Sometimes we need to see complex information to process it.
Like when school teachers have kids build diagrams of the solar system to scale, or when coaches of professional baseball players video record their swings to critique with them later.
A workflow chart, often called a workflow diagram, is one way to bring this concept to the world of project management.
It’s a common tool that a project manager can use to visualize a workflow template for their teams and capture the big picture.
This article offers all the basics behind the workflow chart, including definition, examples, and advice for better project visualization.
What is a workflow chart?
A workflow chart or diagram exists to visualize a process. It uses well-known symbols and shapes to identify different stages of a process, and arrows to connect them all. The end result is a picture that allows you to see how you’ll progress from start to finish.
Workflow charts are used to help team members understand where their tasks fit into the big picture.
Once created, the result is a large (sometimes awkwardly-sized) image with a bunch of arrows pointing in different directions.
Workflow charts do successfully visualize a project.
However, there are many other visual tools that make workflow management a lot easier—like dynamic tables, Gantt charts, timelines and Kanban boards:
A workflow chart will get the job done, though, if you’re willing to continuously sketch something that might change a lot as you go.
To better assess whether it’s a useful tool for your team, let’s dive into more of the details.
Common related terms
There are 2 terms that are commonly used in conjunction with workflow charts, and which you should probably get to know if you’re considering working with one.
- Process Documentation: this is the practice of documenting, writing down, or drawing out a process. As a result of process documentation, you get a process document (no surprise there). That document could be in the form of a workflow chart, if that’s your management tool of choice.
- Business Process Mapping: this is the practice of mapping a process. As a result of business process mapping, you get a process map. That map could also be in the form of a workflow chart or diagram if you so choose.
What’s the difference?
Documenting a process usually focuses more on the step-by-step details. It’s often used to provide training materials for new hires, so they can follow every step in a process.
Process mapping tends to be more about the flow. It covers less of how to do each step and more about the sequence of steps and how they all fit together. It’s good for identifying bottlenecks and potential for improvements.
Workflow chart vs. diagram, data flow diagram and flowchart
There are a lot of terms that describe a workflow chart (we’ve even already clarified that a workflow diagram is the same thing).
To clarify further, here’s how to technically define 2 of the most popular:
- Flowchart: a flowchart simply leads you through the steps. It’s built on basic cause and effect. Once A happens, B will happen next, and so on.
- Data flow diagram (DFD): a DFD takes into account the bigger picture. It leads you through the steps, while also taking into account where things come from, where they end up, and whether or not steps will need to be repeated.
How do you create a workflow chart?
The creation of a workflow chart follows the same basic steps as the creation of any workflow:
- Define the goal of your chart template: whether you’re looking to communicate business processes to management or how tasks will move through a team, pick your audience before you start.
- Define your start and end point: these pillars will ensure that you’re capturing the whole process — as long as they’re accurate. For example, if you’re working to ship a new product, where does that project end? At beta? At the first sale? Figure it out before you start.
- Collect data from your team: they’ll likely have a lot of great information on how you can eliminate inefficiencies and repetitive work that they’ve experienced in the past.
- Design the workflow: we’ll discuss the symbol structure in the next section, but now’s the time to get the steps on paper.
- Analyze results: once you’ve given it a go, shop it around to the people involved to ensure nothing was overlooked or put in the wrong place.
What do the symbols and shapes mean?
In a workflow chart, the shapes are meaningful — not just pretty. Here’s the standard lexicon:
- Oval: your start and end points.
- Rectangle: instructions or actions on behalf of a team.
- Diamonds: decisions, which typically lead to a yes or no, and create a fork in the chart.
- Arrows: connect the shapes, follow them as you go.
- Circles: connectors, which are used to bypass other steps, and also explain why.
You can of course define the meaning of your own shapes if it makes more sense for your project.
We’ll walk you through some examples so you can see how the shapes all fit together.
Types of workflow diagrams (with templates and examples)
There are several types of workflow charts or diagrams, some of which allow for more detail for particularly complex projects.
Here are some of the most common, with examples and templates that you can use to get started.
This type of workflow chart is the most commonly used to make sure team members are kept on track when there are multiple people (or even teams) that need to take part in a single project.
This example illustrates how a request for a change in the management process is made at stakeholdermap.com.
You can clearly see the process from request to implementation, including the review of the request and what happens if it’s not approved. Download the template here.
Swim lane diagram
A swim lane flowchart is built as a metaphorical pool, where every step stays in it’s “lane.” These lanes add another layer of organization.
For instance, you could have steps in a process, and each “lane” is dedicated to a particular employee or team.
The following example uses a swim lane diagram to depict the process of creating a pizza, while adding another layer of organization by attributing an area of the kitchen to each “lane.”
Business Process Modelling Notation (BPMN)
A BPMN is a detailed version of a flow chart or swim lane chart that follows a very specific set of rules put in place by the Object Management Group (OMG). It’s currently the standard for business modelling.
The following depicts a white-label example of how a company might handle the sale of product from order, to manufacturing, to shipment:
Suppliers Inputs Processes Outputs Customers (SIPOC)
A SIPOC specifically focuses on the inputs and outputs of a business process.
When complete, it looks like a hybrid between a flowchart template and a swim lane diagram, only the lanes are always used to organize the process by supplier, input, process, output and customer.
It’s most typically used in manufacturing, like the following example, which depicts the process to create a paint product from supplier to the customer:
No matter what type of flowchart you use, they’re all static images. They can’t drill down into specific tasks, or to see how a particular project is progressing in real time.
Replace your workflow chart with monday.com
We mentioned at the beginning of this article that there are much better ways to visualize your project processes than a workflow chart.
monday.com is the platform that provides project managers with everything they need to be successful, including a visual breakdown of their projects (which is the whole point of the workflow chart).
First off, monday.com provides visibility into every level of the project—from the highest level process down to the nitty gritty of each task your team needs to accomplish to make it happen.
It’s easy to use and built with a beautiful user interface (UI) that your team will be excited to log into everyday.
With a workflow chart, each team member has to continually look back to the process map to see who’s next in the workflow. Then they have to remember to tell that person so that the process isn’t bogged down.
With monday.com, once a team member finishes their task, the relevant stakeholders get notified immediately so the workflow never slows down.
The best part is that this can all happen automatically without logging into the platform. We integrate with tons of other tools and platforms so that operations run smoothly within your tech stack.
The best part, which is consequently the hardest part of working with a workflow chart, is that making changes on-the-go is incredibly easy and nondisruptive.
Our drag and drop interface means that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel if you realize along the way that tweaking your process will make you more efficient.
The workflow chart is a traditional — but outdated — way to visualize your business processes.If you’re considering a workflow chart to streamline your projects, there’s a better way that won’t require recreating an image every time you need to make a change.
Consider embracing a Work OS like monday.com so that your process, work management, reporting and communication can all live under one happy roof.
If you want something that goes (way) beyond a workflow chart and well-beyond traditional project management tools, we’ve got the work management support you’re craving.