What is a workflow?


A workflow comprises the interdependent processes and people required to reach a result that no single participant can achieve alone.

Even the most orderly workplace supports a complex web of activities and people that come together to get things done. The fundamental units of work are tasks, processes and workflows.


A task is the basic building block of all work. All tasks are performed by individuals, but they can vary dramatically in complexity and time required for completion. For example: clicking “send” to submit a document vs the task of completing a draft of the document itself.

Tasks divide into two types: single step and multi-step. Examples of single-step tasks include receiving manager approvals and responding to meeting requests. Examples of multi-step tasks can include any activity requiring further research or analysis, such as when help-desk personnel triage incoming incident tickets to establish urgency and assign responsibility for resolution.


When tasks are grouped together to achieve a desired result or objective, they form a process. When an employee needs help solving an IT issue, for example, she initiates a process made up of multiple tasks.

An example sequence of tasks might look something like this:

1. Identifying the problem
2. Filing a help ticket
3. Ascertaining if her deadlines are impacted
4. Devising a temporary workaround
5. Responding to questions from support staff, etc.

Processes that become interdependent with other people or processes are called workflows.

Submitting a help-desk request to IT is one element of a larger workflow that ultimately resolves the issue. Processes contained in the IT department are set in motion by requests, leading to prioritization, assignment, and fulfillment. The span of activities from problem to solution, and every person involved, comprises a workflow.

Workflows can sometimes be easier to understand in reverse. The help-desk ticket example—an employee’s computer isn’t working and needs to be fixed—is a workflow.

The processes within that workflow break down as follows:

  1. The employee with the broken equipment submits and tracks a help ticket
  2. Help staff prioritizes and investigates the help ticket
  3. A technician visits the employee to see the problem in person

Within the processes are tasks: The visit from a technician involves assigning the problem, determining the employee’s location, confirming that it’s a good time for a visit, etc.

Manual workflows can become digital workflows when companies use software, automation tools and other technologies to digitize and/or automate manual tasks, processes, and workflows.

ServiceNow, for example, uses digital workflows to automate a company’s quarterly financial close, as opposed to forcing accountants to enter massive amounts of financial data manually into an ERP system. Digitizing this workflow eliminates needless busywork. The time saved in doing so allows finance employees to concentrate on higher‑level tasks like analyzing key metrics that drive our business.

Onboarding a new employee is a complex function that almost all companies have in common. It’s a constellation of tasks, processes and workflows that cross multiple business units.

Tasks associated with onboarding generally include:

1. A manager ordering a computer and other equipment
2. The facilities department requisitioning an office or some other form of workspace
3. Security or IT teams issuing ID credentials that will get the new employee into the building where their new office and computer are located

These are separate tasks handled by different individuals, but they roll up into the interdependent process of providing that new employee with a place to work. That process is just one of many (including selecting benefits, or ordering equipment) that comprise the workflow for employee onboarding. By applying digital automation tools to these and other related activities a digital workflow is created.

Both employees and companies realize significant benefits once an activity like employee onboarding becomes a digital workflow. New efficiencies reduce frustrating delays that might have been caused by manual paperwork, allowing employees to start what they were hired for more quickly. Surveys show that employees passing through an automated onboarding process are far less likely to start looking for another job, reducing turnover and its associated costs and boosting individual and department productivity.


The three basic components of workflows are:
1. Input – The resources and materials necessary to complete a single step
2. Transformation – The set of parameters that guide how an Input is received and interacted with
3. Output – The resources and materials created that lead in to the next step

A workflow process is a series of tasks or activities carried out based on user-defined rules or conditions to achieve a business outcome. The process is typically linear and must be completed in parallel or sequentially.

To optimize a process, follow the five-step DMAIC framework:
1. Define the problem or opportunity
2. Measure the process performance
3. Analyze the process to find defects and causes of variation
4. Improve process performance by fixing defects
5. Control the new process with a quality control plan