Improve your business processes with workflow diagrams


Vendr | Using workflow diagrams
Written by
Perin Adams
Published on
March 28, 2022
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Workflow diagrams help you visualize the assigned tasks and the steps — as well as the relationship between those steps — to get a desired business outcome. Workflow diagrams are highly useful tools for teams that want to become more efficient and can be used in just about any industry that needs a high level overview of their processes. 

In this workflow diagram guide, we’ll walk you through:

  • What a workflow diagram is
  • When to use a workflow diagram
  • The benefits of a workflow diagram 
  • Types of workflow diagrams
  • The 5 steps to create a workflow diagram

What is a workflow diagram?

A workflow diagram is a visual roadmap of a process. It’s a type of flowchart that helps improve business processes. 

Both Henry Gantt and Frederick Winslow Taylor are credited with the creation of the workflow diagram during the late 1800’s — a time when management science started to be used by businesses for quality management and efficiency. At that point in history, workflow diagrams came in handy for companies that wanted to produce more for less.  

Workflow diagrams are useful because they help your team visualize the execution of a goal through the outlining of specific tasks, decisions, data, and milestones that come together to create a desired outcome. In other words, it’s a visual roadmap that lays out a process from beginning to end. 

When to use a workflow diagram

Any time you need to visualize a roadmap that’ll illustrate how you get to an outcome, you’ll want to create a diagram for better workflow management. It’ll add clarity to your objectives and help define any unclear parts of your workflow. 

For example, if your IT team is trying to streamline your vendor onboarding process, a process flow diagram can shine a light on where you can skip extra onboarding steps or add key automations that’ll help keep your vendor licenses up-to-date. 

Workflow diagrams are industry agnostic. This means if they help you visualize and refine processes, then they’re worth incorporating into how you manage work regardless of your industry. Going forward, the real question becomes what type of workflow diagram is best for the specific goals and needs of your team. 

You can use a workflow diagram to accomplish a number of things, including:

  • Visualizing specific processes
  • Breaking down a complex project
  • Identifying inefficiencies
  • Improving team communication
  • Establishing a repeatable process with clear expectations
  • Optimizing resource usage throughout your business

For example, a warehouse manager might use a warehouse flowchart to refine the supply chain process at a time when the company is trying to cut costs. An IT leader might use a swimlane diagram to visualize where the tasks assigned to specific team members converge inefficiently. 

What are the benefits of a workflow diagram?

  • Documentation of your systems: Documenting your existing workflows is an efficient way to ensure consistency and predictable outcomes. In case leadership changes or teams are rearranged, documenting your workflow eases the process of keeping your team engaged with clear objectives as they work through projects. 
  • Improved communication between team members: Your team needs clarity. What better way to get everyone on the same page than a visual representation of how the team will “flow” together through a specific process?
    Workflow diagrams help to clarify what each step in your process is, which makes for better communication as a result. The improvement in communication also translates to adjacent teams as well as new hires that might not be familiar with how you work. 
  • Improved existing processes: You can’t improve what you don’t measure. Workflow diagrams are a great way to see where you’re hitting bottlenecks in your processes and where redundant steps can be cut out. They are an effective way to save on resources including project budgets, time, materials, and skills. Outlining your workflow visually is one of the best approaches to improve what you’re working with. 
  • Uncovered vulnerabilities: Managing vulnerabilities can come in handy if, say, you’re working with software or are managing the IT support team. For IT teams, it’s a solid way to minimize shadow IT issues. But uncovering vulnerabilities through a workflow diagram can also mean teams can see where assigned tasks clash with one another or where you’re pressed on tasks that need more resources. 

Types of workflow diagrams

A workflow diagram isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Different diagrams can be a better fit for different desired outcomes. Before we get familiar with those, it’s important to first know what each standardized symbol in a workflow diagram signifies. You can think of them as templates for process mapping. 

  • Cylinder: Used to illustrate data in a diagram
  • Parallelogram: Used to show where new data enters or exits a diagram
  • Rectangle: Signifies a singular step in the workflow diagram
  • Oval: Marks where a workflow diagram starts as well as their endpoints 
  • Diamond: Show a pivotal decision in the process needed to move to the next step
  • Arrow/line: Used to show the flow and direction of your workflow diagram as connectors

Now, we’ll look at the most important workflow diagrams you can create with the standardized symbols to manage your team processes. Each of their formats helps with process improvement and workflow analysis. 

  • Process flow diagram: This flowchart is used to illustrate the relationships between components of a process. It’s a great way to improve a process or create a new one with fewer inefficiencies. It's a useful diagram for a six sigma approach to project management since it can be used as a diagramming tool that eases the decision-making process that drives improvements. 
  • Warehouse flowchart: This chart is used in a warehouse setting where managers need to take stock of materials, product delivery logistics, supply chains, employee operations, or inventory management. 
  • SSD diagram: SSD or Structured System Design diagrams are used for more complex projects. Great for use-case scenarios since they do a great job of breaking down a huge project into more accessible parts. 
  • Swimlane diagram: Visualize a vertical workflow diagram that outlines tasks and the team members responsible for those tasks. It’s a great workflow diagram to uncover where tasks conflict with each other. 
  • Data flow diagram: This diagram is used to show the flow of data rather than a flow of tasks in a process. Great for figuring out how adjacent teams and their data will work together. 
  • UML activity diagram: Great for software engineers, UML, or Unified Modeling Language diagrams, are an effective way to visualize models because they illustrate conditional behavioral flows. 

The 5 steps to create a workflow diagram

Creating a workflow diagram that works requires following a few key steps that make the process easier. Here’s how to create a workflow diagram and the tools that’ll make the process easier. 

1. Choose your diagram based on a clear objective

Now that you’re familiar with the different types of workflow diagrams, you should start by choosing a diagram based on your end goal. The workflow diagram you choose will also depend on how simple or how complex your process is. The bigger and more complicated your process, the more you’ll want to break it down into more manageable pieces that you can create individual workflow diagrams for. 

For example, if you’re wanting to refine your inventory management process, you’re best off using a warehouse flowchart. On the other hand, if you’re needing a visual of how your IT team’s data will come together with the data of the other departments in your organization, you’d create a data flow diagram. 

2. Brainstorm starting points, key data, decisions, and tasks then pair similar items together

After you’ve done the work of identifying your end goal and the best workflow diagram to achieve it, it’s time to identify the main tasks. Depending on the type of workflow diagram you choose you’ll want to identify the data, decisions, or even team members responsible for specific tasks.

Moreover, pairing similar tasks together helps you see the relationship between each of them. It makes it easier to create your diagram when it comes time to. However, if your diagram is pretty straightforward, pairing similar items together might not be necessary. 

Say you’re creating a workflow diagram for the process of onboarding a new application. You’ll want to use a process diagram and identify:

  • The starting point (the onboarding of the new application) illustrated by an oval
  • The tasks necessary to integrate the application that is illustrated by a rectangle
  • All the pivotal decision points through the process shown by using diamonds
  • The corresponding actions and tasks that spawn from each decision that is shown by using arrows

Now it’s a matter of connecting and rearranging your diagram. Though this might take some time, don’t skimp on this part of the process. To make the diagram creation process easier, consider using software to streamline each step of the process. 

3. Create your diagram

When creating your diagram, you’ll want to forgo using pen and paper. While an analog method of creating workflow diagrams can seem convenient in the beginning, it can quickly devolve into an inefficient approach to workflow management. Instead, opt for using software that makes the process of creating, tweaking, and saving your workflows infinitely easier.

4. Deep dive and examine for errors and bottlenecks

Once you’ve created your diagram and checked for errors, there are all kinds of objectives you can use it for. Some of the questions you can ask yourself to find the right objectives for your situation includes: 

  • Are you trying to find inefficiencies in your processes? 
  • Are you attempting to track when data from different teams will come together to move a project forward? 
  • Are you trying to visualize where you can save resources by cutting out redundancies? 

Whatever your end goals are, now is the time to examine your workflow diagram for bottlenecks. Any errors or redundancies can be corrected and rearranged because you’re able to visualize how the removal of a task or decision will affect the rest of your workflow diagram. 

5. Document diagram and repeat as needed

Don’t let all your workflow diagram efforts go to waste. Once you’ve documented the process, save your diagram in a team wiki or centralized document sharing space anyone on your team can access for future reference. 

Anytime you need to create a new workflow diagram, repeat steps 1-5, as needed. While the process can seem tedious, software eliminates the extra steps in the creation of workflows and enables you to create diagrams that’ll actually impact your bottom line. 

As you create and document different workflows, automated reminders can help you stay on top of updates and task delegation based on your workflows diagrams. 

How Vendr makes workflow management for SaaS easier

Vendr is your SaaS system of record. With our find-buy-manage workflows, we help you automatically discover, organize, and track software used throughout your entire organization in one central location. Get a single source of truth that protects you from lapsed renewals, duplicative purchases, and shadow spend.

Get started with our SaaS stack template to finally have central tracking for all of your SaaS, better visibility into software spend and exposure to duplicative SaaS and dark spend.

Perin Adams
GTM Business Systems
Perin is the GTM Business Systems Analyst at Vendr, responsible for analyzing and optimizing the company's go-to-market systems and processes.

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