Creating a process flow can be an extremely easy or a rather demanding task. However, as businesses continue to move in the direction of higher documentation and defined contingency plans, process workflows are becoming a necessary item for any business, whether starting a new company or moving your existing business into the new age. With this growing need for process flows comes a growing need for knowing how to create them. The intent of this article is to share the basic skills for creating an accurate and effective workflow.

The Process

Write down the process. This can be scribbled on a paper or typed into a Word document. Try to write down the process in the order of the steps that need to occur, but, inevitably we tend to forget a step here or there – add it where it needs to go and draw arrows so that you know its place for future reference. The above is easier if you know exactly what process you need to create a flow for. If you do not have a clear idea, that will be your first step. This is still a writing process, start brainstorming the pieces of the process that need to go together. They may not come out in any kind of an organized fashion, but once you’re sure you’ve found the start of the process and where you would like it to end (if it’s a circular process those are one and the same), then go back and number or re-write the list in chronological order Clean it up.

Take your list, scribbles, notes, brainstorm, or whatever you would like to call it and make a cleaner copy – this time putting it into chronological order and leaving spaces between the steps to allow for additional items that need to be added. While you are doing this, review each step, ensure that step 1 leads to step 2, that step 2 leads to step 3, and so on. For any step that has two or more options, be sure to indicate this somewhere (highlight, asterisk, etc) and also make sure that all of those options are listed. Once steps start breaking off, that’s when it starts to get complicated. For example, if step 1 leads to step 2, but step 2 could lead to step 3 or step A, we now need to follow both lines of thought. We still need to know what step 4 is, and we also need to know what step B is. In some cases, a diverted step will lead to going around some steps and then falling back into the process. For example, let’s say that when the process got to step 2, it then had to follow to step A (instead of Step 3), and because it went to step A and not step 3, it skips some steps and falls back into line on step 6. For that particular step in our list, we could just draw an arrow pointing from step A to step 6. Draw a visual representation of the flow that you just documented.

While some workflows can be very convoluted and every shape means something different, the four most important and most widely used shapes are a circle, rectangle, diamond, and arrow. And that’s it! Draw a circle at the top of your page and write in your starting point. Each step, if it only has one option (Step 3 leads to step 4) goes inside a rectangle. Each step that has two options (Step 4 can lead to Step 5 or Step A) goes into a diamond. The arrows connect the shapes, indicating the direction of the workflow. Check your sketch. Ensure that each step in your process makes logical sense. Ensure that your start and end items are in circles, and that the other shapes are rectangles, diamonds, and arrows. Check that each step leads somewhere and isn’t left hanging with no direction. Create your workflow in a software.

While it is nice to have fancy workflow software, it is not necessary to create a basic process flow. Any software that allows you to draw the basic shapes and type text into them will function to create your flow. Replicate your paper sketch in the software. This time you’ll want to make sure that the steps are all evenly spaced and the arrows are all the same size. Many workflows also use color to identify the different parts (ex: rectangles have a blue fill while diamonds have an orange fill), but it is not necessary. What is absolutely necessary is that every step makes logical sense for the previous and subsequent steps, and that every variable in the process has been accounted for. None of us is perfect, and we’re bound to miss a step from time-to-time; when that happens, we go back and insert it into the correct spot in the workflow, make any other necessary adjustments, and keep on going. That’s how the business solidifies and documents its process flows, but can still adapt and not be stagnant in the same old routine.