How to Formalize and Refine Workflows in Your Organization and Why You Should

Do your managers know how their employees get work done? If an employee quits, do all of their processes leave with them? Documenting workflows gives the company a record of exactly how work gets done, and those processes can be analyzed for improvement. 

Documenting processes is no easy task, however. Each employee goes through several processes daily. Use this guide to learn how to best document workflow and then how to update and refine those formalized workflow processes.

Make Sure Your Workflows Are Thorough

As you start the documentation process, take time to establish the information you need to get out of your workflow. If information is missing or the processes are incomplete, then this documentation will not be useful. 

“Would an architect or structural engineer make recommendations or changes to a building without first carefully analyzing the facts of a blueprint?” asks leadership consultant Kris Fannin. “No. If they made these decisions based on assumptions and not facts, the structural integrity of the building is compromised.” 

Workflow documentation isn’t meant to help leaders micromanage their employees or show what positions can be made redundant. It is meant to show business analysts and managers how work is getting done — and, after analysis, whether those steps can be improved. 

Nick Greene at workflow software provider Tallyfy is the first to admit that the term “workflow” often becomes a buzzword to cover any process or procedure within an organization. He defines a process as a list of sequential tasks, while a workflow addresses who is involved and when they are involved in the process. This added information makes workflows more concrete, with clear timelines and responsibilities for team members to follow.  

The team at project management app integrator Unito also encourages managers to look for “hidden team processes,” which involve multiple teams and may not have one clear owner. 

For example, someone within the company may decide that a page needs to be updated, and then the design, copy and marketing teams all work together to make that happen. There is no clear process or workflow in place for prioritizing the work and getting it done. This is a hidden workflow that can fly under the radar (often called a one-off or ad hoc project) throughout the workflow documentation process.      

Taking time to review the workflow requirements can help you get an idea for the scope of the project ahead of you and how involved your team members need to be.


Gain Employee Buy-In for Workflow Creation

Once you have an idea for the scope, you can start to build excitement for the workflow creation process. 

Employees often simply follow old habits or just go with what someone told them to do when they first started. They don’t know why they do something and might not be able to explain exactly what they do to make something happen. Developing workflows helps uncover the black box that is employee processes. 

“[With formalized workflows], the team member can see all the tasks that have been assigned to him, their priority and some relevant data about them,” the team at workflow management software provider Flokzu writes. “In sum, once a task is done, it is possible to immediately jump into the next priority task, without delay, increasing personal efficiency and therefore, your whole team productivity through workflow automation.” 

Anyone can step in to complete a task, and employees can train others on how to do work and why certain steps are important.

One of the best ways to thoroughly document workflows is to involve your employees and help them see the benefits of putting their processes onto paper, says the team at business process management software provider Gravity Flow. If employees are engaged with their work and want to do their best, they won’t mind you asking how they get work done. Plus, many workers would rather have highly manual or cumbersome tasks removed from their plates so they can focus on meaningful work. 

Gravity Flow cites data from ADP that found 55 percent of employees feel positively about “the replacement of repetitive tasks with automation.” They aren’t worried about robots taking their jobs, but rather want to offload tasks that take up time and resources without driving meaningful results.

SaaS company Formstack found similar insights in their research. A 2018 report on workflow automation, which surveyed nearly 300 managers, directors and C-suite executives, found that:

  • 62 percent of respondents could identify three or more major inefficiencies that could be automated.

  • 54 percent said poor communication or repetitive errors were their organization’s top issues.

  • 55 percent of managers spend eight hours per week on administrative tasks instead of strategic initiatives.

Process workflows are meant to address these insights. By improving communication and reducing waste, employees and managers can make the most of their time. This is how you get employee buy-in for the project and can motivate team leaders to see it through to completion. 


Create Formalized Workflows With Employee Turnover in Mind

To get an idea for how you can effectively formalize your workflows, Amanda Athuraliya at Creately sets out tips for creating thorough and effective process documents. The guide is a good place to start for documenting your own steps to get a feel for the process. Some tips are:

  • Document each process separately.

  • Start with a common process or one single process within a department instead of covering the entire organization at once.

  • Use screenshots, charts, graphs, and examples as often as possible.

  • Have reviews and revisions made by a process owner at least once per year.

It is all too common that workflows are created once and then never reviewed, or they are created by one person who leaves the company and never passes them on. For these workflows to be effective, they need to be accessible and updated regularly.

Growth strategy consultant George Deeb says turnover is one reason why workflow documentation should be an important company-wide effort. He notes that many business owners and managers are so focused on work they take processes for granted, until “one of their key employees quits with all that institutional knowledge undocumented in their head.” As a result, business comes to a halt and everyone is left picking up the pieces and trying to figure out how that key employee got work done.   

Documentation with turnover in mind is particularly important now that paper trails are increasingly being replaced by digital, writes the team at BP Logix, a business process management software provider. Training manuals and explainer files are getting recycled or shredded, leaving companies wondering how things are done or why certain processes exist. Documenting processes as your team becomes increasingly digital will be important when bringing on new employees and passing knowledge along.

No Company is Too Big or Too Small for Workflow Documentation

Even if you think your company is operating efficiently or that you understand how every process functions, it is in your best interest to review your processes and document them for the future. 

“If your business isn’t already suffering from chaotic operations, it’s only a matter of time before process complexity increases and disarray sets in,” the team at cloud-based workflow platform Kissflow writes. “Process documentation is vital to maintaining a healthy, productive business. Getting a firm handle on your core processes early on can facilitate explosive growth while sustaining excellent service delivery.” 

Even if your process workflow is only you and one other person, taking steps toward documentation now can help when you start to grow. 

Large companies can benefit from documentation on a micro and macro level. In an article for workflow management software provider Process Street, Adam Henshall examines a case study of how workflows can improve operations by addressing the tasks and roles needed to complete a task.

In a hospital operating room, different doctors and nurses had different policies for who did what and when. This created confusion because employees had to change their behavior based on who was working. By creating process workflows and standardizing roles and functions, everyone was on the same page. As a result, the operating room saw more patients each day, meaning the process workflow documentation literally saved lives.


Examples and Resources for Implementing a Workflow Strategy

Fortunately, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel in your process documentation and improvement. Several companies have done this before and shared their wisdom for others to follow. 

“It’s not hard to document work processes, but it does take time,” writes online project manager  Denise O'Berry. “The time is well worth it though because it will help you determine if the processes are efficient or if there are steps that can be eliminated or changed.” 

She created 10-step process for documenting workflows, which starts with naming the process and identifying the start and end points, through to having the workflow documentation reviewed and approved by all team members involved. 

For another example of workflow documentation, the team at Cflow give an example of what a workflow would include for employee onboarding in the HR department. Everything from notifying the candidate to granting them access to certain tools and the introduction process is included. This way each new employee has the same experience and HR teams aren’t scrambling to make sure they remember to do everything they need to for the new hire.

If you still need to sell your team or your leadership on the importance of process documentation, check out the infographic shared by Dann Albright at learning management platform Continu. It sets out visual, five-step process for clear documentation, plus he makes an argument for the amount of time companies can save investing in workflow creation. Albright cites data that poor processes cause 44 percent of inefficiencies within organizations and businesses can lose up to 30 percent of their annual revenue because of those inefficient processes.  

There’s a Growing Your Firm podcast episode at Jetpack Workflow that’s well worth your time too. Business consultant Kellie Parks discusses time saving workflow tools, so your documentation processes, review and update processes don’t have to be as time-consuming and work-intensive as they may be currently. 

Once your team has formalized workflows, updating and improving them should be second-nature. It is up to your managers to emphasize the benefits of workflow creation and to create time for optimization throughout the year. 

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