Creating A Workflow Diagram: A Step-by-Step Guide (+5 Examples)
Vivian Tej is a B2B writer and content strategist for SaaS brands. She specializes in creating long-form content as well as journalist-style narratives with original quotes and interview input from experts in their field. She also loves writing all about the creator economy.
Been hearing a lot about workflow diagrams but have no idea what they are?
Well, the confusion stops here. ✋
At first glance, workflow diagrams might look like complicated outlines you’re tempted to avoid at all costs. Or you might think it takes a special kind of person to understand workflow diagrams.
But if you spend just a few minutes learning about what makes workflow diagrams so useful for teams and organizations, the chances are high that you’ll get hooked on creating them.
If you’re looking to increase your productivity and create more effective workflow systems to make sure your team ships their best work, you’ll want to bookmark this guide.
👉 Read this related article on Top 7 Workflow Software (2022 Reviews) to learn more.
Let’s dive into it!
What is a workflow diagram?
You might have heard of them referred to as process diagrams or even business process mapping. Regardless, the underlying idea is the same.
Workflow diagrams are designed to be visual roadmaps of a process. They’re usually created to help teams outline and improve their work processes. For example, an HR team might need to create a workflow diagram to refine their new employee onboarding strategy; while the IT department might use a workflow diagram to improve their vendor vetting process.
The concept of a workflow diagram was created in the late 1800s by Henry Gantt and Frederick Winslow Taylor. The reason? Long before software was a thing, industrial businesses were using management science to tame efficiency and make sure that the quality of their output was high. How? They created process diagrams.
The beauty of process diagrams is that they not only outline the tasks that make up a process (like a to-do list with a beginning and an end), but they can also help you visualize data, decision-making journeys, and even key milestones in any given process. Awesome, right? And visualization is just one of many benefits.
The benefits of using workflow diagrams
Now, part of embracing workflow diagrams is getting familiar with all the benefits they offer. In essence, they’re all about driving improvement.
Improve team communication
If there’s one thing teams need to do, it’s to be on the same page. They also need as much clarity as they can get.
Workflow diagrams are a perfect way for teams to collaborate on visualizing the systems that will help them ship their project to the finish line. This makes for faster processes and much less wasted resources. It also helps alleviate irritating bottlenecks. ⌛
Uncover process bottlenecks
Surprise! You probably have more process bottlenecks and problem areas or conflicts in your strategies that could be eliminated. . But it’s hard to tell if you don’t have a visual layout that helps you pinpoint problem areas.
The more bottlenecks you uncover, the more you can create efficient systems through which your team can create their best work. And who doesn’t want that?
Document your systems
They say history repeats itself if we don’t learn from it. It’s the same when you don’t document what’s worked in the past.
Whether your team is a digital agency that deals with lots of moving parts and client revisions or you’re a trucking software company that uses a repeatable system to onboard SaaS tools quickly, you want to document what works for your team.
Workflow diagrams are an accessible way for anyone on your team to get up to speed on company processes and tasks. Not to mention, they’ll spend less time running around asking questions and working through the confusion (hey, it happens!).
Here are 5 workflow diagram examples
Not every workflow diagram is created equal. If you’re wondering what they look like, here’s a rundown of some of the most popular ones you can start using, well, as soon as today.
1. Swimlane diagram
Picture a swimming lane in a pool. Then picture an outline with tasks, as well as tagging the team members responsible for those tasks, in a vertical setup. That’s what you call a swimlane diagram.
It’s a useful workflow diagram when you’re trying to find where tasks conflict with each other. And it’s also a solid way to keep team members accountable and establish ownership of key tasks in any given process.
2. Timeline diagram
This diagram is exactly as it sounds: it maps out a visual of a sequence of events in order. Timeline diagrams help you take in a more accurate overview of the scope of a process.
It can help you figure out where your time is going as well as where you’re wasting the most time. Processes that consume a lot of resources, including time, can benefit from using a timeline diagram. Project managers and warehouse operations directors can find this diagram useful.
3. Agile workflow diagram
This diagram lets you visualize the entirety of a process that is necessary to create a product or service. It’s one of the best diagrams to make every part of your process highly visible. It also highlights who on your team is assigned to each task.
Agile diagrams are best for more complex projects. Engineering teams or event coordinators can use agile diagrams to stay lean and highly efficient as they organize teams and meet deadlines.
4. Process workflow diagram
You can use the process workflow diagram to illustrate the relationship between the tasks that make up a process. It’s great to standardize a process you use often. Like if you work in HR and you need to document your hiring and onboarding process. A diagram might be one of the best ways to organize and optimize it.
The process workflow diagram is straightforward, which makes it the perfect diagram to drive decision-making and improve on an already established system.
5. Data workflow diagram
A data workflow diagram works best when you’re trying to visualize the flow of data in a process instead of just listing the tasks needed to complete it from beginning to end.
Where is the data coming from? Where will it go when a specific task is completed? How does a data point conflict with a decision-making point? These are all questions you’ll have an easier time answering once you’ve mapped out a data diagram.
Data diagrams are also great for outlining how data flows within teams and if there’ll be conflicting data processing with adjacent teams. It’s a great way to map out a system you’re already using so that you can make it more efficient.
👉 Learn about workflow management in-depth with this guide and snag all the best tools, benefits, and processes to do it.
How to create your first workflow diagram
While you can use the traditional analog method of good old pen and paper to create your workflow diagrams, here’s some advice: skip that. It’s way better to use a digital tool to create your diagrams.
They’re shareable, easily editable, and you can store them on your laptop ‘til the end of time. ClickUp’s Whiteboard feature gives you a canva on which you can easily get started creating and sharing your workflow diagrams.
1. Get familiar with workflow diagram symbols
There’s a rhyme and reason to workflow diagrams. In other words, they’re built with standardized shapes that are assigned a meaning–so everyone that reads a workflow diagram is on the same page. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Arrow/line: These are used to signify both the direction and the flow of your diagram. They’re also used as connector symbols that connect certain shapes/tasks. ➡️
- Parallelogram: You can use these to show exactly where new data enters a process. 📒
- Diamond: This shape is used to show a decision in your workflow that’s necessary to move to the next step. 🔶
- Rectangle: You can use a rectangle to symbolize a single step in a workflow diagram 🟪
- Cylinder: Want to add data to your workflow? This is what a cylinder is for. 🔋
- Oval: These mark the beginning and endpoints of a workflow. 🏉
Now that you’re familiar with workflow symbols, here’s how to choose the right diagram.
2. Choose your diagram according to your end goal
Choosing the right workflow diagram for you starts with the end goal in mind. For example, decide if you want to:
- Visualize a new process for an upcoming project
- Identify inefficiencies in an old system
- Optimize how you use all your resources throughout a process
- Set team expectations for a specific workflow and improve how you communicate
- Break down a highly complex process with a ton of different tasks, decision-making points, and data
Then each task can be road-mapped with a different type of workflow. Let’s say you’re an architecture firm that needs to optimize the process of onboarding new clients. Creating a process workflow diagram (see our list above) might be in order.
So, now you’ve chosen the workflow diagram that’ll work for you. But you can’t create one without the right tools at your disposal. 🛠️
3. Sign up for ClickUp (its whiteboard feature is free!) 👀 🙌
If you’re looking for one of the easiest ways to start creating your workflow diagram, look no further than ClickUp.
It’s Whiteboard feature has all the tools you need to create workflows your team can collaborate on and share as they need it.
Once you sign up, simply navigate to + View, scroll down, and click on Whiteboard.
You’ll be met with a nice clean slate where you can start outlining your diagram of choice.
4. Create a whiteboard draft and invite your team members
You don’t have to create your workflow diagram alone! You can invite your team members to collaborate and be part of the process.
To do that, navigate to Space Setting, then click on Sharing & Permissions and you’ll be able to add members to your space. Once you’ve onboarded your team members, you can start working on your diagram in real-time.
Each of you will be able to see each other’s cursors as you create shapes and connect tasks.
5. Create your workflow diagram with the shape tool
From here on out, the whiteboard is your oyster. You can create as many workflow diagrams as you need and save them, share them, show them in a presentation, or modify them any time you need to.
You can intuitively create shapes, connect them as you go, and use the Text feature to label each appropriately. You can even upload your own unique shapes and images through the image upload tool.
Create awesome systems with workflow diagrams
While this isn’t a list of all the possible workflow diagrams you could use, it is a solid stepping stone into the world of workflow diagrams.
Use it to guide you through your next brainstorming session or team meeting.
Workflow diagrams put you and your team at the wheel while ensuring everyone stays on the same page.
They’re a reliable way to improve communication, process bottlenecks, and efficiently document your systems.
To get started reading all the benefits of a workflow diagram, it’s a matter of choosing the best one based on your end goal. Once you’re ready to piece your diagram together, get started with ClickUp’s Whiteboard feature for free here!