0. What is a Workflow Chart?
Recently, some people told me ‘I totally don’t understand the necessity of a Workflow’.
I know that ordinary people may have never seen a Workflow chart, have never worked along a Workflow chart, so they will never even think about doing a Workflow chart. Today, going back to basics, I would like to summarize the “need of a Workflow Chart and how to draw one”. (It’s gonna be a long one.)
- What is a “Workflow chart” for?
- Reasons why you don’t have a “Workflow chart”
- Reasons why a “Workflow chart” is hard to draw
- The way to draw a “Workflow chart”
1. What is a “Workflow chart” for?
First of all, what is a “Workflow chart”?
Sometimes they are called in different ways: “Flow Chart” or “Business Process Diagram”, etc. What they are is a “figure that shows how the work goes”. In Japanese official documents, it is described as “Flow Chart of operations”.
The biggest feature of a Workflow Chart is that it is described in the figure, whereas a work Manual is written in “words”. A “figure to know the way to go” is shown in the Workflow chart. The expression ‘flow’ and ‘chart’ together means “a chart showing overall flow”. You can understand the entire flow quickly by seeing a chart, than by reading the words.
The ideal of a Workflow chart is for all the workers to understand it.
- What part of the process of the entire business am I working on?
- What should I receive (INPUT), create (process) and whom should I pass it to (OUTPUT)?
1-1. To share the current state of Flow, or the changes to the flow, within company
“To share the current state of Flow, or the changes to the flow, within the company” actually they are quite high-level requirements, although I put them in the first place.
Certainly, workers on the scene don’t need “Charts which only show an ‘Approximate flow’” in their daily work.
However, if you attempt to discuss ‘enhancement of the productivity of the team as a whole by devising the Workflow’, or for ‘considering the information transmission procedure to prevent fraud’, you immediately will need the Workflow as it is now. In reality, they can be discussed only in ‘improvement of the Workflow as it is now’.
Incidentally, you will know when you create and share a Workflow chart, there will be individual styles of doing day-to-day operations. The following example of such styles would exist in any company.
1-1-1. Complaint Handling flow
When writing reply emails for complaints, Mr.A asks his Boss to review all of them before transmitting, whereas Mr.B asks only occasionally.
1-1-2. Adding a New Web page flow
When adding a new Web page, Mr.A writes a manuscript after the designer drew illustrations, then again asks for the layout to the designer, whereas Mr.B asks the designer for illustration and layout after finishing writing the manuscript.
1-2. To tell the current state of the Flow internally
The need “To tell the current state of the Flow internally” is easy to understand.
In particular, if there is a Workflow chart, you can include new members to the team. When you have got new employees or personnel change, the newcomers can understand the approximate flow of work immediately, if you gave them the Workflow chart saying ‘See? Our team is doing this.’ A Workflow Chart will be a very effective weapon for companies in the business expansion period that are actively employing, or companies that have many regular personnel changes. There is no comparison with the classic “I will give you the copy of company regulations and business manuals”.
1-3. To report the current state of the Flow, externally
Compared to the above two, the third “To report the current state of the Flow, externally” is a little passive.
The most obvious example would be the internal control reporting system by the SOX Act. The listed companies submit the Workflow chart for Financial Services Agency to report that ‘we have got good governance’. And thus helps protect investors.
2. So, Why Don’t You have a Workflow Chart?
Workflow chart is necessary. Then why don’t you have it in spite of its need?
2-1. Can’t create it
“Can’t create it” is understandable.
Something cannot exist if it cannot be made. However, it is often the case. I want you to try to draw an actual familiar Workflow. Even if you are a hard-bitten veteran employee, when you click on “NEW” in PowerPoint or Visio, you will have nothing to write in the blank canvas in front of you. It’s not because you don’t know the Business. Rather, you know it better than anyone else. Simply, the depiction of the Workflow is difficult.
I myself became capable of drawing a flow of almost all the businesses on the spot now (bragging) because I have experience of modeling about 500 business, but at first, it used to take 5 hours or 10 hours to finish one. Moreover, there were still many points to improve when I woke up the next day. You will be forced to re-write over and over again for the first 10 flows.
2-2. Can create it, but don’t because it doesn’t make sense
“Can create it, but don’t because it doesn’t make sense” is potentially a serious issue.
However, cases like these are plenty. So, why do you feel ‘it doesn’t make sense’, then?
It comes down to two reasons:
- A) “because a Workflow chart becomes obsolete”, and
- B) “because you cannot control the flow of the business with only a Workflow chart”.
As for the [A] obsolescence of a Workflow, examples can be internal factors such as [A1] ’Purchase of a personal computer was decided to procure collectively by Affairs Department’ or [A2] ’the organization is reorganized and structure of the Department or team has changed’, and external factors such as [A3] ’Need to half the standard delivery time came out with the emergence of rival companies’, all of these would change the Workflow itself. At that moment, the Workflow chart made with great pains becomes a thing of the past. I don’t have to say that the maintenance of them is difficult. Also, about [B] Workflow is hard to control, although there may be some possible measures such as “stick the Workflow chart on the wall” or “monthly training program”, still it is limited only Workflow chart written on paper.
2-3. Can create it, but don’t because you don’t know who should do it
This is a serious problem.
It’s almost negligence. It may seem surprising, but it often occurs in mature organizations used to Workflow charts. For example, when it comes to a smooth flow of operations between the sales department and the manufacturing department, conflicts of interest occur. These are the so-called cross-departmental Workflows. You must take on hard negotiation meeting to define, for example: ‘Hey, you guys at the Sales Department should check the order info before us!’. Not only do you need to be well versed about the business of the departments involved, but you also have to arbitrate them in the name of “overall optimization”. It’s human nature to avoid trouble. (This is related to organizational theory. After all, it seems that top management needs to appoint the “process owner (see below)”.
3. Why a “Workflow chart” is hard to draw?
As I mentioned in “2-1. Can’t create it,” drawing a Workflow chart is difficult. Here, I want to study the reason why it is difficult.
By the way, I’m not going to discuss the drawing tools. Just a for painting, brushes and canvas are the tools. Rather, I’d like to discuss the causes of the difficulties of a subject, such as ‘a Galloping horse’ or ‘a nude’.
3-1. In fact, there are no rules
“In fact, there are no rules” is fatal.
Because there is no subject to draw. The Workflow you are going to draw seems like ‘a horse’ or like ‘a car’, or like ‘a temple’. You can’t draw a picture of something you don’t know how it looks like.
Can a business be done without a Workflow (rule)? Yes, it can. All I can say is that humans are just amazing…
3-2. Wondering about the granularity of the process
“Wondering about the granularity of the process” should be let to the experts.
I have described the operational process of “replying to a complaint” in chapter 1, you can further decompose it as fine as you want including, for example: ‘writing the title’, ‘writing the mail body’, or ‘reviewing’.
Various granularities can be considered, but as a principle, the granularity of the process of the Workflow should consider what “an employee gets as input and makes as output corresponding to the aforementioned input”.
3-3. Wondering about the range of exceptions
“Wondering about the range of exceptions” is the ultimate problem. I may say even a never-ending problem.
Here also, as a principle, those exceptions that occur rarely should be omitted. There will be no end if you try to draw all the exception handling that occur rarely. And the more you do it, the harder it will be to see the whole. On the other hand even as I say this, for important businesses, there is a way to think about contingency plans (contingency procedures). Even if they rarely occur, when they do, you would want to switch them as soon as possible.
4. The way to draw a “Workflow chart”
I’d like to discuss how to draw a Workflow chart and who should draw it, based on the reasons why it is necessary (chapter 1), the reasons why there isn’t one (chapter 2), and the reasons why it is difficult to draw(chapter 3).
The Workflow chart must be easily maintained. The Workflow chart must be convenient for everyone who uses it. The Workflow chart must have a good effect on the company.
4-1. Changes in the sophistication of IT tools
Of course, I want to use IT tools. Computers are great!
Since 2000, the beginning of the 21st century, Information Technology has been developed based on the idea to “Leave data exchange on the business to the computer”. Even since the 20th century, there existed as ‘Workflow Systems’, now those have been greatly advanced by IT. Although it is not widely recognized, it is called “BPM System”.
The concept is simple. It is devised so that if you instruct the business rules in the Workflow chart, etc. To the computer, the computer mediates the exchange of data between humans. That is, the computer determines “what the next step is” and “whom should this issue go to”, and designates the work appropriately. For example, someone creates a quote and registers it on the computer, the computer asks the boss ‘to check and to approve it’. And if someone writes a manuscript in Japanese and registers it on the computer, the computer asks the translator ‘to translate this into English’.
It doesn’t matter if it is 100 or 1000, the computer handles the progress of all the work in the company and designates the tasks one after another. It might sound bad, but human labor becomes “a piece of gear”. The computer brings the work, humans do as they are told.
By the way, this IT implementation would lead to reducing human jobs greatly as the industrial revolution did. However, humans may take new roles. Smartphones now memorize phone numbers for us, and we are OK with it.
(Don’t mind if a computer can beat human in a chess, writing novels or blog articles, there are lots of other things only humans can do.)
4-2. Changes of the International Standard Notation
If possible, the Workflow chart must be maintained easily.
People around the world have been thinking about it together with different formats of the Workflow chart (the way to draw icons and the way to connect them) have been proposed in the past.
Since 2000, a format of BPMN has been decided as the way of drawing the Workflow chart, in conjunction with the “changes in the sophistication of the IT tool”. Although the format itself is evolving, it has become the de facto standard. It was led by IBM, Oracle, Microsoft and other major IT companies. And, as expected, it is rational enough to be understood by both, humans and computers. (Questetra is not the only one who proposes this format.)
Recently, the U.S. government and the Japanese government showed changes in the adoption of the Workflow. So that their government’s operations will be written in BPMN soon. (Keywords: ‘ Business/System optimization’)
4-3. Changes in the Process Owner’s Mind
‘Should I master the IT tool (BPM system), and learn BPMN?’
The answer is yes. But there is a matter that is more important. That is to clarify who is responsible for maintenance of the Workflow chart. They are called Process Owners. In other words, process owners should be determined for each Workflow in the company. Concurrent appointments may be alright in the beginning.
This is the most important issue in this article.
As well as for information systems and quality management, the employment of this person corresponds to “indirect investment”, it should look very high return on investment in the medium term. Or he or she must be a person who brings high returns on investment for them. Depending on the organization, they might hire a person who bundles process owners as one of the executives. In fact, many companies have the CPO (Chief Process Officer) position to serve as the person responsible for optimizing the Workflow enterprise-wide, as well as the CTO (Chief Technical Officer), who is responsible for the strategy and technology and the CIO (Chief Information Officer) who is responsible for the information strategy. (There is also discussion about whether the COO and CFO should be involved or not, but I think a person with a specialized knowledge of the “business processes” should govern the entire company.)
By the way, BPMN is for the computers. There is no need to understand BPMN deeply for generalists who want to improve the Workflow (including the process owner end user). However, they do need to work with Workflow charts and to be able to read the charts roughly.
So, what should process owners do? I think (though my thoughts correspond to 2013), it is a mix between [A] “to learn the theory (knack)” and [B] “to imitate the good practices”.
About [A] Theory, there are specialized manuals, for example “BPM 100 Success Secrets”, but they are not yet the definitive textbook. (Though I think some easy to understand handbooks by the OCEB (OMG Certified Expert In BPM) will come out in the near future.) For now, it may be enough to check a variety of good books and magazine articles about how to draw the Workflow which have been around for a while now. Questetra website has a number of articles for learning purposes, such as “Golden Rules of Business Process Modelling”.
A good example for [B], is hard to find. It is, of course, because the skills to improve the operational efficiency are not meant to be shared easily. It is a “source of competitiveness” in some cases. However, recently you can find templates and samples of Workflow charts on a web search. Like other companies, Questetra offers a site of operations templates called “workflow sample”. It has more than 500 Workflow charts, so I want you to come to visit our site and do a search.
Finally, an advertisement of Questetra, at last.
To tell the truth, Questetra is a company developing a ‘BPM system’, a dream IT tool. And we got the attention from Gartner, the world’s largest survey company, as a “Cool Vendor in the Global BPM”.
Moreover, Questetra is providing a “Free edition”. I strongly recommend you to try it. If you are a small organization, or if you are a large company, how about trying it with a small team, for free?
It is easy to use. All you need is a Web browser (SaaS BPM). The following are some summaries of its functions.
- Determine the Flow.(Drag ＆ Drop)
To design a Workflow by placing icons. Each processing step (task) is represented by a rounded rectangle.
- Determine the input item(Data Setting)
To determine items needed for your business, such as String type, Date type, Select type.
e.g. ‘Applicant Name’, ‘Reason for Request’, etc.
- Set the Access Level
To determine which item can be entered in which handling process.
e.g.: ‘”Reason for Request” cannot be edited at the Approval Task’, etc.
- Set the personnel
To determine who (from which area/team) should handle the task.
e.g. ‘Approval Task to Direct superior of the applicant’, etc.
- Set the split rules
To describe Split condition expressions.
e.g. ‘If it is more than 5 million JPY, task must go to the President’
Innovating the world’s business through software!!
CEO: IMAMURA, Genichi; Questetra, Inc. (2013-01-18)