Workflow diagram: Symbols, uses, and examples

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19 gennaio 2024
6 minuti di lettura
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When it comes to managing work, visualizing tasks and keeping team members connected via different communication styles is key. That’s where a workflow diagram comes in. 

A workflow diagram can help prevent project deviations and bottlenecks by communicating goals and deadlines in a visual way. Whether you use a workflow diagram when onboarding new hires or to streamline use cases and testimonials, it’s a great way to visualize tasks and data flows.

From what it is to how to create one of your own, we’ve put together some of the most important facts to know about workflow diagrams and included helpful examples. 

What is a workflow diagram?

A workflow diagram—also known as a workflow chart—provides a graphic overview of a business process or system. Usually, you’ll use these diagrams to visualize complex projects after you’ve completed the initial research and project planning stages.Once you’ve created a workflow diagram, you will have a detailed view of high level tasks and dependencies based on the overall project timeline and objectives. 

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Workflow diagram compared to other process mapping

Workflow diagrams share many aspects of other diagrams in the UML (Unified Modeling Language)—a standard language for specifying, visualizing, constructing, and documenting the artifacts of software systems. But workflow diagrams differ slightly from other process mapping and UML diagrams. Here, we compare them to some common types to show how: 

Read: Workflow diagram: Symbols, uses, and examples

Business process mapping

Workflow diagrams are closely related to business process mapping. The difference between the two is that a process map typically outlines steps in detail while a workflow diagram gives a visual representation of them. The objective of a workflow diagram is to help team members understand their tasks, objectives, and roles and responsibilities within the project at a high level.

Process flowcharts

Workflows and flowcharts are often confused. While the two terms sound similar, a workflow is just one type of flowchart. You can also use flowcharts to visualize other processes, like PERT charts and process documentation.

Activity diagrams

Activity diagrams are another type of flowchart that outline the flow of a series of activities within a system. It’s used to translate a business system’s functions into more digestible information for those who don’t understand the backend workings as much. In other words, an activity diagram is an easy way to visualize technical processes. For example, in Asana, you could draw an activity diagram to create a project as follows:

  • User clicks the button to create a project 

  • New project launched

  • User customizes the project with different names and features

  • User saves the project and updates when needed

Data flow diagrams

Data flow diagrams follow the data through an operating system or process, whereas workflow diagrams follow the work itself. Instead of inputting actions, for example, in a data flow diagram you’d enter in metrics, results, or other data points that you want to portray.

Read: 4 types of concept maps (with free templates)

When to use a workflow diagram

A workflow diagram is a visual representation of a process, either a new process you’re creating or an existing process you’re altering. For example:

  • A process to streamline your ecommerce customer journey.

  • A project to increase customer retention and satisfaction.

  • A process to automate and optimize manual tasks involving customer data. 

A workflow diagram comes between the business process map (which you’ll create before the project starts) and business process automation (which you’ll use to optimize and streamline processes). This is because your map provides detailed process steps that stakeholders need to begin work, while a workflow diagram is a high level visual representation that can help clarify overarching goals during the process.

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The components of a workflow diagram

In order to understand how a workflow diagram works, you first need to understand the components that make up a workflow. These include inputs, outputs, and transformations, which all help to communicate deliverables in as little time as possible.

The components of a workflow diagram

Once you understand these components, you’ll be able to properly read a workflow process diagram and create one of your own. The main components of a workflow diagram include:

  • Inputs: An action that impacts the following step

  • Transformations: An input change

  • Outputs: The outcome after the transformation 

These components are visualized by shapes and arrows, including:

  • Ovals: Represent the start and end points of a process. 

  • Rectangles: Represent instructions about actions and steps. 

  • Diamonds: Represent key decisions during the process build.

  • Circles: Represent a jump in actions and may indicate steps to bypass (in certain situations).

  • Arrows: Connectors that represent the dependency between all shapes and actions. 

Together, ‌these components instruct the reader how to follow the correct path and achieve the desired outcome.

Types of workflow diagrams

When it comes to visualizing processes, there are a few different workflow diagram formats that you can choose from. Each one offers unique advantages that can help you map out your next process. The type of diagram you choose will depend on the process you’re working on and your needs for that process. 

Types of workflow diagrams

From process flows to swimlanes, here are the four different types of workflow diagrams you can use for your workflow analysis.

Leggi: Tre modi per visualizzare un piano di progetto: cronologie, calendari e bacheche

1. Process flow diagram

A process flow diagram tool is the standard design for workflows. In this diagram, all components are mapped out chronologically, making it a basic visual representation of a process. This type of diagram provides a general overview of individual tasks and objectives without getting into too much detail.

Best for: Teams that want a high level visual representation of a new process that is quickly comprehended by any stakeholder or department.

2. Swimlane diagram

A swimlane diagram is also a popular workflow layout, though swimlanes differ quite significantly from process flow diagrams. A swimlane diagram breaks down your workflow into smaller flows or units. These flows are interconnected but separated to highlight interactions and possible inefficiencies. This creates visibility and offers a deeper dive into the overall process workflow.

Best for: Teams working on complex processes with many layers that are interrelated but independent. 

3. Business process modeling notation (BPMN) diagram

BPMN uses uniform notations that both business and technical stakeholders can easily interpret. It is a type of unified modeling language which uses standardized symbols to communicate different steps.

BPMN diagrams focus on the information that is received internally and how that information is interpreted. This is why it's most commonly used for internal process changes that don't impact external customers.

Best for: Teams working on process improvements in different departments. 

4. Supplier, input, process, output, customers (SIPOC) diagram

SIPOC is a type of swimlane diagram that focuses on analyzing multiple different parts of a workflow. 

Unlike a traditional diagram that organizes data in sequential order, a SIPOC diagram prioritizes who creates and receives the process data. SIPOC focuses on how the data is being received internally as well as externally which is why it's used for processes associated with customer experience.

Best for: Teams looking to focus on how data is being received internally and externally.

Read: What is a SIPOC diagram? 7 steps to map and understand business processes

How to create a workflow diagram (with example)

To create a workflow diagram, begin putting together the main components of your process. To do this, bring together your inputs, outputs, transformations, and your main process deliverables. 

How to create a workflow diagram

Map workflow components out on your diagram by using arrows, circles, rectangles, ovals, and diamonds to represent each data point. 

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1. Select your type of workflow

To select the workflow type that’s best for you, consider the functions needed for your process. Is it a complex process with multiple stakeholders best fit for a swimlane diagram? Or is it a relatively simple process that’s best suited for a simplistic process flow diagram?

While you can adjust your workflow as you go, it's easier to decide on the type of workflow up front. This way, you know exactly how complex or simple your workflow is.

2. Determine your start and end points

Next, determine your workflow start and end points (represented by ovals on your diagram).

To determine these points, consider when your process begins and when it ends. Is there an action that triggers the process? Likewise, is there an action or step that ends the process? These data points will help effectively communicate when the process begins and ends.

3. Gather necessary information

To gather information, connect with stakeholders to understand each piece of the process. This may include a kickoff meeting with various departments and leaders to gather the details and approvals needed to begin constructing your workflow diagram.

Since each process differs, the information you need to gather will also vary. Consider the steps required to complete the process, the stakeholders who will be involved, and any other significant details that will help inform readers.

4. Eliminate inefficiencies

The final step before constructing your visual workflow is to consider and eliminate any inefficiencies that may arise. Make sure you analyze inefficiencies before designing your workflow so you can prevent any issues—rather than dealing with them in real time. The specific inefficiencies will vary, but they can include a lack of resources, issues with product development, or any other obstacle that could arise during the process.

Document these inefficiencies in a change log under your change control process. This way you will be able to communicate these problems to stakeholders, prioritize inefficiencies, and track whether they've been resolved. 

5. Design your workflow

Finally, begin constructing your workflow. Gather the unit information, data points, and efficiencies and map them on the diagram you chose in step one. Since each process is different and each diagram is constructed differently, yours will likely be unique in its design. Here’s just one example of what a workflow diagram might look like:

Workflow diagram example

Once your workflow is designed, review it with your stakeholders to ensure it's accurate and appropriate for the situation. This is a great way to ensure all inefficiencies have been accounted for and resources have been specified properly.

Use workflows to map out processes

Visualizing workflows can help you effectively communicate deliverables to stakeholders and leadership. Plus, it’s a great way to align multiple different departments on a given process. 

To take your workflows one step further, try workflow management software. From task automation to streamlined communication, Asana can help.

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