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What is a workflow and how can it boost productivity?

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    A workflow is how a project moves from start to finish; the set of actions required to get things done.

    A workflow is like the painted lanes, street lights, and carefully planned highway systems we have come to expect when getting into a motor vehicle (can you imagine driving with none of that in place?)

    Workflows exist to guide all moving pieces through a complicated process toward the desired outcome efficiently and reliably. Workflow is at the heart of every single project at every single organization across the world, whether or not you know it!

    Implementing repeatable workflows means standardization and simplification of essential business management processes.

    This article is a deep dive into everything workflow-related. We’ll explain what workflows are, why they are essential to any business/team/project, and how to optimize best to fit your specific company needs.

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    What is a workflow (with example)?

    A workflow is a standardized series of tasks you complete to achieve a specific goal.

    At monday.com, custom workflow apps are what make our work operating system (Work OS) tick — empowering teams to plan, run, and track processes, projects, and everyday work.

    But a workflow without a process, a workflow without an app, a workflow without proper management … is a workflow destined to fail.

    Here is what a simple, 5-step workflow could look like when onboarding a new customer:

    1. Send an automated email with upcoming training calls
    2. Training call hosted by assigned customer success manager (CSM)
    3. After the call, CMS initiates an email onboarding sequence based on customer needs
    4. Ten days later, CSM reviews customer usage data to ensure they are actively using the product.
    5. CSM follows up with the customer to set up the next meeting

    Imagine every process that exists in your organization. There is (or should be!) a workflow for each process, ideally with an associated diagram.

    What is a workflow diagram, and who uses it?

    A workflow diagram — sometimes called a process flowchart — is a graphic/visual overview of a repeatable linear process intended to see a task through to completion.

    For example:

    An example diagram of a content publishing workflow.

    For organizations, workflow diagrams help employees better understand their role within the company or their team.

    For projects, workflow diagrams visually represent what work requires completion in what specific order.

    Some form of workflows are used in just about every company or organization in the world, especially for project managers: 

    • E-commerce: Workflow diagrams show a customer journey from awareness to interest to making decisions and purchasing. More detailed charts can display post-sale actions (shipping, delivery, retention activities, etc.).
    • Healthcare: Workflow diagrams show a patient’s journey from scheduling to arrival to exam to results to follow up.
    • Education: Workflow diagrams show the various stages college students can expect — application, registration, acceptance, enrollment, class schedule … and ultimately degree acceptance and alumni follow up.
    • Application development: Workflow diagrams show each step from brainstorming to wireframing and design to programming and launch (and post-launch stakeholder feedback).

    One reason teams use workflow diagrams so frequently is that they are visually simple and easily understood by all stakeholders.

    Ovals. Rectangles. Parallelograms. Oh my.

    As shown in the example above, a workflow diagram consists of various geometric shapes and arrows that help define each step further.

    Most of these shapes are universally understood (think back to elementary school — oval, rectangle, etc.), but some may require you to dig a bit deeper into your memory bank (see: parallelogram). Still, others are even more “unusual” and specific to an industry or project.

    workflow chart symbols
    • Ovals: represent the beginning and end of a workflow diagram.
    • Rectangles: represent a single task or activity.
    • Diamonds: represent project decisions.
    • Parallelograms: represent some sort of input or output.
    • Squares: with wavy bottoms indicate reports or documents.
    • Bullet-shaped symbols: represent pre-determined project delays.
    • Arrows: indicate the flow of information in the diagram.

    Building a more complex diagram? Consider including a legend to make it easier to follow.

    Want to learn more about workflow diagrams? Here is a more detailed blog post.

    What are the three basic components of a workflow?

    Now that we understand a bit more about workflow diagrams let’s get back to the basics of a workflow. 

    No matter what the process, no matter what the workflow, all will include these three basic components remain the same:

    Input

    Transformation

    Output

    At a very rudimentary level, each component is defined as:

    • Input: The “stuff” (staff, materials, resources, etc.) that goes into completing a step in a process.
    • Transformation: The rules or directions/steps of how input is received and what happens to it once received.
    • Output: The product or deliverable that is created as a result of the transformation. The output also can serve as the input for the next step in a process.

    Again, “input, transformation, output” is as basic as it gets when it comes to workflow. Each one of the three components is, in reality, much more detailed and complex.

    With a clear overview, you can start optimizing processes and make decisions about standardizing and automating tasks within the workflow.

    7 reasons to standardize your workflow

    The more standardized a workflow, the easier it is to ensure continuity across business processes and outcomes. 

    A standardized workflow also helps lower risk and boost productivity.

    Business continuity + reduced risk + increased productivity = Win. Win. Win.

    But those are just a few of the many benefits of a standardized workflow. Here are our top 7 reasons: 

    1. Increased productivity

    A standardized workflow means every team member knows their assignments. They know what to do and when to do it. 

    Confusion and ambiguity around individual responsibility are eliminated. 

    This, in turn, equates to less chance of team members straying from protocol or making a wrong decision, which could cause delays. And delays = increased time, more money, unhappy stakeholders, etc.

    It also reduces manual work for 74% of businesses.

    Bonus: if you use a project management platform (more on that later) to handle task management, you can easily set and share standardized workflows with all relevant stakeholders.

    2. More time, less micromanagement

    Standardized workflows empower team members to practice more self-management. Employees lean less on their managers for direction and guidance because a clear plan is already laid out.

    As each team member grows into their role, they will naturally take more ownership over their work and, ideally, produce better outcomes … in less time. #EfficiencyRules

    With the right platform (think: monday.com), you can even automate management cues like reminders to complete tasks, provide status updates, and seek approvals. And this automation equates to more time for managers and the C-suite folks to focus on high-level, strategic decisions instead of day-to-day processes.

    3. More consistent results

    As Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson once said, “Success isn’t always about ‘greatness,’ it’s about consistency. Consistent, hard work gains success.”

    Good news: Standardized workflows produce more consistent outputs. 

    With a standardized workflow, you can deliver an almost identical result each time. Even if you need to replace a worker, they are much easier to train.

    4. Improved onboarding and adoption rates

    An integral and essential workflow of every growing organization is onboarding new hires. While critically important, onboarding is also time, resource, and cost-intensive.

    Standardized workflows drastically speed up new employee ramp-up time and empower them to contribute value sooner rather than later.

    Even better? An organized onboarding workflow solves two of the top four challenges of training new employees:

    four challenges to onboarding chart

    “Inconsistent onboarding” (47%) and “Insufficient technology to automate or organize the process” (36%) are mitigated with a sound, standardized workflow.

    5. Reduced project risks; fewer variables

    Creating standardized workflows help teams reduce risk by providing structure.

    When employees have a clear understanding of how to complete specific processes, when to seek approvals, and how to uphold security standards, the likelihood of mistakes and delays are significantly reduced.

    6. Improved corporate culture

    Want to create sustainable change in your company?

    Use workflows to set expectations that provide autonomy and foster accountability. When employees’ work is designed to help them succeed and grow, these core traits will become embedded in your company culture.

    Repeating a pattern of daily or weekly actions is a core building block for your culture.

    7. Clear audit trail

    A clearly-defined workflow, where each step is documented, means delays or mistakes can easily be traced, and performance can be monitored.

    Even better, upper management can single out noteworthy individual performances.

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    What is workflow management software? What are some examples?

    Workflow management software is detailed, specific planning and delegating of each workflow action step. When put together as one, workflow management software forms a project — simple or complex.

    Workflow management software comes in many shapes, forms, and sizes — most often some type of visual manifestation of “input, transformation, output” — with the central goal of being able to understand a process more easily.

    Some examples include: 

    • Gantt charts: bar charts that illustrate a project schedule activities (or tasks or events) over a specific time
    • Timelines: visual displays of how a project is going to play out over time — start dates, end dates, milestones
    • Online calendar software: visual presentations of all appointments and “to do” reminders  — ideally shareable, editable, and accessible by all team members
    • Kanban board: Personal Kanban. Kanban methodology. Kanban cards. Kanban board. Kanban board software. Kanban scrum. Kanban teams. No matter what you call it, Kanban is a visual communication method that helps teams collaborate more effectively.

    If your organization is not already leveraging a workflow management platform, today is a great day to start!

    The 4 essential elements of a powerful workflow management platform (and why you need one)

    Not all workflow software is created equal. 

    A sophisticated workflow management platform empowers teams to complete any kind of business process with ease, independently.

    Here are four things every top platform should include:

    1. Data centralized in a single dashboard

    Integrations — connecting 3rd party software to your current platform —  are important tools to reduce redundancy, eliminate small data entry tasks, and centralize data … ultimately providing managers a clearer overview of performance.

    An example of how an integration can help to centralize data and help managers visual overall performance:

    CRM.

    Most organizations already have a CRM is place. Not all workflow management platforms have native CRM capabilities.

    No need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, connect your workflow management platform directly to your CRM. This integration allows a seamless import of sales performance data.

    In that same dashboard, you could also view the number of leads handled by employees.

    This integration allows managers to build a customizable, 30,000-foot view without starting from scratch.

    1. Ability to set due dates, receive notifications, and eliminate unnecessary manual tasks

    All top-notch workflow management systems must have built-in tools to ensure teams stay on schedule. Setting due dates, automating notifications and reminders, and updating task statuses is critical to effectively manage projects.

    With the structure in place to keep projects and processes moving smoothly, workflows are significantly more efficient.

    Here are just a few workflow management settings that are possible:

    • Task owners
    • Task descriptions
    • Due dates
    • Notifications
    • Milestones
    • Workflow action status (in progress, done, etc.)
    • Time tracking
    • Task-dependent timeline

    All of the above settings lead to even greater efficiency when automations are introduced.

    Experts estimate that the value of automating unnecessary tasks (for US companies alone) could be as high as $15 trillion.

    15 TRILLION.

    As it turns out, up to 27% of all work is automatable with today’s technology. Do you need to copy the text from an email and add it to your CRM? Or could a workflow software system handle it?

    Automations replace manual processes that would otherwise consume unnecessary time and slow down workflows. 

    At monday.com we call these automation recipes — pre-defined combinations of triggers (events that set an automation into motion) and actions (what occurs as a result of that trigger).

    Not only can you automate a large part of the management process, but you can also cut back on other manual tasks.

    For example, you can:

    • Use integrations to update task card info across platforms
    • Notify other departments of bug reports
    • Reach out to coworkers when you finish your step

    These are just a few examples of manual tasks that you can leave to the workflow management system.

    1. Methods to improve team clarity to avoid duplicative work

    In large organizations, duplicative work can become a large cost center if mismanaged. Two members on the same team could be working on the same problem without knowing.

    Without a system to coordinate work across teams, multiple teams within an organization can launch projects with the same business objective in mind without ever noticing.

    Not. Good. At. All.

    Clear task management and cross-department transparency — both components of a solid workflow management platform — eliminate low-level duplicative work.

    1. Clear coordination across teams and departments

    Transparency, ensuring all information — numbers, roadmaps, plans, challenges, and concerns — is readily accessible to everyone on the team, is something that’s in the monday.com DNA

    And while Increased transparency is just sound business practice on all levels, it also reduces the chances of duplication AND makes it a lot easier to coordinate between teams.

    By sharing high-level goals and roadmaps, teams are able to coordinate projects to support and build off of one another.

    Bonus: Using monday.com’s Work OS, stakeholders can easily map out and assign specific tasks across teams.

    6 tips for optimizing your workflows

    The process of documenting and beginning to set up workflows can be overwhelming … unless you have a plan.

    Standardize recurring business processes and make them more effective is well worth the effort. Here are a few suggestions to optimize your workflow:

    1. Assign employees ownership, not just tasks: If employees aren’t granted some level of autonomy, managers will micromanage. And micromanagement is rarely a winning tactic. 

    To improve workflows, it’s critical to delegate ownership and responsibility, not just tasks.

    If every team member checks in for every small variable, it will slow down the process. Even worse: Manager are just as busy – if not busier — than eve before, which defeats the entire purpose of a workflow! Instead, empower your employees to handle every aspect of their assigned task.

    1. Automate to eliminate excess steps: Introduce some level of automation to the mix, whenever possible. For example, website lead forms can automatically creates new task cards based on incoming emails.
    Screenshot of a Gmail integration automation in monday UI.

    Automating these steps reduces required labor and guarantees nothing gets overlooked.

    1. Ensure all communication is easily accessible by all: Centralizing projects and workflow communication helps align all stakeholders. Full transparency and visibility means mission-critical details are less likely to be overlooked. Comments on tasks are easier to see and react — in real-time — compared to a message sitting in Slack are on an email chain, often unread.

    Screenshot of comments on a task in the monday UI.

    Long discussion? Summarize decisions and add comments to tasks after the fact.

    1. Set clear performance expectations and measure KPIs: Clear expectations for performance, both on a team and individual level, are always a good idea. Be sure to establish key performance indicators (KPIs) and track them over time. The data will show you how the workflow is impacting the output of your company.

    Transparency is key. Every team and employee should be aware of how they are evaluated.

    1. Use prioritization and milestones to avoid bottlenecks: Bottlenecks are the enemy of productivity. 

    Unresolved bottlenecks have the potential to derail your entire project. The key to avoiding them is to expect them, and then work to minimize.

    Timeline and dependency planning is the first stpe, but it’s also important to single out urgent tasks with priorities and milestones.

    Screenshot of changing the priority of a task in the monday UI.
    1. Create and reuse custom templates to standardize workflows: Once finished, make sure you save the workflow as a template. That will allow you to reuse it at a moment’s notice.

    Templates can help you set up detailed processes for new projects in familiar territory in mere minutes.

    7 templates for standardizing complex workflows

    We love templates here at monday.com. We have hundreds of ready-made templates (all fully customizable) for many different workflows. Here are 7 of them that can be used to help standardize complex workflows:

    1. Employee onboarding

    Easily customize boards in this template to add or remove steps from the new employee onboarding workflow. Optimize the process with automations and integrations specific to your organization.

    With a partially automated workflow, managers can spend more time integrating new hires into the culture — and less time on menial, redundant tasks.

    1. Creative design

    Any design agency or in-house creative team has a multi-step process for delivering finished designs.

    Typically, an internal brief review is passed around amongst designers before a concept is fully fleshed out.

    Screenshot of a design workflow template in the monday UI.

    Using the workflow above, team members can easily add or remove steps to the workflow to make it suit your organization.

    3. Video production

    Video production planning is a complex process with a lot of moving parts. Plus, each project lifecycle has unique variables that can change the necessary inputs.

    This template outlines a basic pre-production workflow that you could repeat for each shoot.

    Screenshot of a video pre-production workflow template in the monday UI.

    While the required resources will vary depending on the budget and length of the project, having polished, repeatable workflows ensures more energy can be focused on high-level project management.

    4. Manufacturing

    If you rely on outside suppliers or manufacturers, you can set up a simple manufacturing workflow like this.

    Screenshot of a manufacturing workflow template in the monday UI. Comments above copied from original document

    Our manufacturing process template — like all monday.com templates — is customizable to better suit internal manufacturing processes.

    5. IT requests or bug reports

    Whether you’re an internal IT department or you offer manager IT services to enterprises, efficiently managing IT requests is imperative.

    Screenshot of an IT request workflow template in the monday UI.

    This IT request/bug reports template helps teams quickly categorize and prioritize important tasks, as well as protect any SLAs.

    1. Lead management

    A future customer has taken the time to proactively fill out of a form on your website to get more information about your offering, to request a demo, or to learn more. Instant hot (or at least warm) lead! Strike while the iron is hot or risk losing customers to competitors.

    Screenshot of a lead management workflow template in the monday UI.

    7. Marketing campaigns

    Developing effective marketing campaigns requires organizing a lot of moving parts. Our fully customizable marketing template prioritizes organization helping teams easily track deadlines and deliverables.

    Manage campaign ideas and requests from the start with this template:

    Screenshot of a marketing campaign workflow template in the monday UI.

    Why wait? Start today.

    If you have made it this far, it’s time to take the next steps. Scroll through our list of fully-customizable templates and find one (or a dozen) that best suits your needs.

    The time is now to get started with monday.com and supercharge your team to work smarter, not harder.

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