Workflow Fundamentals

What is the essence of workflow? As the word implies, we want to keep work flowing. Value is threatened when workflow stops, is hindered, obstructed or slowed down. Lean manufacturing methods and tools are for making the work visible to keep it flowing. Workflow visibility allows management to manage workflow processes and gives each worker the ability to see what they need to do next. After seven decades of lean manufacturing practice at Toyota, and nearly two decades of lean manufacturing process in the United States and elsewhere in the world, the methods for creating the visual factory, where flow is visible, are well established. The methods for managing virtual workflow are still emerging, and are a much bigger challenge.   Process design methods are used to develop the workflow sequence, a system of step-by-step discrete processes performed by human beings and machinery.. Each process step is identified as a well-defined task and assigned to a specific person.

Effective workflow designs answer several critical questions:

1. How does each worker know what they should do next?

2. How do the managers get the management information they need?

a. How do we know when flow has stopped and intervention is required?

b. How do we know when a worker has too little to do or too much to do?

Every workflow tool and method used in the visual factory answers one of these two questions: “How does each worker know what to do next?” and “How does management know if flow has stopped or is threatened?” The overarching first principles are quite simple. We want to keep materials and information moving, and we want to know when the flow of materials or information has stopped. Almost all workplace communications and interactions – the simple ones where we pick up the phone or send an email – are about keeping this flow moving. Ideally, in a well-designed workflow, each worker knows what to do next without the need for an email, phone call or conversation with the next worker. While simple communications may only take seconds or minutes, these seconds or minutes add up significantly during the course of the day, enough to account for half of our time spent at work. We don’t want to discourage communications between workers but because we value the timeline, we do want to eliminate unnecessary communications outside of the well-defined workflow.

Banking, insurance and stock trading industries are several examples that are primarily transaction processing business models. These industries are large and specialized enough to merit development of specific workflow management tools to keep transaction processing moving forward and the marketplace has risen to the occasion and has provided them with such tools. However, more than 95 percent of the businesses in the United States are small businesses, and for them, especially those having to manage virtual or electronic workflow, there are very few tools and solutions available to help make virtual work visible and keep it flowing. One solution may be for management and workers to establish their own workflow management system. A very effective system can be established by implementing simple file folder structures on shared network drives and establishing a basic set of rules for file naming conventions and notifying coworkers of work being sent to a designated folder. Whatever type of workflow management system a business chooses to implement, virtual workflow methods must be simple to set up and easy to use, otherwise they just won’t happen.

Workflow management fundamentals boil down to two things: making the workflow visible and setting each worker up so they know what to do next, while enabling managers to note when flow has stopped or become unbalanced they are able to take action. This is the essence of workflow management.

Virtual workflow can be a challenge to keep moving and make visible. How much of your workflow is virtual and invisible, hiding inside computers? For virtual workflow, what methods have you used to keep it flowing? Share your experiences below.

Andy Pattantyus, CPIM is president of Strategic Modularity, Inc., a systems engineering consulting firm that works with clients on process oriented Lean Transformation projects, including initiatives to improve administrative workflows. Andy is also an active member of APICS-SFV and the ACA Group. Contact Andy at

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