What to consider when documenting workflows

A workflow is a collection of processes that typically includes multiple people or departments and several steps that each depend on the action that comes before them. In addition to clarifying what needs to be done, a workflow also details who is involved and when they need to take action. In many cases, there’s more than one potential outcome. 

For example, getting vacation time approved is a simple workflow: An employee requests vacation time from their manager, and the manager can either approve or deny the request. Those are the two possible outcomes. 

Documenting workflows is an effective way to teach employees what they need to accomplish and how their actions are connected to those of their colleagues. Often, it’s best to use a visual format as opposed to a text-based one.

Identify the workflow

The first step is identifying the specific workflow that you need to document. While this may seem obvious, it’s a step many organizations miss. 

Identifying the workflow means not only choosing the specific collection of processes you want to define, but also figuring out what steps are involved, who performs those steps, when they perform their part, and how all of the different steps work together. In addition, you must specify the different possible outcomes of the workflow and whether there’s a preferred outcome.

Gather information from the people involved

As with all kinds of process documentation, it’s best to speak with subject matter experts. Set aside time to discuss the workflow you’re documenting with the people who are actually involved. Ask them about their interpretation of the different steps ― you might find that it differs from an outsider’s perspective. 

You’ll also want to know if the current workflow is effective or if certain aspects need to change. If there are multiple people involved who play the same role, you may want to interview each of them to see whether they perform the workflow differently and whether that affects the outcome.

Use the right software for documenting workflows

Documenting workflows can be tricky if you don’t have the right tools. While you can start by drafting a rough version by hand with pen on paper, you may have more luck using software that’s designed specifically for workflow documentation. 

Some software, like Lucidchart or Tallyfy, can help you visualize steps with a flowchart diagram, while others, like Jotform, can help you create automated workflows that require approvals to save your organization time and resources. Be sure to consider your documentation needs when deciding which software is right for you.

Keep it simple and focused

Documentation can get quite complex, especially if you’re trying to untangle a set of multiple workflows disguised as one. It’s best to keep your documentation focused on one specific workflow at a time so it’s easy to understand and follow. 

If there are multiple workflows in one document or diagram, it may be visually overwhelming and difficult for employees to understand and apply. For example, it may seem like publishing content on your website is one simple workflow, but upon analysis you may realize that it’s actually multiple workflows (one for publishing blogs, one for publishing podcasts, one for publishing web pages, and so on).

Monitor the workflow process

Once you document the workflow, it’s time to carefully monitor the live action to see whether it matches your diagram. For example, reality may show that certain steps are unnecessary or happen in a different order. 

Once you’ve seen the workflow take place from start to finish several times ― and noted the variables and possible changes ― go back and update your documentation as necessary. Be sure to check with the people involved to see whether they have any insights on the adjustments you’re proposing.

Documenting workflows can be tricky because of all the moving pieces. Be sure to use the right tools and showcase your workflow visually where possible. And remember to always speak with the subject matter experts who are involved.

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