Workflow diagram – An important lean tool

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of business and process management, this couldn’t be any more true. When it comes time to lean out a process, system, or business, the question of visualizing the process always comes up. Luckily a tool exists to bring everyone on the same page as well as visualize the processes involved, and this tool is a Workflow diagram. A workflow diagram is like the secret decoder ring that will result in the team’s understanding and focused improvement.

Just as it sounds, a workflow diagram is a visual depiction of a workflow, using visual representations such as flowchart symbols and annotations to show the different steps and decision points in a workflow. A workflow is a sequence of operations or processes as defined by the work of a person, a machine, a group of machines, or a group of people, organization or staff. The work itself may actually be a virtual representation of actual work, such as a decision, processing of a document, or a procedure that is conducted. The flow part of the workflow is oftentimes depicting a transfer of a document or piece of a product from one step or workstation to another.

The workflow itself is not a great lean tool. While depicting the process helps to visualize what is happening inside of the company, it does not show the places for improvement. Like a roadmap, it maps out the different destinations and paths to get to and from a destination. Also like a map, it does not show where the roadblocks, bumpy roads, heavy traffic, or bad weather is. Just as a map can be used as an underlay for a weather map or traffic map, the workflow can be used as the building block on which other assessment tools are based.

The workflow can be used as a great learning tool, especially for newcomers to the organization, which is an ISO requirement. Additionally, they should be characteristic to the company with its own terminology such as silos, teams, projects, and hierarchies.

In reality, it is often hard to trace the exact path of a task or document, especially when functional tasks and operational teams are not clearly defined. The workflow will often be better represented by a series of intertwined webs instead of clearly defined paths and flowing roadmaps. It is very common for a company to employ the use of software to help in defining and managing the workflows associated with a company.

After it is defined and improved, the end result is usually a better overall understanding of the company’s processes as well as improved efficiency, less complicated processes, improved process control and better quality and standardization. If all of the members of a workflow and business understand where their place is in the workflow and how they are supposed to interact with other teams and organizations inside of the workflow, the results are sometimes amazing at the level of improvement that is possible.

When a company first decides that it wants to employ lean processes, they usually start with a workflow diagram. Most managers and company executives are shocked to find out the inefficiencies that occur inside of their organizations. It is also a great way to make a big difference quickly by reminding, or informing all personnel that operate inside the workflow of what they should be doing with respect to processing the documents or materials that they handle.

Sample of a workflow diagram
Figure (1)

An example workflow diagram is given in Figure (1). The workflow depicted outlines a company that produces software. The specific workflow depicted here is that of the customer service workflow. In another words, what happens when a customer calls this software company?

Figure (1) should be relatively straightforward, but the company would like to lean this process out. In order to conduct the lean process properly, they hire a lean expert who documents the workflow you are looking at. Immediately, the lean expert sees some room for improvement.

The first issue addressed in the lean report was the fact that an operator, in the first step, is basically used as a call screener. They waste valuable time ensuring the call gets to the right place, oftentimes with no further action necessary on their part. The lean expert recommended that this step be replaced by a PBX system, which will reduce the amount of time an operator spends handling a call. In turn, they can handle more calls more frequently.

He also notices that the form 1182 and 1187 are used in very similar situations. He recommends combining the 2 forms into one that is applicable in every situation, whether it is a complaint that can or cannot be resolved by the operator. While the company may have alternative reasons for having two separate forms, this is a lean opportunity, and should be evaluated as such.

Someone who is well versed in lean processes should complete the workflow diagram. By diagramming even the smallest details, an opportunity for improvement may be realized where it may not have been readily apparent in prior attempts. If it were left up to the person who is actually completing the process, they may have a bias as to what they think they are actually doing compared to what they are actually doing.

Workflow diagrams are very powerful tools in the fight against waste. It should be obvious by now that they are not necessarily the end tool, but instead a tool to visualize the processes that are already in place. Many times managers and supervisors are shocked to see what actually happens compared to what should be happening.

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One thought on “Workflow diagram – An important lean tool”

  1. Dear Aza,

    Tks for sharing your viewpoint on the workflow diagram. In many instances we waste time trying to find out how to to start: using the flowchart or using the VSM.
    By reading your thougths it became clear that the important is to start no matter what tool you will take first.
    Understand the process in details at first glance is never easy given that knowledge is iterative. However, when you go thru the process in a hands-on fashion you are giving the first step to master it.
    Thanks again, hope you keep publishing what you know.
    Have a nice day,


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