What is a process flow? And how do you implement one successfully?

process flow

Every business process requires a specific set of steps, whether it’s adding information into apps, delivering notifications to employees, or submitting documents for review. And while each of these steps might seem insignificant when looked at individually, a failure to perform any can result in a low-performing process that hurts your business. 

In response, organizations are adopting standardized and detailed process flow diagrams. These process flow visuals allow everyone at the organization to understand how a given process works as well as their role in making it a success.

To help your organization leverage process flows effectively, we’ll cover everything you need to know. This includes the best practices for creating them, the ways they can be applied, and the reasons they’re important. But to start, let’s align on its definition.

Related: What is workflow automation?

What is a process flow?

It’s a sequential series of steps that, taken together, make up a given business process. It includes the specific teams that need to get involved and it uses conditional logic so that every potential situation gets accounted for.

It’s worth noting that process flow and workflow aren’t one and the same. The former focuses on areas that directly impact a business goal, while the latter hones in on specific tasks, which may not be business-critical.

Examples of process flows

We’ll cover a few process flows that can help bring this definition to life.

Submitting a PTO request

Given the universal adoption of this process and your first-hand experience with it, the following should look familiar:

A process flow for when an employee requests paid time off

The process might be more nuanced at your organization. For example, it might require additional approvers (like your HR team); in which case, your process flowchart would need to be updated to reflect this step.

It’s also worth noting that the steps are often in different shapes. This is intentional, as it—according to business process model notation— communicates a specific type of action that’s being taken. The circles above, for instance, convey actions that initiate and end the process. And the connectors (or lines between the shapes) are solid and have arrows at the end. This conveys that activities are performed; a dashed line without an arrow, in contrast, would represent an artifact association and a dashed line with an arrow would represent a message being sent.

Related: A data mapping example between a CRM and an ITSM tool

Uploading proof of vaccination

Here’s a more complex and unique process flow diagram, highlighting how employees can add their Vaccine Card before they schedule a visit to an office.

The workflow for uploading a Vaccine Card

Unlike the previous example, this one doesn’t strictly follow the notation guidelines for business process modeling, but it works just as well. 

It differentiates the actions within its steps by using colors. It also includes a few additional visuals for more context. The Snowflake logo is meant to communicate that the employee’s vaccine status is checked against their records in the data warehouse; while the grid icons explain that the employee’s vaccination data is being checked or updated in the data warehouse.

Related: How our Back-to-Office Accelerator can help your employees return to the office safely  

How do you create a process flow? Keep the following in mind

These tips and tricks can help you in building out and fine-tuning your process flows:

1. Use specific markers to differentiate your steps. As covered in our example, this can take the form of process mapping symbols or colors. As long as you and your team members can ultimately reach consensus on the markers and use them consistently across your process flows, they should work just fine.

2. Bring process owners together. In many cases, there isn’t a single individual who can tell you each step of a process with complete accuracy. You’ll need all of the relevant stakeholders involved in order to fill any gaps and ensure that nothing is inaccurate.

3. Share your working draft with a colleague who’s uninvolved in producing it. One of the main goals from your process flow diagram should be that it’s easy to follow. To put this to the test, you can put your visual in front of an outsider—who’s still at your company—and see how they respond.

4. Agree on the level of detail that’s used. How much information do you want to provide at a given step? Do you need to explicitly outline when a process starts and when it ends? Aligning on the answers to these questions from the very beginning can help prevent issues down the line.

Why is a process flow important?

There’s a myriad of benefits to consider, but here are a few that stand out:

  • It fosters a better understanding of your processes. Having these business process flows made available—both to new hires and to more tenured employees—breeds a greater understanding of your business operations. This, in turn, leads employees to perform tasks independently and with greater efficiency. 

This improved understanding also leads to the following benefits.

  • It improves accountability. Now that your team understands who needs to get involved, when they should get involved, and how, each of your employees can be held accountable to perform the activities they’re tasked with.
  • It enables your organization to stay compliant with various legal measures. Though there’s always a chance your employees go rogue, a set of clear and discernible steps can provide the guardrails your employees need to avoid actions that put your business at risk.
  • It provides an easy way to identify process improvements. Any bottlenecks or potential opportunities to up-level a process become all the more apparent once the business process diagram is laid out in front of you and your team.

As valuable as process flows are, they don’t address another element your processes need to operate at their best: automation.

Related: How do you identify bottlenecks in a process? Here are 3 approaches that can help

Why you need to automate your processes

Automation not only brings your processes to life—it optimizes them.

Using process automation, you’ll experience the following benefits, and a whole lot more: 

Your workflows can operate more efficiently

Forcing employees to move between applications to find or re-enter data isn’t just unpleasant, it’s also inefficient. 

Automation can streamline these tasks by synchronizing data between systems, thereby ensuring that employees can find what they need within the systems they’re already working in.

You can offer a single UX that works with backend systems

Your employees likely need to work in a variety of apps to perform their day-to-day tasks. And while that seems fine, the experience can create a host of issues: Your applications present fragmented user experiences, leading to confusion and human errors.  

To mitigate these errors, and to enable employees to save both in time and effort, you can use an automation platform’s bots to help employees access data and functionality from their applications within their business communications platform (e.g. Slack or Microsoft Teams).

You can respond to changes in your business environment effectively

A myriad of external and internal factors can influence your processes’ operations over time. 

No matter the driving force or the level of change that’s needed, you can respond quickly with a no-code automation platform.

Using this type of platform, the task of modifying an existing automation—whether that’s replacing applications or adding steps—is made easy; moreover, you can build a new automation from scratch within minutes.

You can innovate your processes

Automation can fundamentally change how your teams interact with their applications and data. This expansion of possibilities allows your team to flex their creativity and business expertise to drum up new and improved workflows. 

Here’s a lead nurturing workflow that highlights just how transformative automation can be:

A visual breakdown of a lead nurturing workflow

Essentially, any time a lead looks at specific competitor pages on a 3rd-party review site, like G2, it triggers the following automation: A customized platform bot (“Rev Bot”) accesses information on the lead from 1st-party sources, and it enriches the lead using a tool like ZoomInfo. From there, the bot shares the lead with the assigned sales rep via an app like Slack, where the rep can send the prospect a gift, deliver ads to their account, and add them to a nurture sequence—each with the click of a button.

Related: Why conditional workflows are critical

Automate your processes with Workato 

Workato, the leader in enterprise automation, can benefit you and your organization in all the ways outlined above—among countless others. The platform offers:

  • A low-code/no-code UX so that both IT and business users can use the platform to the fullest extent
  • The ability to integrate your cloud apps, databases, legacy systems and implement trigger-based automations that work across these apps and systems—all without requiring a line of code
  • More than a 1,000 pre-built connectors and hundreds of thousands of automation templates (“recipes”) to help your team ideate and implement automations quickly
  • Customizable bots that allow your employees to access data and actions in their apps without leaving their business communications platform. In addition, Workato’s patented bots ensure that for each app, an employee only accesses the data and actions provided by their level of access
You can learn more about Workato and how the platform can help automate your business processes by scheduling a demo with an automation expert.

About the author
Jon Gitlin Content Strategist @ Workato
Jon Gitlin is the Managing Editor of The Connector, where you can get the latest news on Workato and uncover tips, examples, and frameworks for implementing powerful integrations and automations. In his free time, he loves to run outside, watch soccer (er...football) matches, and explore local restaurants.