What is a Workflow?

When I first started working with workflows, I read a number of books and articles on the subject, each of which defined the term differently. (The same is true of its big sibling, “Business Process”.) So I thought it would be helpful to provide a short explanation of what I mean by “workflow”, and the role workflows play in a typical organization. This is neither the most rigorous nor the most complete definition available, but I find that it works well:

A workflow is a repeatable set of actions that occurs in response to a particular type event, in order to achieve a desired result.

Inside the workflow some information (or, in a manufacturing environment, a physical item) is acted upon and transformed in a series of steps in order to achieve the result. For example, when a customer calls in to place an order, she kicks off a workflow in which team members respond to the information in the order, clarify it, acknowledge it and record it for processing.

The steps in a workflow may be performed entirely by people, entirely by software, or by a combination of both, and there may be just one person (or software application) involved or many. The workflows within an organization fit together to define its end-to-end business processes, which are like high-level workflows that span the organization as a whole.

A workflow continues for as long as each action directly triggers another within the same team or its software; the workflow stops once the information is safely stored in an appropriate place or has been transferred to another team, where it will kick off another workflow that is the next step in the overall business process.

Here’s the key point:

An organization’s workflows limit its overall efficiency. No matter how good or well intentioned the people in the organization, if its workflows are not effective, the organization as a whole will be less effective than it should be.

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