Workflows are like the functions you add to your functions file in WordPress. Each function takes inputs, transforms them and returns an output based on the code within the function.
Workflows are the functions that make up your organization. They are a set of steps that need to be done as we go from point A to point B on the assembly line. What tasks need to be completed to turn a heap of raw information from the client into a website? This is the flow of information that you need to map as it is transformed throughout your process.
A workflow consists of an orchestrated and repeatable pattern of business activity enabled by the systematic organization of resources into processes that transform materials, provide services, or process information.Wikipedia
Those of you using a development workflow already understand the value of clearly defined workflows, so today I’m going to show you how to apply this method to other aspects of your business so you can reap the same rewards. I’m going to start by showing you how to document your workflow and in the next post, we will create a sample workflow together.
To maximize your productivity so you can free up your time to do other things, I’ll also introduce you to some tools that can help you automate your workflows.
What’s So Great About Workflows?
Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.Alfred North Whitehead
Whether you’ve taken the time to intentionally create them or not, if work is getting done, then your business already has workflows. If your current business processes have not been documented and refined, then these are what I call chaotic workflows.
Chaotic workflows aren’t necessarily bad. They’re workflows that spontaneously emerge out of need.
There’s an anecdote about a new college built around a big field. School officials couldn’t decide where to create paved paths to cross the field. Should there be a grid or some diagonal paths? How wide should the paths be? One bright professor suggested leaving the field unpaved, and at the end of the year, paving the paths the students naturally created by trampling the grass.
These are chaotic workflows in action. As your business grows and adds new services and products, you and your employees are like the students, creating new workflows to get things done.
Unfortunately, chaotic workflows take more time and energy to create each time, and your business processes are not simple straight lines, so a substantial effort needs to be expended every time as you experiment to find the best way. Also, as workflows are adopted, they become harder to break out of, so inefficiencies become much more difficult to correct.
“Paving” your workflows not only saves you time, but it can also help you address some common challenges that service businesses face.
1. Workflows allow you to produce consistent high-quality outcomes
Do you find yourself doing everything even though you have employees because you don’t trust anyone else to do it right? Workflows can help you with that. Whether you’re having a stressful week and are prone to mistakes, or giving a task to a less experienced employee, great workflows will help prevent common mistakes.
2. You’ll have a better understanding of how your business functions
When you have a birds-eye view of how your business works, you’ll naturally see where the obstacles are. You can see if you’re taking the most direct path and if you can combine steps. You also be able to see where you need more help or cut steps that aren’t needed at all.
3. You can formally assign responsibility and hold people accountable
Someone has to complete each task in the workflow and establishing a workflow is a great way to get everyone on the same page. Team members understand their role in the workflow and can agree on who should own each part. Tasks can be matched to the person with the appropriate skill level so that projects don’t get stuck.
4. You can deliver the right information, at the right time, to the people who need it
Your workflow system can aggregate all the information from different parties and display it in a centralized location or distribute it to the right person at the right time. This prevents information overload and having to organize information as it comes in. It also prevents information hoarding. You will no longer have someone waiting for someone else to send them what they need in order to proceed. And you can keep sensitive information private.
5. Consistent labor costs
How long does it take you to set up DNS records, or migrate a site? How long does it take someone else on your staff? With a workflow, you can clearly define the scope of individual tasks and then time how long it takes to complete them. Then you’ll have a better idea of how long everything takes and should cost in order for you to turn a profit, so you can charge your clients appropriately.
6. Clearly defined workflows are easier to automate, further reducing labor costs
Instead of paving the most used path, why not make it a conveyor belt or add a tram? Imagine the time savings! Once you can see what the most used workflows are, you can make them more efficient by removing obstacles or automating them.
7. Easier ongoing process improvement
When processes are visually displayed, your team will be able to communicate more easily. They can point to a section of the workflow with problems and describe their idea on how to fix it concretely vs. trying to define the problem in an abstract “things aren’t working but I don’t know what” way from their limited perspective.
As you can see, designed workflows are better integrated, organized, efficient and effective than chaotic workflows.
How to Start Creating Business Workflows
When you’re ready to start creating workflows, fix your attention on the most worn paths first.
The first step when designing a workflow is to document the existing workflow. This is why starting with chaotic workflows is much more difficult. The workflow changes each time, sometimes dramatically, so it’s challenging to pin down.
Start small. You don’t need to document the inner workings of the whole machine to start reaping the benefits. In fact, breaking up your whole process into modular pieces works best. Trying to document everything at once is overwhelming and confusing and you’ll find yourself frustrated, thinking “no wonder nothing ever gets done” a lot.
Start by documenting what you always do the same way every time.
There’s several ways to document your process:
- The next time you go through your process, keep notes on what you’re doing. Then recreate your notes in the form of a checklist that you can reference the next time around. Ask yourself, did I follow the same steps the 2nd and 3rd time?
- For processes that have a lot of people involved, create a swim lane diagram so you can document how the data is passed back and forth. In a swim lane diagram, each person or department occupies a column. The diagram shows a path from top to bottom, that serpentines across departments showing what each person needs to do before handing off something to the next department.
- Draw a diagram on a whiteboard or stick some post-its to the wall so you can rearrange them. Each note or square is a step or task with details on what needs to be done. You can arrange them linearly or in a swim lane diagram.
Documenting your workflow also helps you avoid some common issues that arise once you start automating workflows. Automation is a powerful tool that speeds all your processes up. There’s less time to adjust or correct something when a mistake is made.
To refer back to our field analogy, imagine all those students running instead of walking. Now imagine the collisions. Ouch.
Creating a workflow to help leads through your pipeline is an ideal place to begin, since you’re probably already measuring sales metrics. You can see how creating workflows improves sales, making it easier to convince others or yourself that creating workflows is an investment that pays off.
Common Business Workflows
Any repeatable process, can and should be turned into a workflow. You can create workflows to complement your sales pipeline and marketing efforts, workflows to help you produce your product and workflows for business administration.
- Creating Estimate/Proposal
- Creating an Invoice
- Entering Expenses
- Following Up with Leads
- Collecting Reviews
- Design Approval Process
- Ordering Business Cards or Other Prints
- Onboarding Clients
- Onboarding Employees
- Terminating Employees
- Collecting RSVPs for Events
- Ordering Lunch
If you have a service-based business, you need to look at your services like products when designing your workflows.
Once you start creating workflows, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. As I mentioned earlier, functions are little workflows. Routines are workflows.
Automating Workflows in WordPress with Gravity Flow
Workflows are complicated. Workflow management software makes managing workflows simple and give you the ability to automate your workflows. My favorite workflow tool is Gravity Flow because you don’t need to be a developer or rely on IT to build and manage workflows. It’s also an inexpensive solution because you can run it on your WordPress site which you’re probably already using for your business.
Even with the yearly licensing cost for the two plugins, it’s still a relatively affordable considering most workflow management software is made for large enterprises, so it usually has a price tag to match. I’ve had people quote me yearly costs in the tens of thousands.
But even then, because workflow software can save so much time, it could be worth it for you, so while Gravity Flow isn’t the only solution, it is one of the easiest to get started with and one of the most affordable.
If your business is already using WordPress, then your workflow system will be tightly integrated with your site right from the beginning and you’ll be able to use the same hosting account and Gravity Forms license for your website.
Another tool that I highly recommend is Zapier. It will allow you to automate the work done by software systems and to connect a wide variety of applications to one another so they can pass data to each other. These actions are called Zaps in Zapier.
You can create a free account to get started and upgrade if you need access to premium features.
We’ve talked a lot about how workflow software can help you coordinate people, but it can also help you coordinate software systems. If one system has to complete a task as a part of the workflow, such as creating an account for a user, then this is something that you can accomplish and automate with Zapier.
Gravity Flow integrates well with Zapier and allows you to control when and if certain Zaps should happen. While Zapier is a powerful connecting tool, once something triggers a series of Zaps, the tasks are completed in rapid succession by the different software systems, like dominoes falling. One triggers the another, which triggers the next, etc.
Gravity Flow allows you to add input steps for people to complete or enter conditional logic for your Zaps, allowing for your workflows to be more dynamic, like they are in real life. You allow the process to be able to modify itself as it unfolds. You can add or remove an action if certain conditions are met, or take a different route depending on the input.
With Zapier and Gravity Flow you’ll be able to switch between people and software depending on which one needs to complete each task. It’s pretty cool once you see it working because of how they can reproduce how you work in real life.
Every business has workflows or processes that arise naturally. Taking the time to document your workflows and shape them leads to a more efficient business that produces consistently high-quality work at a lower cost. Once you analyze your workflows, you can also automate them using tools like Zapier and Gravity Flow to create your own workflow management system in WordPress.