via email and spreadsheets — not to mention that communication among staff members involved in different workflows can become unwieldy and error-prone when multiple email threads or memos are involved.

Modern businesses often rely on a centralized software platform that tracks and organizes all incoming and outgoing data in an easy-to-view format. Many of these systems also use cloud storage to keep every member of every team on the same page, no matter when and where they need to access the workflow. It’s important for decision-makers to clearly understand their business’s goals before choosing a workflow management system to make sure the solution meets the company’s needs.

Visualizing Workflows

Due to the complexity of some workflows, it can be challenging to get all employees fully on board with their roles on a project and how they fit into the bigger picture. Rather than sending out a multipage memo, many managers use visual aids, like timelines and flowcharts, to give staff a more memorable and easy-to-understand view of the workflow. Here’s an example of an order fulfillment workflow flowchart for a custom furniture order, purchased on credit:

infographic bsa business strategy workflow order fulfillment workflow flowchart

A popular layout for workflows is a Gantt chart, popularized in the 1910s by management consultant Henry Gantt. A Gantt chart uses a calendar layout to list workflow activities. Visual workflows show which activities overlap and when they should occur. In the modern era, these visual aids are digitized and hosted on the cloud for easy editing and shareability. Many workflow management platforms have customizable templates to give managers the ability to include important data without getting bogged down by irrelevant information.

Here is an example of a Gantt chart for the same custom furniture order.

infographic bsa business strategy same custom furniture order

Make Operations Frictionless With NetSuite

As a business grows, so, too, does the list of workflows needed to keep its operations running smoothly. Managers need a scalable solution to stay on top of their increasingly complex organizations. NetSuite SuiteCloud Platform Process Automation gives business leaders the tools they need to scale their operations with automated workflow-driven tasks like alerts and data validation to increase transparency and accountability while eliminating redundancy.

With its easy-to-use interface, NetSuite’s cloud-based platform uses centralized data and dashboards to streamline communication and keep managers and staff on the same page. Whatever a business’s needs, NetSuite’s platform can adapt its automated processes to fit any organizational structure, saving time and increasing efficiency. NetSuite generates comprehensive reports to give managers accurate, real-time data to help them make quick decisions to improve every aspect of their workflows, from communication to accountability.

Most businesses follow several workflows to help complete all kinds of projects, from simple objectives involving one or two steps to complex assignments that require multiple teams. To take an active role in both designing and executing effective workflows, managers often employ visual aids and centralized software platforms to ensure that every link in the chain accomplishes its objective in a timely manner.  

By keeping detailed records and having an open line of communication to discuss both progress on a project and provide feedback about outcomes, workflow managers can continually improve processes, raise productivity and reduce waste at every level of a business’s operations, from its simplest task to its most complex function.

Workflow Management FAQs

What are the types of workflows?

Many workflows are designed using one of four types. A sequential workflow is completed in a certain order, one step at a time. A state-machine workflow is fluid, with tasks that may go back and forth among different teams. A rules-driven workflow is complex and often involves “if this, then that” scenarios that can send the tasks down more than one path, depending on the rules involved. Finally, a parallel workflow occurs simultaneously alongside another workflow before they eventually come together to complete a final goal.

What’s the difference between workflow management and project management?

With workflow management, managers track, analyze and improve the processes needed to achieve a particular business objective on an ongoing basis. Project management, on the other hand, involves managing a specific objective with a defined timetable and end date.

Project management often requires many of the same skills as workflow management. For example, project managers might manage the development of a new product launch based on a company’s standard R&D workflow, and the project would be completed when the product launches. After its launch, workflow managers would continue to manage the R&D workflow during the development of the next new product.

What are the key components of workflows?

The key components of a workflow are inputs, transformations and outputs. Inputs are the ideas, raw materials and other components needed to complete the goal of the workflow. Transformations include the necessary actions taken to move the inputs to the next step. Outputs are the final products of the transformations.

What is workflow software?

Workflow software is designed to connect the teams and steps of a workflow into one streamlined and integrated platform for communication and information-sharing. With workflow software, teams can quickly and efficiently hand off their work to the next stage of a sequential workflow or track the progress of parallel workflows. Workflow software also helps prevent errors and save time by automating some tasks and creating a centralized database that all relevant parties can access, rather than relying on traditional data-sharing through paper or email files.

What is meant by workflow management?

Workflow management is the creation and coordination of a set of tasks that needs to be completed to produce a specific outcome at a company. These processes turn inputs, typically data or raw materials, into outputs, such as sellable products. By analyzing each step in the workflow individually, managers can look for areas to improve, like finding a less labor-intensive assembly method to speed up the production process.

What are the three basic components of workflows?

The three basic components of workflows are inputs, transformations and outputs. Inputs are the materials that are needed to complete a task. Transformations are the activities that occur to get those materials to the next state. And outputs are the end result of the completed task.

What are three basic workflow management practices?

Three basic workflow management practices include recording important details, predicting bottlenecks and areas for potential failures, and considering areas where automation can increase efficiency.

What are the four major types of workflow management?

The four major types of workflow management are sequential, state-machine, rules-driven and parallel.

  • Sequential workflows must be completed in order; one step cannot begin until the previous step is completed.
  • State-machine workflows often go back and forth among teams, while awaiting approval or feedback from multiple stakeholders.
  • Rules-driven workflows are sequential and involve additional rules, typically designed as conditional “if this, then that” statements.
  • Parallel workflows occur simultaneously and work separately toward completing a final goal.