What is workflow management?
Published June 6th, 2023
12 min read
Detroit, Michigan, was bitterly cold in January 1914. Nonetheless thousands of men queued to accept an extraordinary offer: $5 a day, for eight hours work. The offer of double wages for one hour’s less work, was a defining moment in 20th century manufacturing, and a win for workflow management. The moving assembly line didn’t just usher in the age of the car, it changed work forever.
Marketing Communications Manager at Tiny
Assembly lines are reputedly responsible for the growth of the middle class. It’s a big claim, but given the 19th and 20th century manufacturing booms, it’s likely not far from the truth. Conveniently, a sign to that effect hangs on the gates of Ford Motor Company’s (now empty) Highland Park factory, "Mass production soon moved from here to all phases of American industry, and set a pattern of abundance for 20th century living".
The world changed in many ways.
Once industrialization began, farm work was abandoned and replaced by factory floors filled with repetitive machine-based tasks. People became accustomed to mechanized workplaces and engineers explored, tested and modified production processes to boost outputs, cut work hours, and improve returns.
Ford's success showed others how workflow management raised productivity. But what is a workflow? As a concept, it’s quite simple: everything must go through a process. In reality though, it’s a bit more complex.
What is a workflow?
A workflow is the sequential arrangement of pre-defined activities, or a collection of processes, to produce a specific result. Workflows can be basic, complex, or, they can be a series of events that occur in parallel and carry certain dependencies, rules and requirements for completion.
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The theory goes that every time you run the same workflow, the same result is produced. That's because workflows are designed to make the completion of routine and repetitive work more consistent, efficient and fast.
Notably, one-off projects don’t have a workflow: repeatable projects do. Therefore optimizing workflows requires a high level of organization.
To aid the organization of their production, Ford consulted Frederick Taylor (see below and sidebar), to examine the most efficient models to use. Four principles were employed to improve the workflow: interchangeable parts, continuous flow, division of labor, and reducing wasted effort.
After time and motion studies, reorganizing resources and adding mechanisations (ie. the moving assembly line), the results were revolutionary. Ford's Model T output went from 100 cars per day to an astonishing 1,000 a day – not that far off today’s modern factories.
But how did Ford’s pioneering work on workflow influence today’s SaaS applications?
What is workflow management?
Workflow management is an organized and methodical approach to creating, documenting, monitoring and improving a workflow – to help you optimize its outputs.
A workflow management system (WFMS) is a software package that’s designed and used to setup, manage and execute workflows within an organization. It’s a business process management technique that incorporates programs and people into a process framework.
WFMSs help businesses improve their efficiency and reduce operational costs. Generally, the systems optimize:
The key aim of a WFMS is to reduce the amount of unnecessary work and manual effort that's needed to be done. The benefits of workflow management are many:
- Workload reduction
- Better return on investment (ROI) of time, effort and tools
- Improves effectiveness and efficiency
- The business data generated, informs better decision making
- Increases employee empowerment
- Reduces dull, repetitive tasks
- Standardizes workflows
- Improves auditing capabilities
- Facilitates better time management.
- Aids integrations with existing tools
Who was Frederick Taylor?
Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915) is known as the Father of Scientific Management, which also came to be known as “Taylorism.”
He was an American mechanical engineer and writer of the 1911 book, “Principles of Scientific Management” based on his pioneering work in applying engineering principles to the work done on the factory floor.
His methods were aimed at improving industrial efficiency and became instrumental in the development of what is now known as industrial engineering.
Origins of workflow management
The history of workflow management dates back more than 200 years, to the Industrial Revolution. Despite the tools having altered, the foundational principles of workflow remain unchanged: to streamline processes, improve productivity and increase efficiency.
The concept of workflow and its management can be traced back to two mechanical engineer pioneers, Frederick Taylor and Henry Gantt. They analyzed, organized and tracked work to improve its efficiency, and graphically depicted the subsequent workflows.
Frederick Taylor led the development of an entirely new discipline – industrial engineering or scientific management. From the 1880s onwards he found various ways to eliminate redundant processes and make both employees and mechanisations more efficient. Using his ‘scientific’ approach, the managerial functions of planning and coordination were applied – he added a hierarchy of managers between workers and owners – throughout the production process.
In an eerie echo of today’s digital transformation efforts to improve workflow, Taylor believed that a factory manager’s primary goals “... were to determine the best way for the worker to do the job, to provide the proper tools and training, and to provide incentives for good performance.”
Around 1912, Henry Gantt created the Gantt Chart – the methodology and work management tool that still remains in use. The Gantt Chart is a graphical representation of the tasks and work processes needed to plan and manage milestones in any project.
Taylor and Gantt’s combined efforts advanced workflow management to the point where many late Victorian and pre WWI-era infrastructure projects were no longer done on an ad-hoc basis. Instead, they were accurately planned and managed with work, costs and resources apportioned against each project milestone.
Following the application of Taylor and Gantt’s Scientific Management methodologies, the Ford Company continued to trial and succeed in his workflow management practices. From that era, one of the best known examples of an optimized workflow is their 1913 introduction of the assembly line for the production of Ford Model T cars.
This marked the beginning of large-scale workflow organization and management.
The assembly line had been specifically designed for the sequential organization of workers, tools or machines, and parts. Prior to this, people built cars unit-by-unit rather than part-by-part, which took longer, and cost more. By creating a linear process of work, Ford sped up the process of mass-production and transformed the practice of manual labor.
The next major step in workflow management occurred during World War II, when there was a high demand for efficient, organized work methods. Draft registration cards, file systems and classifications of all sorts were required to organize the logistics of people movement, equipment, records and paperwork.
With the advent of computer software in the 70s, workflow (at the time) was just a small feature within an enterprise suite and in many cases, didn’t even have a name. It usually just consisted of a process map or flowchart, without any other functionality.
In the early 80s and 90s, companies saw the potential benefits of defining and refining their internal workflows. It also became apparent that product-oriented processes designed for efficiently making cars, weren’t that efficient (or people-centric) in an office or home. Movements like Total Quality Management (TQM) and Six Sigma (6σ) soon emerged, to address problems in traditional workflows.
Eventually an entire methodology and software industry emerged (2005), that was dedicated to workflow and business process management (BPM) – where planning was linked with execution. Features and modeling tools helped companies analyze and contrast ‘as-is’ processes in an organization with ‘to-be’ processes, in an effort to make them more efficient.
What is automation?
According to Britannica, “In its ideal form, automation implies the elimination of all manual labor through the use of automatic controls that ensure accuracy and quality.”
The term was (not-so-coincidentally) coined by the Ford Motor Company in the 1940s, and was applied to the automatic handling of parts in metalworking processes. A broader meaning emerged after American mathematician Norbert Wiener developed the theory of cybernetics. He anticipated the application of computers to manufacturing situations, which further broadened its meaning to what we know it as today.
Early office automation began with the introduction of mechanizations – typewriters and adding machines – during the 19th century. As offices grew in size and number, they faced the challenge of managing, maintaining, and scaling workflows. Computerisation resolved the issue, aided by specific workflow and automation software that has helped to provide a competitive advantage.
What is workflow automation?
Workflow automation (and task-specific automation software) allows you to set up certain processes within your workflow, to happen automatically. It’s especially useful for repetitive tasks and generally uses project-specific workflows as the basis for the automated operation.
Automations augment manual workloads, reduce human error, and remove time-consuming tasks that don’t require human intervention. The removal of those tasks lets you better use the ‘gained’ time, to solve more challenging issues and help drive revenue.
Automations can also help your workflows run smoother, by acting as an IT bridging tool. This means the automation software can join together processes that run across different tools and departments. Currently, the term ‘workflow automation’ is used to denote modern, low-code tools that allow anyone to streamline their digital tasks.
Who was Henry Gantt?
Henry Laurence Gantt (1861–1919) was an American engineer who is best known for the creation of his planning methodology and management tool, the Gantt Chart.
As a scheduling tool, the Gantt chart was employed on major American infrastructure projects including the Hoover Dam. It continues to be utilized in project management and program management.
Gantt’s work primarily focused on the application of quantitative analysis to improve productivity. He was an associate of Frederick Taylor, a promoter of the scientific school of management and his views on worker compensation were forerunners of the human relations school of management.
Ford's Model T output went from 100 cars per day to an astonishing 1,000 a day
Who invented the assembly line?
The assembly line was introduced in 1913, at the Ford Motor Company, after William "Pa" Klann returned from visiting Swift & Company's slaughterhouse in Chicago. There he saw what was referred to as the "disassembly line", where carcasses were butchered as they moved along a conveyor.
The efficiency of one person removing the same piece over and over without moving his location, caught Klann’s attention. The idea was subsequently suggested and implemented on the Model T Ford’s production line.
This new assembly line method reduced the time it took to build a single car from 12 hours to 93 minutes. It also lowered costs, increased wages (through increased productivity), and helped cut the workday from 9 to 8 hours.
Curious about the latest trends in workflow management systems?
What is a workflow management system?
A workflow management system (WFMS) is software specifically designed to enable the automated and seamless execution of workflows. Users are able to define and model workflows, set deadlines and budgets, and add any other parameters that impact the workflow being executed.
Once set up, the WFMS executes the inputs within the defined constraints and then evaluates and monitors the sequence of tasks – ideally making further improvements in the overall process.
What is the goal of workflow management?
The ultimate goal of workflow management is to automate, optimize and improve the speed, reliability, and resources used to complete tasks within an organization. Using workflows should ensure that tasks are completed correctly, consistently and efficiently.
All workflows contain multiple steps that need to happen before completion, so using a workflow management system helps teams collaborate more efficiently and manage their day-to-day tasks without losing sight of the big picture.
Why is workflow management important?
The key benefit of implementing a workflow management system is to reduce or eliminate redundant work processes that are carried out on a regular basis. By automating these processes, overall productivity is increased and users have more time to work on more important projects and tasks.
Workflow management also assists teams, departments and overall organizations to communicate more effectively and ideally reduces the usage of resources and time, as well as the likelihood of human-made errors.
10 advantages of a workflow management system
There are 10 key advantages to implementing a workflow management system:
Automation of redundant, repetitive tasks
Boosts to efficiency, visibility, and responsibility
Cost reductions from improved productivity
Top-down perspective of workflows
Greater precision in task execution
Reduction in human or time-pressured errors
Greater job satisfaction with less menial tasks
Faster response times improve customer experience
Future of workflow automation
Since the Industrial Revolution, work has become increasingly complex. The introduction of Ford’s moving assembly line marked a turning point in mass manufacturing, along with the introduction of workflow management.
Efficient workflows unlock time and resources so they’re able to be better utilized.
Those redirected assets go on to create greater value and improved experiences, just as they did for the workers queuing outside on a cold January morning in 1914.
What is the projected market size of the workflow automation market?
In 2021, the WorkFlow Automation market size was US $12.02 Billion and it’s expecting a revenue CAGR of 23.5% during the forecast period to 2021–2030.
What factors will be driving the global workflow automation market in 2023?
There are six factors driving the rising demand for workflow automation and workflow management software in 2023:
- No-code and low-code apps
- AI, robotics, and machine learning
- Ease of cross-stack integrations
- Automation-as-a-Service (AaaS)
How many companies are now using automation tools?
Camunda’s 2020 State of Process Automation Report reports that 97% of IT decision-makers believe process automation is crucial for digital transformation, while 36% of organizations are already implementing business process management software to automate workflows.
Marketing Communications Manager
Messaging strategist and copywriter whose passion lies in working with brands like Tiny, that have deep-seated values and embrace the power of their story. She gets a kick out of solving problems, loves learning new things and making stuff, every day. When she’s not thinking through clever copy lines or clarifying value propositions, she’s knitting amazing socks for everyone she knows.