Understanding workflow management

Reap the rewards of a refined workflow process with this detailed guide to workflow management.

What is a workflow?

A workflow is an outline of the sequence of events needed to carry out a task. Workflow steps dictate business processes through the systematic organization of resources and describe the path that takes tasks from "not yet started" to "complete."

Some workflows are easier to document than others and can typically be categorized under three main types: process, project, and case.

Process workflows can be entirely outlined from the very first step. This type of workflow well-describes car manufacturing. Tasks are predictable and standardized with little room for variation.

Project workflows are similar to process workflows but provide more room for flexibility. They function more as bespoke solutions instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. An example of this would be an artist taking commissions for paintings. While the artist knows that at the end of each project, they will have created a painting, they can expect the process to vary depending on what they will be painting.

Case workflows can vary greatly depending on the circumstances of the request with the right course of action becoming apparent as more information is gathered. IT support tickets and insurance claims would fall under case workflows as, at the start, those involved will be unsure of the action they’ll need to take or of what the result will be.

Outlining a workflow process can increase accountability and reduce project risk by providing greater visibility and oversight. Documenting process information helps ensure work can reliably be completed and repeated. This means businesses are able to better measure their capability and capacity, making workflows an incredibly important tool in business process management.

The history of workflows

The harmonogram, invented by Polish engineer Karol Adamiecki, is credited as being one of the earliest known forms of a workflow management system. The harmonogram outlined operations with paper strips which noted the next and previous task in the process. Paper tabs were attached to these strips to measure the time required to complete them, with each tab representing a unit of time.

To visualize this, imagine an Excel file. Each Excel row serves as the harmonogram’s paper tabs to indicate an amount of time and each Excel column represents a different task in the workflow. A process with five tasks will require five columns, or tabs. If each task takes 2 hours, we can demonstrate this by marking cells 1 and 2 in column A, 3 and 4 in B, 5 and 6 in C, 7 and 8 in D, and 9 and 10 in E. This will show us that it should take 10 hours in total to complete all five tasks.

By mapping each necessary event and time needed for them all to be completed, Adamiecki could provide managers with an accurate estimate of their total production time. Production updates would indicate the amount of work remaining in relation to the amount completed, providing an overview of the amount of time lost. The strips would be highlighted if they fell behind forecast with signs and letters describing the reasons for their delay. On completion of the project, Adamiecki encouraged managers to take a picture of the finished harmonogram and factor the progression of completed jobs in future plans.

The harmonogram was adapted in Poland as early as 1896 and brought about increases in output of between 100 - 400% in chemical plants, metal rolling mills, agriculture, and mining. Adamiecki presented his results of his case studies to the Society of Russian Engineers in Ekaterinoslaw in 1903, however his chart was not published until 1931 and even then, was only done so in Polish. This has meant that Gantt charts have become much more widely recognized as a building block for workflow templates.

Henry Gantt designed his eponymous charts between 1910 and 1915, though similar designs were also published in 1912 by Hermann Schürch, whose work was generally not considered noteworthy at the time. Gantt charts demonstrate the tasks that needed to be completed, the people responsible for each task, and the time needed for each task to be completed. They visualize workflows slightly differently from harmonograms, instead displaying tasks vertically and using horizontal bars to represent task duration, milestones, and dependencies. Many timeline templates have adopted this view and it is very much commonplace today.

Over the years, workflow management software has increased in popularity and industry-specific workflow tools have become readily available.

Workflow examples

Employee onboarding 

The onboarding process for new employees is often a multi-stage and cross-functional one. It can be expected to come with document management considerations as well as the request for legally binding signatures. One element of the onboarding workflow may look like this:

  • Step one: HR manager to send a welcome email with onboarding documents to all new hires

  • Step two: New hire to read welcome email and open attached documents

  • Step three: New hire to sign contract of work and send back to HR

  • Step four: HR to process and store documentation

Each step in the workflow is both a potential bottleneck and an opportunity to refine the process. To ensure that HR managers are providing new hires with everything they need, they could consider creating a shared folder with the hire’s manager. This folder could contain all the relevant files for a new starter and save the HR manager from needing to request them.

The files sent to the new hire could receive files from a password protected link or with viewing permissions only available to those on the team to ensure file security. Legal documents could be processed through HelloSign and given an electronic signature, and there are tools available that would allow the HR manager to even automate the welcome email itself.

Developing a video campaign

Client and agency relationships may experience workflows that require:

  • Step one: Company brand manager to create and share a brief

  • Step two: Agency’s account manager to take brief, create requested video and send to brand manager for review

  • Step three: Brand manager to share with stakeholders for their feedback

  • Step four: Account manager to make edits according to feedback and deliver final file

This project workflow revolves around sending long videos and content collaboration which can be common pain points. These processes in particular could be made more seamless by working with Dropbox which would allow users to send large files quickly and without compression. Users would also be able to leave time-based comments at specific points of the video, making for clear and precise feedback, and resulting in a better final product.

Ad hoc project management

When engaging in a client partnership, projects may require work outside of their initial scope and additional requests for new tasks may arise. Although optimizing a workflow for the unexpected is impossible, there are a number of steps that can be taken to ensure that unforeseen requests are well-handled.

With established document management procedures, ad hoc requests can have a predefined area for delivery that stakeholders will already have access to. By using Dropbox to store your deliverables, any changes made to files are automatically synced and you’ll never need to worry about having the most up-to-date version of your work.

If you’re already writing your meeting notes with Dropbox Paper, then task management for additional requests is simple. Just tag the project manager with a request and a proposed due date and you’re good to go. Paper even sends automatic reminders to help make sure everyone stays on track.

Process mapping workflows

When creating your own workflow diagrams, it is important to document an accurate representation of your process and ignore rare cases and exceptions. If a process involves team members, it is best to get the people executing the process to provide their input as their insight is invaluable.

While process workflows may be the easiest to map, case and project workflows should not be ignored. In these cases, consider creating workflows for the most commonly completed cases and projects as this is where the greatest benefits of process optimization will be felt.

There’s no shame in your initial workflow not being a perfect process. The purpose of the exercise is to identify room for improvement and make each new workflow iteration better than the last. Getting the process documented is just the first step, but a critical one. There is arguably no end to this process as new developments in workflow software or technology as a whole may provide new opportunities for growth.

Dropbox and its growing number of integrations mean there are countless ways your workflow can be refined. Even small quality of life improvements like viewing files from multiple programs in one integrated folder can have an enormous impact on the way you carry out your assignments. Whether you’re working on a project alone or as part of an international team, your way of working can only be improved by plugging Dropbox into your process.

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