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Creating an Effective Workflow Process: Tips and Best Practices

May 10, 2023 (7 min read)
Manage your workflow processes by creating a clear system that everyone can follow.

Creating a Workflow process is one of the best ways businesses can keep up with the changing landscape of office life. Workflows are being implemented across industries for good reason; according to a study by Gartner, automated workflows increase productivity, reduce errors and lead to overall lower operational costs for businesses. They make employees’ lives simpler and improve the customer service experience by ensuring that nothing falls between the cracks.

However, with dozens of tools and an overload of information on the topic, it can be tricky to navigate the first steps of implementing and creating a workflow. There are a lot of tools that don’t offer crucial components, so it’s important to know exactly what your workflow should look like before you start implementing a change that will affect your entire payroll. We’ve done the basic research for you to build a simple foundation of how to get started.

Identify your workflow

The key first step to creating a workflow chart is identifying how your company even functions to begin with, and, more importantly, how you want it to function moving forward. This should include an audit of your current processes: follow a task from beginning to end and see if there are roadblocks or unnecessary stops along the way.

Part of this audit should also focus on the scope and resources required in the process. Are there too many or too few people handling each step? Is there enough time allotted for important parts of the process, and are there places that take up far too much time? This will help business owners and managers understand the areas of their company that might be under- or over-valued so they can avoid potential hurdles moving forward.

Another step in identifying your workflow is talking with key people in the process. Customer surveys are a great place to start to understand the kind of complaints or positive feedback to keep in mind. Internal employee brainstorms that allow people who are well engrained in the daily processes to speak their minds and suggest potential fixes are also not to be skipped. Other key stakeholders should be included throughout the process to ensure that everyone is on board with any big changes or is able to voice things they want to see change.

Once this information is collected, it’s time to start mapping out the existing process using workflow maps, and then editing it to fit in any new improvements.

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Create your workflow map

That brings us to Step 2: creating the workflow map, or a visual representation of the process. Having a visual guide helps to provide clarity by giving everyone in the company a bird’s eye view of all steps, and creating one requires getting into the weeds to really home in the finer details of each stage.

To begin this step, companies must choose a specific mapping method and diagram. Workflow automation systems can be helpful here: with many tools, managers can simply plug in the key steps and have a graphic made for them that is easily editable and can be shared across the company.

However, a workflow-specific tool is not fully necessary at this stage. If companies are saving money by automating their workflow in-house, or are still unsure about which tool to invest in, there are plenty of manual ways to build out the map. Sites like LucidChart help build out charts and diagrams in simple, user-friendly ways and are free or low-cost. Teams can also start out simple with whiteboards and sticky notes to physically map out the process together in a way that doesn’t require any tech or design skills.

Analyze your workflow

Once the team has settled on the look and feel of the current workflow map, it’s time to analyze the process for insights and improvements. This stage allows businesses to identify inefficiencies—for instance, if a task is going through a parallel process in which one team must constantly wait for the other team’s insight, it might be beneficial to switch to a linear process to allow the latter team to finish their work before sending it along. This prevents bottlenecks that slow the pace of the overall task completion and potentially lose the business customers, time and money.

In the analysis stage, it’s especially important to consider employee opinions and get buy-in from various areas of the organization. This could be done by collecting data from company-wide surveys and HR exit interviews, which will identify pain points and suggest changes to prioritize. As businesses analyze themselves from such a macro perspective, it’s likely that members of the organization can have insightful reflections on how their jobs could go more smoothly.

Online tools such as workflow automation software will help provide data analysis, which could be especially helpful in this early stage. Those third-party systems help businesses look into certain Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), like average task completion time and error rate, according to PAT Research's overview of automation tools. Implementing software use while still in this phase will help the analysis be even more fleshed out so businesses can know how to move forward.

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Engage in workflow optimization

Once the data is: collected in regard to the business’s current workflow model, it’s time to optimize by implementing positive changes. Businesses should identify the KPIs that matter the most to them. A customer-facing team might care most about decreasing the average task completion time, while a software business might prioritize reducing error rates, so it’s important to remember that optimization is not a one-size-fits all stage.

This is also where employee feedback is critical. Perhaps someone on the customer service team notices that their tickets are getting held up in the approvals process because there aren’t enough managers assigned to that stage; the business could reallocate time and resources so that those hurdles are lessened and tickets move through faster, leading to both customer and employee satisfaction. Alternatively, maybe a film production crew sees that there are a few too many voices involved in the storyboarding phase of production; analyzing the workflow map would help them move creatives to other parts of the process to optimize employee time.

Implement the workflow

Once those changes are identified and the current workflow is shifted to reflect specific KPIs, it’s time to shift into the implementation phase. This step is all about training, and businesses should allow for a large learning curve, especially if employees are less familiar with technology. Someone who’s used the same to-do list system for a decade might struggle to suddenly be using an unfamiliar interface on such a regular basis.

Third-party tools will usually have trainings and office hours built into the cost of the tool so that employees can have as much help as they need in the onboarding stage without business leaders spending too much time explaining the software. There is a lot of science about human attention spans and the ability to retain information in online courses — according to the eLearning Industry Blog, the “sweet spot” for a training is about 30 minutes and about 50% of learning will be lost within a month. They concluded that “Three 15-minute courses may suit your business resources more easily than one 45-minute course,” so it’s important to consider follow-up courses and not think of onboarding as a one-time event.

Other helpful strategies include having managers keyed into the process so that they can answer team-specific questions that arise, and collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams where employees can troubleshoot together when there are time-sensitive questions or issues.

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Monitor the workflow

Beyond ensuring that there are many follow-ups to the trainings so employees know how to use the new workflow, it’s also crucial to monitor the success of the new system. Businesses should schedule regular check-ins to ensure that the shifts are working so they can adjust whatever is not actually helping. Consider this phase a “test and re-test” time instead of a linear path to success. There are certainly going to be learnings from this stage that might surprise leaders, and not every change will lead to the intended results.

This phase is another one where an automated tool would come in handy—similar to the analysis stage, data and insights will help businesses have a better overview. By using algorithms and even third-party insight from experts who have optimized workflows for many clients, companies can ensure that their new workflow is operating at the right pace and level for everyone, and they can see where more bottlenecks or errors might be occurring.

Best practices for workflow processes

An effective workflow process checks off a lot of different boxes. It appeases all stakeholders, from customers to C-Suite workers, and it offers solutions for achieving major KPIs. A workflow might never feel complete, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: regular testing and adjustments help a business adapt and meet new needs and adjust with the ebb and flow of resources. A workflow will obviously face new challenges when aspects like employee retention and company funding come into play, so having an automated system that works is helpful for a business’s future.

Key things to avoid in the ongoing development and automation of a workflow include overcomplicating the process, considering the workflow set in stone once it’s first implemented, neglecting data points or analysis, and ignoring feedback. This is all mitigated by having continual check-ins across the company and making use of connectivity tools so employee and customer voices are heard.