Definition: A Workflow is a sequence of tasks, with a set of objectives, to support processing of physical and/or data objects to achieve a set of goals. Workflows are the flow of actions and decisions describing how something gets done. Managing a list of unconnected tasks is not a workflow. Workflows have tasks that are dependent on others in the workflow to achieve a unified goal or objective. Three types of workflows may be built by workflow management systems, the use of which is dependent upon the needs of the project. These include sequential workflows, state machine workflows, and rules-driven workflows.
- A sequential workflow is linear and progressive, like a flow chart. This workflow goes from one task or process to another and does not step back in the sequence. This category of workflows includes “process workflows” where the tasks are predictable and repetitive. Examples: expense report approval, employee onboarding, invoicing and billing, kitting, simple surveys.
- A state machine workflow is more complex than a sequential workflow and may step back in the sequence if a dependency mandates. These workflows go from one “state” to another “state” via an event-driven set of operations. Examples: inventory management, software development, equipment or process testing.
- A rules-driven or case workflow is essentially a higher-level sequential workflow. “Rules” determine the workflow progress. They use conditions to decide if expressions are “true” or “false,” and the rules are modeled with the “if,” “then,” or “else” expressions. Moving through a rules-driven workflow depends heavily on the constraints and/or conditions associated with the work (who, what, when, where, …) and the choices made throughout the workflow (selection from the available options to proceed). Examples: break-fix work-orders, support tickets, insurance claims, surveys.
Note that most workflows to support field service activities are either sequential or rules-driven workflows, but state machine workflows must also be supported by the project management system. Also, the workflow design and management component of an integrated project management system must be able to support the creation of highly efficient and effective workflows of all types.
Workflows can be human-centric (most tasks are performed by a human) or system-centric (most tasks are performed by a machine). Most field services require a human-centric workflow. Human-centric workflows are more difficult to design given the need to avoid errors induced by human judgement, decision making, and mistakes. System-centric workflows, if designed properly, should be much less error prone, require little to no quality control, and be much more reliable in their operation as long as the data used in support of the workflow is consistent in the bounds and formats expected.
The workflow engine in a project management system should “automate” the transition from one task to another and not require human intervention to continue processing of the workflow. The project management system, with support from the workflow engine, should automatically handle notifications, reminders, triggers, transitions between representatives/systems, reports and other key transitions between major stakeholders supporting the workflow.
Some best practices in workflow design:
- Get input from all stakeholders (executive management, project management, field service representatives, QC’ers, analytics team, reporting team, client, accounting, etc.) on the key elements, goals, objectives, expected outputs and other key features of the target project. Also, support workflow design reviews and regular workflow audits with stakeholders (or when recurrent issues are identified).
- Insure the ability to “take action on data”, e.g., data analytics, in support of maximizing productivity, exposing issues, and identifying new business opportunities.
- Enable “ease of optimization” upon feedback from stakeholders. Workflows must be easy to manage and change.
- Employ principles that enable a positive user experience including responsiveness, intuitive forms layout, consistency across workflow components, clarity of interface actions, and specificity of what is expected.
- All data entries should be in standard units of measure. Drop-down menus, picklist, or “spinners” can be used to minimize the number of possible entries. All data entries should be checked against an expected format, range, or allowable values at the time of entry. “Free-text fields” should be used on an exception basis only (requires approval by a review committee).
- Workflow forms should be mobile friendly (given most field service data entry is performed with a mobile device).
- Target alignment with database structures, backend dash-boarding, and analysis objectives.
- Support integration and/or data compatibility with target electronic document management system.
- Represent the workflow using a visual aid, flow-chart, or flow diagram. If the diagram becomes too complicated to understand, the design is probably also too complicated.
- When possible, split workflows into sub-flows or modules. The use of smaller, more digestible modules result in greater efficiency, quicker issue resolution, easier testing, and overall better workflow performance. Also, a modular design enables addition or removal of new features or processes more efficiently.
- Think of workflows as non-linear processes. Workflows are designed to enable you to return to previous steps seamlessly without causing bottlenecks or lag time.
- The use of workflow templates designed for specific types of projects and/or work-orders can help minimize the time required to implement a new field service project and allow reuse of a “known good” workflow designs.
- Make sure you can measure productivity using key points in the workflow as indicators of progress.
There are many other best practices in workflow design. The above are just a few of the key ones identified from many years of experience. The art of workflow design can be made more systematic by good design practices and clear understanding of a project’s goals and objectives.