This post was originally published on March 12, 2019, and updated most recently on July 26, 2020.
A workflow diagram is a step-by-step, linear representation of a business process from start to finish. It shows how individual tasks, actions, or resources flow between different people or groups. It also shows what needs to be done in order for that task to be finished.
Tasks are generally represented as boxes and diamonds, although images or real-life pictures can also be used. Each shape or image is then connected to another by an arrow, which shows how those tasks are related to each other, and how each task should be done.
Workflow diagrams also give a broad overview of a business process, which means they’re often used as a springboard to other more granular process diagrams, such as data flow diagrams, flowcharts, and more.
What are workflow diagrams useful for?
To create a workflow diagram, you’ll first need to conduct a workflow analysis. This is essentially a deep dive into your team or organization’s current way of completing tasks, including the order in which work is completed and the responsibilities of different employees.
The data you collect will help you layout your initial workflow diagram. Whether your goal is to standardize certain processes, identify project-critical jobs, or locate weaknesses and bottlenecks, visualizing your workflow will help give your plans a broader context.
Quick visuals also help every member of the team understand not just what it is they’re doing, but how they fit into the wider business process at a glance, creating greater levels of cohesion and cross-department collaboration.
Workflow diagram vs. data flow diagram vs. flowchart
Workflow diagrams, data flow diagrams, and flowcharts all involve various shapes and arrows. And they all require the reader to move through them from left to right and/or top to bottom. But they all do slightly different things.
A flowchart leads you through a series of actions, things, or choices involved in making a complex decision. The idea is to guide you to the correct conclusive answer by breaking the big problem down into smaller, manageable chunks.
A data flow diagram (or DFD for short) shows you how processes flow through a system, taking into account where things come from, which route they go through, where they end up, and the process itself.
And a workflow diagram is a type of flowchart that depicts the movement of tasks or actions from one person or group to another.
If you want to learn more about flowcharts, check out our Flowchart Guide.
When should you use one?
Workflows were born in the manufacturing industry around the late 1880s when labor was going through a transformation: scientific management pro, Frederick Winslow Taylor, together with management consultant Henry Gantt (father of the Gantt chart) were leading the movement towards labor organization and devising ways to improve quality management through a range of processes, one of which was the workflow diagram.
This simple tool, together with other process improvement methods (including Six Sigma) helped organizations improve processes and remain competitive in a growing market.
That doesn’t mean workflows are only for manufacturing though. Now, organizations of all kinds adopt it to give them a clear overview of the processes within their business. Here are four examples, but they can be used to track and improve any process, within any industry.
- E-commerce — A workflow diagram could show the steps a customer takes as they progress through the purchasing journey, including pre- and post-sale decisions, order submitting, shipping, and delivery.
- Education — A workflow diagram could show the stages a student goes through while choosing a university, from open days to online registering and beyond.
- Medical — A workflow diagram could show the stages a patient goes through during an examination, from booking to arriving at the hospital to receiving their results.
- App developer — A workflow diagram could show the stages an app goes through, from brainstorming and planning to wireframe development, design, programming, launch, and ongoing bug fixing.
What do the symbols and shapes mean?
While the standard workflow diagram shapes are commonly used and easily understood, you can also use pictures or other symbols.
Oval: This signifies the beginning and endpoints of a process. You’ll find these at the edges of your diagram.
Rectangle: This is where you put instructions or actions.
Diamonds: These signify decisions. Just like in a flow chart, they contain a question, which leads onto a yes or no answer, which you must choose to progress.
Arrows: These connect the shapes. Follow arrows onto the next step.
Circle: Circles are used as connectors; they are used when the reader has to make a leap from one section to another, bypassing other stages. They’re connected via arrows.
Essential components of a workflow diagram
Each shape and arrow represents a stage. And each of these stages can be assigned one of these three statuses.
This refers to something that impacts the following step. It could refer to an action, equipment, a decision, some information, or capital.
For example, if you worked in a marketing agency, one input may be ‘create a logo design’. If you’re using shapes, you’d put this inside a rectangle. If the next stage is ‘add the words to the logo’, then the next input would be ‘copy team create tagline’. These tasks would be connected by an arrow.
This refers to the changes that inputs go through to reach the output. This could refer to a change in physical characteristics (for example: the design is transformed into a digital app), a change in location (for example: the customer moves from the street into the shop), or a change in ownership or purpose.
This is the finished product; it’s what happens after the transformation.
Different types of workflow diagrams
There are a few different types of workflow diagrams. Here’s a quick run-through of the most popular styles.
Process flow diagram
This is the most basic type of process flow diagram. Simply map the process of the workflow out chronologically. And voila!
Swim lane diagram
This workflow diagram separates two or more flows within the organization while retaining their sense of interconnectedness. It offers a broad overview of the different processes and highlights their interaction, including positives and inefficiencies.
Business Process Modelling Notation (BPMN)
This business process diagram uses standardized symbols to make it easy for everyone to understand it – whether they’re technical users or business users.
Suppliers Inputs Processes Outputs Customers (SIPOC)
A form of swimlane diagram, this version focuses on analyzing the different aspects of a workflow and distinguishing their levels of importance. Unlike traditional workflows, the focus isn’t on the order of the steps. Instead, it shows who creates and receives the data.
How to create a workflow diagram
OK, ready to make your own workflow diagram? Let’s get started.
1. Select your process
First, you’ll need to work out what process you’re intending to track and, most importantly, why. What do you hope to discover? This will inform your choice of diagram type. It’s also important to remember who’s going to see and use this diagram. If non-technical people are going to see it, then you may want to create BPMN chart, so everyone understands what the symbols mean.
It’s also important to distinguish between whether your workflow is depicting a process as it currently stands or a future on you hope to implement.
2. Define the start and endpoint
Whatever happens in between is up to you, but make sure you have a clear kick-off point and end goal.
3. Gather together your information
This is where you speak to different people and departments and gather information to ensure your workflow is as accurate as possible. Outline which activities are involved in each step and label who is in charge of these decisions or tasks.
You should also note process timelines, deviations, potential bottlenecks, and potential improvements.
4. Eliminate inefficiencies.
Next, take a look at your tasks and categorize them into ‘must-have,’ ‘useful,’ and ‘nice-to-have,’ and ‘not necessary’. This will help you streamline your process and assign jobs to the appropriate people.
To help you categorize tasks, refer back to your overall goal and the company’s overall goal. Is a specific task contributing to this goal? If it’s not, then consider putting it on the ‘not necessary’ pile.
5. Design the workflow
Now it’s time to turn all that data into lovely visuals. Whether you use a pen and paper or a diagramming tool is up to you. But whichever method you choose, make sure it’s easily shareable, editable, and simple to use.
6. Analyze your results
Are there any bottlenecks? Are certain processes taking too long, or are some stages more expensive than they should be? Can you improve efficiency through automation? These are all valid questions to consider.
Once you’ve actioned your workflow diagram and tweaked your processes, review your tasks and, if necessary, repeat the process again a few months (or years) down the line to continually improve as you go. Be sure to share your diagrams with your team and ask them to contribute ideas and input to make each iteration of your workflow as efficient as possible. To make things easier, try using a cloud-based diagramming tool that your entire team can work with simultaneously. The more eyes on your diagrams, the better your chance of creating a flawless process.