Is a workflow management system important? Well, ask yourself:
How much of your day is spent in meetings?
What about in your email inbox?
Or even just jumping from tab to tab in your browser?
Be honest — you have way too many tabs open right now.
The reality is most of us waste a ton of time each workday. Atlassian found that the average employee is interrupted 56 times per day, and spends the equivalent of two hours per day recovering from those distractions. That’s a remarkable amount of time.
So many solutions are focused on helping you manage those distractions. But the vast majority of this inefficiency could be addressed before it happens by building better workflows—by creating a workflow management system.
In this article
What is workflow management?
To answer that question, you first need to understand workflows. A workflow is a way in which you complete a repeated task. Sounds simple, right? But it’s every step that takes a blog post from idea to publication, everything that goes into onboarding a new team member, and all the back-and-forth involved in building and launching a new feature.
Workflows are usually far from simple. Where a process is typically very linear, with something moving from A to Z, workflows tend to be more dynamic. They’ll often involve a lot of back-and-forths, branching paths, and many different tools and teams.
This complexity is exactly what workflow management attempts to address. It involves mapping out your workflows, tracking them, and then optimizing them — often through integration and automation.
Workflow management is cyclical, meaning every time you streamline workflow, you remap it and then begin tracking it again until your next optimization. This is about constantly striving for improvement.
While it can be done manually, a new category of workflow management software has emerged.
These aren’t your classic, linear business process management (BPM) tools. This isn’t a SaaS automation tool like Zapier. The software is meant to make dynamic workflow management simple and accessible.
Essential parts of a workflow management system
While many workflow management solutions offer key functionality within a single tool, at Unito we’re working on an end-to-end solution, one that spans all the tools where work already gets done.
According to GigaOm, a workflow management solution needs to provide four key capabilities:
The first is the design. To optimize your custom workflows, you need to be able to map them out and visualize them — much like in a flowchart. This helps them feel less fragmented and ensures the different stages of your workflow aren’t siloed in a specific tool or team. Ideally, this functionality would be as simple as drag and drop.
Next is integration. Your workflow system should bridge the gaps that exist between your key work tools, making them interoperable and allowing information to flow smoothly between them. It may be the bridge between document management, collaboration tools, resource management tools, time tracking tools, and other tools.
A good workflow tool can also replace external automation software you might use for this purpose.
Third on the list is identity. Who are the people involved in your workflow?
Are they constantly jumping between tools, signing in and out of accounts, struggling to remember handles and passwords?
A good workflow management system (WfMS) helps the members of your team to easily manage a single identity, even across different work tools.
Finally, there’s analytics. How do you know if your optimization efforts are paying off? Where most of us look at the analytics provided by individual tools, a workflow management solution should look at performance on the workflow level.
This tracking will provide deeper insights into how people work as long as the workflow exists.
An effective workflow tool should include all four of these elements. But as mentioned, you could try to manually build a workflow management system as well.
This would be very hands-on, time-intensive work. You would need to follow workflows from end-to-end, track specific projects and tasks as they progress, and then try to identify and implement potential optimizations.
If you go the manual route, I’d recommend dedicating an entire role to workflow management within your business.
How a workflow management system can improve your business process
There are four main areas where workflow management can make a world of difference for your business process:
- Individual productivity
- Team alignment
- Information transparency
- Ease of collaboration
As previously mentioned, most of us waste a ton of time each day. Less than 60% of your time at work is spent productively. Workflow management can help eliminate a lot of the factors that contribute to this startling lack of productivity.
How? First, it allows people to work from the tools best-suited to their job. Workflow management identifies where your workflows across teams and tools and use integration to connect them. This means you can stick to the Trello boards you love and not waste time learning Jira or copying and pasting information into another team’s tool — streamlining your day and saving you hours of work each week.
Speaking of busywork, workflow automation also eliminates menial tasks that are taking up unneeded time in your workflow. Workflow tools can enable you to set up automated processes according to business rules so that repetitive tasks are handled automatically through the workflow processes.
And then there are emails and meetings. By making information more readily available to everyone within the tools they’re already using (more on that below), workflow management can drastically reduce the time you spend in your inbox or trying not to yawn on Zoom.
The number one challenge managers face is juggling their own work with their management responsibilities. Ensuring alignment is really difficult, especially if your team is working across multiple tools and locations.
A workflow engine allows you to optimize workflows no matter where they live. Then, integration empowers business leaders to monitor workflows in real-time from their own tool to ensure alignment. That way, when something seems out of place — or the team encounters a blocker — you can quickly jump in and set things right.
Plus, the performance data surfaced through workflow management empowers team leads to revise and improve how their teams work, leading to better alignment down the line.
Do you waste a ton of time just trying to find the info you need? The average employee spends about eight hours each week locating information.
Workflow management breaks down tool silos that keep data locked away, while still providing access controls so you can control who can access, see, or edit files.
Integration makes work accessible to everyone who needs it and provides managers with the visibility that they need. Increased transparency means individual contributors have all the information required to prioritize work and speed up independent decision-making. And all of this can happen asynchronously, meaningless back-and-forth messaging and fewer meetings.
Ease of collaboration
Collaboration is getting harder. As people shift from generalized tools to role-specific tools, there’s less and less overlap in where people work. Throw in the growth of remote work, and you’re left with a challenging environment in which to tackle cross-functional project management.
But workflow management eliminates key blockers by turning whatever tool you use into a collaborative platform. People can share feedback, move items through approval workflows, hand-off work, and push projects to completion from whatever workflow software they choose. No sacrificing your work tools. No information getting lost in translation. And no endless meetings.
Workflow management examples
What does workflow management look like in practice? There are a near-infinite number of use cases, but let’s take a look at two different workflows: team coordination and a cross-functional project.
A team coordination workflow
A manager needs to know what their team is working on in order to keep everyone aligned and driving towards the same goals. That’s hard to do when everyone is working on different tools.
With that in mind, here’s an example of a common team coordination workflow:
- Hold a stand-up meeting with your team every morning to discuss the previous day’s task assignments and plan for today.
- Check your task management tool to see what tasks and projects are due today.
- Check the work tools of your various team members to track progress on their tasks and ensure alignment. Or reach out to them by chat or email to request these updates, initiate an approval process, etc.
- Host or participate in multiple meetings per day to get updates on projects or KPIs.
- Distribute updates to the rest of the team through additional meetings, email, or chat.
- Plan new initiatives and build them in each of your team’s tools.
- Pull information from all of these different sources into reports from your board or executives.
If that feels like a lot of work, that’s because it is. And that workflow neglects all the regular day-to-day work a team lead might need to accomplish themselves.
Disparate sources of information lead to busywork and meeting overload. Spending your days jumping from a Gantt Chart in Asana to a Kanban board in Trello, trying to make sense of how projects are progressing, isn’t the best use of your time.
Workflow management is the ticket to process improvement. It will help you identify all the places where you’re jumping between tools and doing repetitive work. Then, it will provide you with a means for process automation, to get rid of that busywork through optimized, automated workflows.
Here’s what a team coordination workflow looks like after a bit of workflow management:
- Build a centralized team project in your preferred work management tool.
- Integrate your tool with the tools of your reports with a workflow management tool. A good two-way integration will allow information to flow between tools so everyone stays up to date.
- Monitor your team’s tasks directly from your favorite tool each day. Updates are automatically made visible in your project, in real-time. This allows you to quickly provide feedback on a specific task, follow-up with questions, or step in to correct course entire projects.
- Provide updates, delegate work, and spearhead initiatives all from that same project.
- Integrate your team project with the work tools of your board or management, and sync important updates directly to them.
A cross-functional project workflow
When different teams need to work together on a project, communication is extremely important. Everyone needs to understand what their collaborators are working on, how the project is progressing, and whether there are any blockers along the way.
Traditionally, here’s what that workflow might look like:
- A kick-off meeting is held with all project stakeholders to plan the project and assign tasks.
- Each person or team involved in the project will enter their tasks into their own work tools.
- Each week, you hold a project meeting to update each other on the tasks that you own, ask questions, or provide feedback.
- In between your meetings, chat and email are used to distribute information, get prompt answers to questions or raise any time-sensitive issues.
- If anyone encounters blockers that impact the project, special meetings are called to deal with the issue as a group.
If you were to map this out, you’d likely be left with an absolute mess. When you rely on weekly meetings to get project updates, you risk spending five days working on something that your coworkers dislike, disagree with, or that doesn’t align with their vision of the project. Suddenly you’re sent back to the drawing board and the project timeline gets pushed back.
Then there’s the potential for communication issues. How often do emails get lost in your inbox? How many Slack messages do you get each day? Because this type of communication is separate from your work tool stakeholders might miss key discussions.
With a workflow management system, you could address many potential issues before they happen. Here’s what the optimized workflow might look like:
- A kick-off meeting is held with all project stakeholders. A plan for the project is formed and tasks are assigned.
- Each person or team involved in the project will enter their tasks into their own work tools. Those tools are integrated and the relevant tasks and projects are synced together.
- Everyone involved in the project can track the progress of tasks, communicate, and collaborate, all from their preferred work tool. All information is immediately visible to stakeholders, and all discussions happen within the project, for everyone to see.
- Real-time updates mean people can identify issues as they happen and feedback is received more promptly, reducing wasted effort and keeping the project on deadline.
Thoughts on workflow management?
Our workflow management systems need to be efficient. Workflow management provides a framework in which you can consistently improve them through integration, automation, and analytics. A better workflow means a more aligned, productive, and collaborative team.
Have any questions or thoughts on workflow management? Have a preferred workflow solution? Let me know what you think in the comments below.