Workflow management: 5 things you need to know
A growing organization is made up of lots of moving parts, with more being put in motion each month. Like a room full of spinning tops, they can either work in sync with each other, or bump into each other, set each other off course, and create other small accidents.
Those spinning tops are like your different business workflows.
Depending on how they interact, they can either work for or against each other. A good manager will need to be able to coordinate and manage those workflows so that they each stay on path without bumping into each other.
In this post, we’ll be looking at what makes up good workflows and how to manage them effectively so your team can get its work done as easily as possible. We’ll also be talking to Amber McCue, a business strategist with tons of expertise with systems and workflows, for her best advice and examples.
What are business workflows?
A workflow is simply the set series of tasks or actions required to get things done, the literal flow of the work.
Every project or routine you and your team complete has a workflow, whether you’ve realized it or not. But not all workflows are intentional, organized, and agreed upon. Only the ones with a proactive manager like yourself overseeing them.
Think of workflows like a food recipe or driving navigation. A recipe might not make the best dessert, but it still produces the desired end result. Navigation will get you to an end destination, though not necessarily via the quickest or most fuel efficient route.
Workflow management involves taking control of your team’s workflows to make sure they produced the desired results as smoothly and effectively as possible.
In general, components of a workflow are details like:
- What needs to be done
- When it needs to be done
- How it needs to be done
- Who needs to do it
For example, Amber is proud of her team’s podcast production workflow. “Our podcast process if pretty dialed in. If it breaks down, it is usually because of me,” she said. “This process works well for a few reasons: It’s clearly documented. Timelines for each step are established. And everyone’s role is clearly defined.”
Other examples of business workflows include onboarding, whether for a new employee, client, or vendor, running regular meetings, and launching a new website.
Why workflow management matters
Like I said earlier, all teams have workflows, whether they’re established or not. This is because even without an organized system around it, work gets done. But with that approach, both you and your team can only do so much.
To lead your employees to do their best work, you need to carefully consider your workflows.
When you first start doing so, the first thing you’ll likely notice is that confusion and mistakes are replaced by clarity and accuracy. When you’ve documented how different tasks need to be completed, there’s team-wide clarity around what work is being done, how, and by whom.
As Amber explained, “No one likes to do more work that is necessary to serve clients well and take care of business. Having strong workflows ensures fewer errors (and less rework). And it ensures no one on the team needs to do more work than what’s necessary. That’s a win for everyone!”
For example, consider her finely tuned podcasting process. Both recording and publishing the podcast require a brief outline of the episode, for the script and show notes respectively.
Without clear workflows, Amber’s team might easily end up producing two outlines: one by the host before recording, and another by the copywriter producing show notes. But with a clear and defined workflow, Amber can easily ensure the outline, along with any other relevant assets, gets passed from team member to another and reused wherever necessary.
Secondly, managing workflows more actively creates ownership and accountability among your team for the parts of the workflow they’re responsible for. People know what they need to do, when, and how, so they can go off and independently do what’s needed. With strong workflows, you shouldn’t need to find yourself micromanaging.
And finally, once your workflows are documented, you can easily adjust and optimize them. As Amber explained, “It gives you a place to go to when things aren’t working anymore. Instead of looking back at who did what wrong, first look at the workflow and see what needs to be updated in the system.”
How to manage your workflows more effectively
So, ready to go from spinning top bumper cars to more of a synchronized symphony? To take control of your workflows and use them to empower your team to do better work, remember the following tips.
Taking control of your workflows starts with creating a “single source of truth” around what they are in the first place. This means documenting them, writing them down to have on record. Start simple, and as you get more of a hold on things, you can add in details.
Amber even recommends just opening up a word document before moving to more advanced and dedicated workflow or project management software. That way, you’re already clear on what you’re managing within the software.
“Don’t be afraid to keep it simple. What’s important is that you use whatever workflow management solution you have,” she recommends.
When documenting your workflows, the most important details to nail down first are the specific tasks required, who will complete them, and when. As you build out your workflow documentation more, you can add more information about the tasks like best practices, useful templates or resources, or anything else that helps your team complete the work at hand.
Once this is done, make sure your whole team has access to it regularly so they can reference information relevant to them as they complete their part of the workflow.
Once you’ve started documenting your workflows with your team, you’ll want to start considering the relationships and dependencies involved, both between the tasks and the team members completing them.
This is where a poorly managed workflow creates a lot of confusion and stress.
“As you work with interconnected systems, consider inputs and outputs of each workflow,” Amber explains. “If one cannot start until another is finished, call that out in each workflow so someone isn’t stressing out for no reason! I’ve seen that happen more than I can count.”
Sometimes, workflows will contain a series of tasks that can be completed in almost any order, or at least in a few stages. In others, everything needs to be performed in a very particular order. Going back to the podcast example, if an editor is ready to edit a podcast before the host has recorded it, that can create a bottleneck in the workflow.
You might also have assets that need to be “carried” from one step to the next. From the same example, consider the podcast outline mentioned earlier that’s used in both the script and the show notes.
These relationships are known as dependencies, where one stage of the workflow can’t “begin” until others have ended, they can’t be worked on at the same time. And when such dependencies exist, they’re crucial to make note of.
Audit and adjust regularly
Finally, workflows aren’t set in stone. The way your team works can and should change as you take on new projects, grow or shrink in size, start using new tools, and more. And as I mentioned before, your workflow documentation should be your team’s “single source of truth.”
That means it needs to be updated as steps, plans, and team members change. While you don’t need to tweak and edit your documentation every time a small detail is adjusted, you don’t want it to get so out of date that your team members can’t rely on it as a guide.
A good goal to aim for is to perform a quarterly workflow audit, where you and your team discuss the current workflows and any updates, changes, or optimizations that should be made.
Optimize and repeat
Once you and your team start thinking about and following your workflows more, you’ll all continue to improve your skills.
Both the skills required for the work itself, and your workflow management skills.
Improvements will continue to become easier to find until your workflows are smoothly running machines, transporting your projects to completion and your team to success.