A Guide to Workflow Planning and Planners

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby on Mar 06, 2017 (Last modified on Aug 03, 2021)

How do you ensure that work items are noted, started, assigned, tracked, and verified to completion? The answer is simple: with a workflow. Whether your organization is large or small, a solo enterprise or a conglomerate of thousands, defined and repeatable workflows reflect your business processes and help you efficiently create deliverables. But how do you get the benefit of these remarkable tools? Workflow planning and workflow planners can help.

In this article, we review the difference between workflows and business processes and how workflow planning relates to these concepts. We also cover the components of workflows, how workflows are displayed, and provide workflow templates that you can adapt to fit your needs. Finally, industry experts and workflow users discuss workflow planning tools, available options for planning your own workflows, and if you should consider creating them yourself.


What Are Workflows and Workflow Plans?

Your team has a certain business process that it follows for moving an idea, work item, or bug from conception to finish. A workflow represents that process (or many processes), an agreed-upon series of steps performed to finish each work item in a quality manner. 

There is some disagreement about the exact meaning of business processes vs. workflows, and whether they are the same. The general consensus is that a workflow is a process at the execution or task level: the model, definition, plan, or even the map of what should happen, which can be followed again and again to reliably create a deliverable. 

In a business context, workflows are considered essential parts of an organization along with IT, teams, hierarchies, and projects. Today, especially on production lines and in software development, designing, planning, and running workflows is automated. Workflows aren’t a new concept - in fact, they were used in manufacturing and other enterprises before software (think of the Kanban cards used in the Toyota plant in the 1940s). 

Workflow Components
In a workflow, work items - which can be tangible items, information, or services - have specific states that represent the status of the process at a given time. For example, these states could be labelled Not Started, On Hold, and In Progress, and Completed. To move from state to state (also referred to as a step or status), a work item goes through a transition. You can also apply conditions to transitions to ensure consistency, such as only allowing certain team members to execute them, only if they have approval, or only if they include a comment. 

A workflow has a start point and an end point. Workflows can be linear (the first step starts from outside the workflow) or looped (the flow is self-contained, and the endpoint initiates a new start point). Every workflow requires an initiator, a person or event that sets off the workflow. A workflow also includes participants, or team members who may be assigned work items to process and move to the next stage. 

You can schedule workflow steps so that work items are finished at a certain time, and they may require prerequisites to transition to the next step. For example, to move a work item in a bug tracking system to the “Completed” state, a comment may be required. 

 

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What Is Workflow Planning?

Workflow planning can consist of two efforts: defining or creating the workflow, and running or scheduling the workflow:

  • To define a workflow, find a set of ordered activities that, when run, can change a situation to achieve a goal. The workflow is a model and may be automated through a software program. 
  • To run the workflow, apply it to a specific situation. For example, a printing job shop may diagram a basic workflow that includes taking an order, receiving a deposit, adding the order form to the To-Do folder, adding the completed work to an Approval folder, and then adding the work to a Customer Pick-Up folder. The workflow is run when an order is received, and the forms and work are applied to the correct folders in the correct order. 

A Visual Tool
Workflows can be expressed visually through flowcharts and process maps (the graphical representation of a workflow is simply called a diagram). A diagram helps you and your team to understand the steps in a workflow and the order in which they occur, and what happens during each transition.

 

A diagram of a workflow rendered in Atlassian JIRA. The colored rectangles represent steps in the workflow, the lines and arrows represent the paths that can be taken, and the text describes the type of transition between stages.

In a flowchart, steps and transitions are depicted using specialized symbols; many disciplines use specific symbols. The most sophisticated expression of this graphical language is found in Business Process Modelling Notation (BPMN)

 

A process map may offer more information on the requirements for each step. We’ve included a workflow process map template that you can customize.


Workflow Planner Jobs

Although workflows may sound esoteric, they are widely used, and are often merely called planning or scheduling. Rather than defining or building the workflow, the workflow planner is the person responsible for applying the workflow. That is, the workflow planner ensures that the correct resources are deployed at the right time to get the job done efficiently. The following listing shows some of the jobs that employ workflow planning:

  • Senior planner using Kanban
  • Planner for packaging manufacturer
  • Maintenance planner for fertilizer company
  • Planner for assembly department
  • Planner for training company
  • Merchandise planner for pet product megastore
  • Job planner/controller for metal fabricators and stampers
  • Planner/scheduler for a joint replacement manufacturer
  • Production planner to non-profit fundraising consultant
  • Scheduler/planner for ship builder
  • Manufacturing buyer/planner for custom cable manufacturer

As you can see, there is no shortage of opportunities for those looking to pursue a career as a workflow planner. 


What Industries Use Workflow Planning?

Workflows are concerned with creating consistent, repeatable procedures. Some enterprises that use workflow planning include:

  • Professional Photography: Photographers need to schedule and plan sessions, and therefore must note locations, the number of subjects, and any necessary props. After a session, photographers must record the session details and customer purchases to capture best practices. Additionally, for example, they must keep track of if the customer wants copies of the photographs on the same paper, or with the same color of matte.
  • Restaurants: Commercial kitchens and restaurants rely on the logic and efficiency that a good workflow provides. Each member of the kitchen staff needs to understand who does what, when, and where in the kitchen. Without a workflow, food may never get cooked on time, and the safety of employees (around flames, hot surfaces, and wet floors around sinks and dishwashers) could be jeopardized. A kitchen may epitomize the application of Total Quality Management, wherein everyone at every step of food preparation and service must take responsibility for quality. 
  • Hotels: The hotel industry depends upon reliable workflows to ensure communication during shift changes and flexibility to accommodate unanticipated guest requests. Tasks (such as complete room cleaning) must be scheduled to fit the check-in and check-out times, and task schedules and staffing must anticipate peak booking times. 
  • Governing Scientific Organizations: Standards committees develop and approve workflows to describe their process for updating and reviewing conventions. 
  • Software Development Teams: Workflows are essential to development teams to ensure that new features are coded and tested, and critical bugs are resolved and verified promptly. Software and manufacturing teams have special interest in workflows, since they often help eliminate bottlenecks and find the critical path in order to meet delivery goals.

History of Workflow

The concept of employing a logically documented process for conducting work originates in manufacturing in the early part of the 20th century. The word “workflow” was first acknowledged  in the 1921 book The Railway Engineer. An early researcher of the concept was American engineer Henry Gantt. Studying what was called “scientific management,” he developed the eponymous Gantt chart in the early twentieth century, which became a management tool for high-profile projects such as the Hoover Dam. The study of workflows and workflow planning became even more important for large-scale manufacturing initiatives during World War II, and later for the Apollo space programs, which called for increasing codification, traceability, and repeatability of processes.

Another early and seminal pioneer of workflow planning was the American polymath W. Edwards Deming, an electrical engineer by training and management consultant by profession. Considered an industry hero in Japan, he is credited with influencing the rational work planning practices that gave rise to Japan’s post-war research and manufacturing success. Deming’s 14 Points, which he delineated in the 1980s, influenced the Total Quality Management movement discussed in the next section. 


Methods for Improving Workflow Planning

Although much of workflow improvement theory may seem obvious to us now (i.e. the idea that it is important to analyze the cause of bottlenecks), it continued to be debated and tested in the 1960s and through the remainder of the 20th century: 

  • Six Sigma was introduced at Motorola, and later championed at GE by CEO Jack Welch. Six Sigma promotes the ideas that improvement must be continuous, process must have specific analyzable steps, and quality requires commitment from the whole organization (from bottom to top).  
  • Business Process Reengineering originated in the 1990s and focuses on analysis and the update of business processes and workflows.
  • Lean Management promotes long-term, continuous improvement through small changes. 
  • Total Quality Management (TQM) is the belief that every team member in every part of the organization and at every step of the production cycle must be committed to quality. Quality can’t wait for the quality control or test phase of production.
  • Theory of Constraints states that you need to find the constraints that are keeping your organization from achieving its goals. The constraints could be one or a hundred different things: find them and then find a way to improve what’s creating the issue. 

An Example of a Workflow Plan

All types of enterprises and companies can use workflows. Here is one example of a workflow in a marketing firm:

Blue Array Ltd. is a boutique search marketing agency that specializes in large scale SEO and tailormade services to large businesses such as Time Inc. and to startups such as Live Better With

In their workflow management software, customized with a Kanban spin, team members receive tasks under categories Do, Doing, or Done. The workflow is as follows:

  1. At the end of the week, the SEO managers create tasks for the next week that they add to the Do folder.
  2. The project management team delegates the tasks and deadlines to team members. 
  3. This information is listed on the company calendar so that team members can see what tasks are on deck for the week and their deadlines.
  4. When a task is assigned to a team member, it appears in the Doing folder. 
  5. If the team member completes the task by the deadline, the task is added to the Done folder. If not, the item remains in the Doing column and is highlighted in red.
  6. The SEO manager checks that the items in the Done folder are to specification, and approves them, which removes them from the queue.

 

To learn more about working with Kanban, read Visualize Your To-Do List: Using Kanban Boards To Optimize Workflow.


Workflow Planner Tools

There are workflow planning tools for users at all levels, from solopreneurs to business process planners for manufacturing. Tools can range from bound paper planners, to downloadable printable pages, to digital pages intended to be updated with a text editor. Software solutions can be on-premise or cloud-based, and often integrate with other programs for a near end-to-end solution.

Paper
Well-conceived planners, created by those who understand the interest area, are essentially combined calendars and task lists. They anticipate what information you have to gather for each new job, what you need to prep for the job, and location notes (if working off-site). They help you keep track of customer purchases and even offer a way to note soft information, such as customer birthdays or anniversaries. 

Just as you might set the alarm on your device, a physical planner can remind you every day to keep up with good habits. It gives you a place to capture all the inspirations, ideas, necessary tasks, and deadlines that can keep you up at night if you try to remember everything. 

But who still uses paper? CEO Emmanuel Pont of Smarter Time, an AI-based time management app that guesses your activities and helps you to understand your time use and improve your work-life balance, is an advocate of paper planners.

 

“Even if technology offers practical improvements, there is a definite pleasure in physically crossing things out in my planner and jotting them down,” he says. “People are also afraid sometimes that technology will fail them, and it feels good to keep a record on paper somewhere. We're habitual beings, which means that even though we can be up to date with the latest in productivity technology, there's still something quite comforting about doing what we've always done.That's the great thing about time management software: it doesn't necessarily need to be a stand-alone resource.” 


If you still like to work on paper, we’ve provided some workflow planning templates that you can download and print.

 

Download Basic To Do List

Excel Word

 

Download Categorized To Do List

Excel | Word | Smartsheet

 

Software
Software solutions exist to automate workflow creation and management. They have the advantage of usually producing a consistent result, and can make work possible for remote teams. 

Running workflows is now usually automated. The software helps to record the workflow and to render a visual example in a diagram, but planning is still largely a manual process, and relies  on a workflow planner observing, noting, and defining the processes in an organization.


How to Choose Workflow Planning Software

Workflow planning and execution are conducted through workflow management software (WfMS). It may sound bulky and intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. 

Elizabeth Hind, Apprentice SEO Executive at Blue Array says, “We think that ultimately the software fits the business process you're optimizing for.” She advises potential workflow software users to consider the size and maturity of the company, how you expect the business to grow, and how new software will fit with your current systems. If your organization uses Agile, and a specific methodology, that might also influence your choice. “Each approach will have a software to match and a business fit,” she adds. 

Workflow software also has two uses: planning the workflow (which only a few people in an administrator role can do), and running the workflow. For workflow planning, consider the following capabilities:

  • Do you have a simple workflow?
  • Do you need BPMN?
  • Does it support multi-step flows?
  • Can you customize the software to your process or do you have to change your process to fit the software?
  • How much coding does it require and can your organization support it?
  • Does it offer reporting?
  • How automated is the process and how much automation do you need?
  • Is there a graphical editor to help you visualize your workflow as you create it?
  • Does it allow you to integrate external data and programs as needed?
  • Is the platform on-premise or cloud-based? 
  • What is the subscription plan and how much does it cost? 
  • Is there a workflow tool available that’s designed specifically for your discipline or industry?
  • Does it let you customize workflows for multiple teams and projects and if necessary, share workflows between them?
  • Can you create work orders? 

For running a workflow, consider the following:

  • Ease of use.
  • Does it reduce long meetings and the number of emails?
  • Does it reduce work in external spreadsheets?
  • Does it have a strong sort capability to view work items through deadlines, projects, assignee, and so on?
  • Does it show status in a single glance?

To learn more about choosing workflow planning software read Experts Provide the Inside Scoop on How to Pick the Best Workflow Management Software for Your Company.


Tips for Planning a Workflow

An accepted workflow can be an essential tool for creating efficiency and quality in any field. The idea behind project management workflow is to create a workflow that can be applied to any project by any project manager at any stage in their career to get a quality, timely deliverable. But is it something any team or team member, can create? Some people think not.

“It took me years to create and document PM Workflow,” says Dan Epstein, co-author (with Rich Maltzman) of the PM Workflow found in the book Project Workflow Management: A Business Approach.  “Only a person familiar with the chosen business area can create a workflow.” 

Although the scope of the workflow may make a difference with how effective you are as a workflow planner, Project Manager Sarah Meerschaert believes it’s possible to create a workflow regardless of your familiarity with the business area. “I think the key to planning is to go in without any assumptions,” she says. “Ask questions like, From here, what are the possible next steps? It's possible to build out a complete map of the possible workflow.” Even if you use workflow software, she suggests starting with a whiteboard to brainstorm options. 

Final Tips
If you do consider the workflow planning options and decide it’s worth it to take the plunge to create your own, here a few final considerations for getting the most out of your workflow:

  • How many workflow steps are needed?
  • Who needs to know what and when in the flow?
  • Who are the workflow participants?
  • Who must approve transitions or steps?
  • Do users need all those choices for each step?
  • Do they need to provide information at a transition?

Have fun planning!


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