What is a Workflow Diagram?
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Workflow diagrams explained
Workflow diagrams are helpful visual tools that companies use to simplify and map out processes and workflows. They are similar to flowcharts in that they rely on visual stimuli to improve the understanding of a process that the business finds essential. Because humans are primarily visual learners, being able to look at the map of a process or the sequence of a workflow creates a better understanding. A workflow diagram shows the steps in a process and break up complex operations into more digestible sections. They are useful for businesses and managers who want to understand the different players in a business process and the steps people need to take to complete a process.
Common workflow diagram symbols
There are standardized symbols commonly used in workflow diagrams, just as there are in flowcharts. It’s helpful to understand the conventional symbols used in workflow diagrams so that you can apply them consistently. That way, you can easily read any other workflow diagrams created by your other team members. Here are a few common workflow diagram symbols:
Ovals represent the start and endpoints of a particular workflow or process.
The rectangle symbol in the workflow diagram usually gives the instructions within the sequence.
Diamonds represent the decisions that need to be taken within a process. These decisions will usually split off into two branches/alternative paths.
Circles are less common, as not every workflow diagram includes them. However, they are consistently applied to represent a jump in actions or indicate steps you need to bypass.
Arrows and connector lines
Arrows and connector lines indicate the direction that the sequence is moving within. The symbols and shapes mentioned above all rely on arrows and connectors as a dependency within the diagram.
Why are workflow diagrams important?
Workflow diagrams have become increasingly popular in the professional world and have been implemented in various industries to help document and clarify processes. So how can a workflow diagram help you and your team? Here are some benefits of creating and implementing workflow diagrams:
Get a visual overview of a process
Most humans are visual learners, especially when dealing with abstract and complex topics that aren’t easily defined in words. The beauty of a workflow diagram lies in its simplicity. Mapping out an entire process on a single page using shapes, colors, and symbols makes understanding complicated operations and processes much easier.
Workflow diagrams ensure that everyone within a team understands the steps they need to take within the sequence. This helps everyone understand the roles they need to play and the importance of their roles in the completion of an operation. This type of “bigger picture” understanding improves efficiency and helps team members complete processes faster.
One of the most useful places to employ a workflow diagram is in projects where important processes need to be understood and communicated. Workflow diagrams become a part of the documentation that ensures transparency and communication within a team. Simplifying a complex operation with symbols, shapes, and definitions is also an effective way to communicate something that would otherwise be challenging to discuss verbally.
See who is responsible for what
A diagram helps visualize the workflow process from a top-down view. After analyzing a workflow diagram, everyone will know who plays what role. This promotes accountability and an understanding of how each team member fits into the bigger picture.
Identify bottlenecks and ways to improve a business process
Just as a workflow diagram can be used to track progress, so too can it be used to understand where progress is breaking down. Visualizing the sequence of steps and the actors that push the process along also helps to identify at which step within the sequence the process is slowing down unnecessarily or completely stopping. This allows for process improvement, which can increase the productivity and efficiency of your company.
When to use a workflow diagram
Workflow diagrams are versatile tools that can bring clarity to any company’s workflow or process. To give you an idea of their usefulness, here are some examples of industries in which workflow diagrams are particularly useful.
In many software development processes, there are several developers and team members from different parts of the world working together. Implementing a simple workflow diagram, like the one featured on this technology roadmap template, can ensure that everyone knows their roles, their responsibilities, and who they report to. It can also make it easier to track the software development progress.
In the world of e-commerce, a workflow diagram can represent a customer browsing an online store. This can help UX designers better understand how to direct customers through the steps they need to take to purchase a product or hire a service.
Workflow diagrams were originally used in the manufacturing industry. They show the sequence of steps that manufacturing teams need to take to create consistent, high-quality products. Mapping out processes and sequences using a workflow diagram contributes to quality assurance.
Medical procedures can often be easily mapped out according to a linear sequence of steps. Workflow diagrams can be useful for setting out a standard process that medical professionals can follow when performing an operation.
Types of workflow diagrams
Workflow diagrams can take many different forms. Different types of these diagrams serve different functions and are best suited in different contexts. Each comes with its own workflow diagram legend with specific uses and symbols. Here are a few of the most popular workflow diagram types:
A flowchart is made up of different shapes and symbols, each depicting a different step within a sequence or process. These shapes represent different elements of a workflow, such as actions, materials, services, inputs, and outputs Using a flowchart to depict a workflow can help visualize how tasks will flow between resources. This graphic overview of a business process or system can help inform decisions and identify bottlenecks.
The swimlane diagram’s name is apt, as it visually mimics the different lanes in a swimming pool. Each lane has its own processes and team members and the diagram clearly shows how different team members’ actions affect others in different lanes. Swimlane diagrams are especially helpful for large organizations that have different departments and teams that rely on each other. Seeing how everyone works together but also independently can add clarity to a complex process. In this way, workflow diagrams act as a source of truth that anyone in an organization can refer to.
Try out Miro's swimlane diagram template to help visualize your workflow.
A block diagram is a type of workflow diagram that applies mainly to systems as opposed to complex processes or business operations. When creating a block diagram, each block represents part of a system. This system can be mechanical or technical, and each part is connected to the next one in line. Each block is essential to the running of a system, and, like other workflow diagrams, a block diagram helps visualize how such a system operates.
Business Process Modeling Notation
The Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) diagram is a workflow diagram example used primarily by managers and business analysts. They use this diagram to visualize business processes, such as payroll management or recruiting. The diagram is analyzed and optimized to improve efficiency within the essential processes of a company.
The SIPOC diagram presents the first real deviation from what a standard workflow diagram example looks like. Instead of visually representing a sequence of steps and events within a program, the SIPOC diagram uses a table-like format to summarize the inputs and outputs of a process. It can help bring a greater degree of transparency and understanding to a process.
UML activity diagram
A UML activity diagram provides you with a bird’s-eye view or “bigger picture” representation of everything that happens within your company or organization. This type of workflow diagram looks at the constituent parts of an entire business process rather than smaller functional workflows. By using a UML activity diagram tool, you’ll be able to plan and optimize your company processes from the top down. In creating one, you can easily understand the different parts and roles that make the wheels turn.
How to create a workflow diagram
Ready to create your own workflow diagram? You can use Miro's workflow diagram template to help you get started. Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating a comprehensive workflow diagram:
1. Select a process
Before creating your workflow diagram, specify one process that the diagram will be documenting. It’s helpful to visualize one process per diagram so that your diagram doesn’t become over-complicated and difficult to read.
2. Define the start and end points
As with many complex processes, it helps to establish the outline of the project before adding the finer details. Defining the first and final step of your workflow gives you a sense of direction and will keep you on track.
3. Gather information
Most workflow diagrams contain many moving parts, with different people playing different roles. Make sure you have gathered all the necessary information around the workflow, including the inputs, outputs, and people involved. It’s important that you speak to all of the people included in the workflow diagram to understand their responsibilities within the “bigger picture.” This will help create accountability and keep everyone on the same page.
4. Design the workflow
Now you’re ready to piece together the outstanding steps and connectors between the start and end points. Ensure that you’ve familiarized yourself with the workflow diagram symbols and shapes to create a concise and clear workflow diagram that everyone on your team can understand. For each step in the workflow, create the relevant symbol, and connect it to the previous shape.
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