A workflow is the sequence of actions you take to get a particular task done. It sounds like it’s something that should happen on its own, and in many companies, it works that way. However, just because you usually follow the same process each time you perform a task doesn’t mean that’s the best way to approach completing the job.
By understanding the principles of a workflow and identifying the benefits and shortcomings, you can improve those parts of your process where you experience challenges or bottlenecks. This will ultimately help streamline your operations, improve productivity, and increase the value of your business.
Characteristics of an Effective Workflow
A workflow process consists of three fundamental components, which cover every step of the production process:
- Input is the action you take to initiate the tasks involved in creating your product. Everything requires input, whether you’re manufacturing end-user products or developing a service to offer your customers. This can take the form of raw materials, the knowledge needed to identify a solution, or placing orders for completed products for resale. Input is the first step in the workflow.
- Transformation is the change you make to the input, resulting in your output. In manufacturing, this applies to the use of materials to produce the final version. In the service industry, it could apply to the time spent designing a solution or the process of developing a software program that addresses a customer’s needs.
- Output is the result of the input and the transformation. It’s the final product or service you deliver to customers and get paid to supply.
That order is the workflow, and while the sequence is sometimes obvious, it may be less clear at other times. That’s when problems arise because businesses find themselves:
- Duplicating steps,
- Having to re-do actions, or
- Omitting important aspects because they weren’t in the correct sequence.
How to Analyze a Workflow
It’s impossible to know where the flaws in your workflow are unless you analyze it carefully, and the best way to do that is to create a workflow diagram. Start by gathering information on every step of the process and making a list of them. Focus on getting a clear picture of everything each staff member does to achieve the end product and put them in the order in which they occur.
Break down your entire process into individual steps and create a flowchart using symbols and diagrams to depict each step from start to finish. Microsoft Excel has an excellent flowchart template, in which you can enter each step as a line of text and then export the chart to automatically create the shapes and connections that visually tell the story.
Where possible, you should also gather statistics quantitative data (statistics) that provide insight into each step's cost and value, and qualitative data in the form of additional details for each step. Reviewing this information will give you a good idea of where your problems typically arise, how they affect all the steps that follow, and what these issues are costing you in the long term.
Developing an Efficient Workflow
Armed with this information, you’ll know where you need to take action to overcome common problems in your production process. Examine every step in the workflow and ask questions such as:
- Is this step necessary?
- What is its purpose?
- Who is it supposed to serve?
- How long does it take?
- Does this step occur in the right place in the process?
- Does everyone have enough data/money/raw materials to perform their task?
- Is there a better/faster/cheaper way to perform this and achieve the same result, perhaps through automation or outsourcing?
- What problems usually arise during this part of the process, and how can we resolve them?
You may be able to eliminate some steps, change the sequence of others, and identify the hidden causes of preventable problems. Once you’ve identified all the changes you need to make, develop a new workflow diagram to act as a roadmap for your workers to follow.
Getting Employee Buy-In
Introducing a new way of working isn’t always popular, and many long-term workers prefer to be left to do things the way they have always done them. That’s understandable, but the changes can have substantial benefits for your company’s profitability.
Keep them updated about the process at all times. Invest in any new tooling required to make the changes and arrange training for them to implement the new methods.
The Bottom Line
Workflow is the sequence in which things get done in a company. It applies to individual departments and the company as a whole. Analyzing your current workflow can help you understand where specific problems arise in the process.