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Use a workflow if you don’t want to crash a bomber

How business workflows benefit your business and teamwork

In the second world war, the B17 bomber was the first aircraft to ever get a pre-flight checklist. The reason it needed a checklist? The first flight crashed. The complexities of preparing a B17 for takeoff and flight meant it wasn't possible for airmen to remember the entire preflight process, so a checklist was created to remind them to turn off the elevator lock so they could control the pitch of the aircraft.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always forgetting to turn off my elevator lock.

The thing is, humans are only capable of storing about seven things in short term memory at a time. This doesn’t leave a lot of scope for remembering workflows that exceed seven steps. And while your business may not have much in common with a B17, there is one thing about them that you can learn from: documented workflows.

Even small one or two-person startups will have complex processes for pushing software into production or manufacturing a widget. Trying to remember one workflow of seven or more steps is hard, let alone multiple workflows.

There are two primary reasons for having a workflow:

  1. For things you do often — if you do something a lot, then you’ll want a process to help other people understand the process so it can be shared. If you’re a creative agency, you might want to have recurring content workflows for copywriting and design briefs.
  2. For things you do rarely — if you do something rarely, you’ll need a process to help you remember what you’re supposed to. The benefits of having workflows for things  like holiday requests or hiring are best practices both for new hires and early team members.

The power of templates when building your workflows

Building workflows should be reasonably simple. You’ll either have existing things you do that you can document, or you’ll need a new workflow that has to be created.

If you have an existing workflow, you should sit down with a few of the people involved in the process and start drafting what the process normally looks like (ignore any outliers or rare events for now). You can do this on a whiteboard if you’re in the same place, or use an online tool — it doesn’t matter which for capturing the workflow — just something that’s easy to modify and move ideas about. 

Capture every step of the flow that you can all agree needs to happen — thinking about compliance, regulation and adhering to any company policy as you do.

Creating a new workflow is slightly easier. Depending on the workflow software you use, you might want to use any boilerplate or business workflows templates that exist within the system. You can then begin augmenting those with your own specific steps. 

If there aren’t templates to copy, then simply write down what you would expect to happen as part of the process — don’t overthink it right now, just capture the steps. It’s often useful to start with the end and work backwards.

One of the problems with building workflows is that they can often become too complicated. You know you have a complicated workflow when there are many decision points that lead to single, isolated, or rarely performed activities. 

Complicated workflows are both harder to follow and more time-consuming to maintain — meaning people won’t follow them and won’t update them if something changes. 

So to keep workflows simple, look at the steps of a process that only happen rarely. These shouldn’t be part of the core process, but should be documented separately and then referenced to the core workflow, so they don’t slip through when you actually need them.

Who does what?

So, you’ve got your workflow documented, but who is going to do what? Usually, Joe from finance does step one and then passes that over to Sarah in HR to add additional data, finally it gets to Liam in design for review, then goes back to Joe for sign-off.

But what if Sarah is on a long vacation? Does the workflow stop dead?

You should be assigning each step to a different role within your organisation. This role, regardless who fills it, should be able to deliver on that step in the process. Focus on assigning the step to someone with the right authority or seniority for the role, as the actual activity needed to be done will be documented in the step. 

So, even if Sarah who nearly always does this step is away, then Steve, who has never done it, but can follow instructions, has the correct seniority and authority to perform that step before sending it off to the next person.

Workflows tools

Once you’ve captured your process, it’s time to start looking at the right kind of tools to help you manage the workflow. The simplest workflows can be a checklist, and you can use any number of online tools that allow for the creation and sharing of checklists. 

If, however, your workflows are more complicated, such as having multiple people involved, divergent streams, or other dependent processes, it’s worth looking at something a bit more advanced than simple checklist software. 

The tool you choose should also be capable of notifying the right people involved in the process and tracking who has done what and when. Not only does this give you an all-important audit trail, it also makes it much simpler to see where you are in the process and who is holding it up. 

Too many organisations rely on an organic communication method. Often, workflows are performed so often by the same people, that any tool that has documented the process will be ignored. This often feels like it’s OK, especially if the workflow always happens without error and on time, but the one time something goes wrong, or someone is out, the workflow is so out-of-date it’s useless. 

You don’t need to use GPS every time you visit the local shop. But one day, there might be roadworks on your usual route and you’ll get lost trying to navigate around the roadblock.

Integrated workflows

Some of your workflows will rely on each other. For example, a new hire will need to be set up in the HR systems, will need a new laptop or other hardware and be introduced to their team. Each of these steps will involve sub-steps, or sub workflows. Some of these steps might be dependent on other steps, some may happen independently as simply a matter of record. 

However, having your workflows progress written down and stored somewhere useful, so that multiple people can reference, update and, crucially, update, is a vital component of the engine that runs your company smoothly.

It’s all gone wrong!

Sometimes, even with the best will in the world, the right tools and the most amazing colleagues, things still seem to go wrong.

“But I thought following a workflow meant things couldn’t go wrong?!” I hear you sob.

Yes, this is mostly true, but you followed the process and it still failed, what now? It means your workflow was inaccurate and needs updating.

There is always a better, more efficient way of doing something; but usually, you’ll only know this once you’ve done the thing and then thought “Hmm, that would have been easier if…’”

These thoughts are the ones that drive the improvement of a workflow.

Once you’ve executed a workflow and reached a satisfactory ending, you should spend some time thinking back to the process and identifying any areas for improvement. Even better would be to meet with everyone involved in the process (or, at least your part) and talk it through to decide if there are better ways of executing.

In the world of agile, this is called a “Retrospective”. Other names are “Lessons Learned” and “Post-mortems”. Usually, these things are reserved for projects, but what is a workflow if it’s not a repeatable mini-project?

Continually improving your workflows are one of the best ways to keep them fresh, keep people engaged with them and ensure they are always delivering the best value!

Don’t crash your B17

Your organisation is only as good as its ability to get things done. Using workflows and a tool to manage them is one way to ensure that you get things done in the best, most efficient and error-free way possible.

How you create and manage your workflows is less important than identifying the need to create and manage them, and ensuring that you regularly review them so that they’re functioning as well as they could be.

Regularly reviewing your processes not only helps you remain compliant with any regulatory or policy requirements, but it also means you’ve got the leanest and most efficient way of generating value for your clients, customers and staff.

Technical Director: Agile PMO @ Jacobs
Mike is a coach, scrum master, project manager and people professional. He is best known for his knowledge and experience of agile, as well as his focus on results and the culture that brings. He's most active on, which he founded.
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