How to Create a Workflow Diagram for Your Project (Free Tools Included)

PM Articles by ProjectManager.com. 

A workflow diagram lets you view the whole project in one flow chart. All of your tasks and how they move from one to the next are outlined in the project plan, of course, but having a visual is a quick and easy method to see the big picture.

Every tool that helps define the project and make it more manageable is valuable.

What Is a Workflow Diagram?

A workflow diagram is a type of flowchart that displays every task in a project or business process, including dependent tasks. They can be hand-drawn, and are often used to quickly pitch a project by illustrating its workflow. Workflow diagrams were introduced in the manufacturing industry in the late 1880s to help with production process improvement. However, they are now used in various industries, including finance, government and commerce.

A workflow diagram is like a map. It has a starting point and a path that leads to the final deliverable of the project. By following a workflow diagram, you don’t take unnecessary detours and complete your work faster. That’s why workflow charts are commonly used for process improvement, business process mapping and business process analysis.

You can’t create a workflow diagram until you have a clear project plan, business process or, at least, a workflow analysis. This lets you define the work, as well as standardize and identify key decision points in the process.

Using a workflow diagram with workflow management software will streamline your business process. ProjectManager is a cloud-based work management software that delivers real-time data so you can catch issues in your business processes quickly and resolve them before they become problems. Build fully fledged project plans on Gantt charts, kanban boards, task lists and more. Try ProjectManager today for free.

Workflow mapped out on a Gantt chartWorkflow mapped out on a Gantt chart
Schedule workflows and execute them in real time with Gantt charts in ProjectManager. Learn more.

How Do Workflow Diagrams Help with Project Management?

Process mapping a workflow diagram is beneficial to project management because it helps teams their role in the sequence of work. This creates better communication between departments and gives teams a firm grasp on what they have to do.

Workflow diagrams also help you discover blocks in your project schedule before you execute it. A workflow chart, therefore, identifies areas that can throw your project off track. This gives you time to brainstorm process improvement and process modeling solutions with the team before a bottleneck negatively impacts your schedule and/or budget.

A flow diagram can help across teams as well. It’s a great collaborative tool everyone can use to understand the work you’re doing. This knowledge makes communication clearer. Also, when a new person is onboarded, having a business process mapping tool like a workflow diagram speeds up the time it takes for the new hire to get acclimated with the project.

Shapes for nodes can also play an important part in defining the workflow diagram. For example, an oval indicates the starting or ending point of a process. Rectangles are instructions or actions. The diamond shape identifies a yes or no decision that will lead the workflow in one of two separate paths. A circle means when something moves from one section to another. Arrows indicate the direction of the next step.

Components of a Workflow Chart

The workflow chart is made up of six components:

  • Participants: These are the people who are in whatever process is being diagrammed. This also includes their role in the process.
  • Activities: This is your work. For example, activities could be ordering, billing, financial services or manufacturing. Each task is detailed.
  • Order: This outlines what happens before and after the activity, and if any of these tasks are dependent on others to start or stop.
  • Input: This is what is needed in order to do the activity, such as materials or data.
  • Output: This is the end result of that activity, such as the data or document or whatever will be passed on to the next activity.
  • Standardization: Usually, steps are represented by nodes. These nodes are linked by a line showing the direction the work is moving. Therefore, several nodes can be stacked on top of one another if you’re executing work at the same time.

Types of Workflow Diagrams

You can illustrate a workflow diagram in several ways:

  • ANSI flowchart: The ANSI flowchart, which uses symbols from the American National Standards Institute (hence the acronym). It’s the most commonly used variation.
  • UML Activity: UML, or unified modeling language, graphically shows the order of the steps in a process. It also represents the flow of control.
  • Business Modeling Notation: The business process modeling notation (BPMN) is similar to the UML, but is more likely used by technical and business people that focus on business process and information rather than output.
  • Swimlane: Swimlane is a diagram that separates the different parts of an organization to highlight the interaction between these units. It gives users a high-level view that exposes potential inefficiencies.
  • SIPOC: The supplier, input, process, output, customer, or SIPOC shows who created and received the data. It also outlines the high-level processes involved.

Related: Arrow Diagrams for Projects: Activity on Node & Activity on Arrow

How to Create a Workflow Diagram

As noted above, a workflow diagram doesn’t just magically appear on the page. You have to do the work, which involves analysis. Follow these six steps to make your own workflow diagram:

  1. Identify the Processes You Are Tracking: Deciding which project processes you want to track will help determine the type of diagram you use. Keep in mind who will use the workflow diagram, technical or non-technical, as that will also inform the diagram used.
  2. Define Start and End Points: The workflow diagram needs a kick-off point to start the process and an end goal where that process is completed. It’s not illustrating a continuous process but, like any project, one with a beginning and an end.
  3. Get Your Information Together: Outline the activities involved in each step of the process and who the decision-maker is for each of these steps. You’ll also want to know the timeline for the process, any deviations, possible bottlenecks and ways of improving the process. This information should be gathered by talking with teams in every department involved with the workflow.
  4. Find and Remove Inefficiencies: Define your tasks to streamline your process. Decide if each task is a must-have, useful, nice-to-have or not necessary. Make sure these distinctions align with your overall goal and your overall workflow management.
  5. Create the Workflow: This is where you take all the data you’ve compiled and make it a visual map of the workflow process. This can be done by hand or with a diagramming tool. The final workflow diagram should be easy to understand, edit and share.
  6. Review and Refine: The workflow diagram is not a static document. It should be continuously reviewed and refined as bottlenecks occur, some processes are taking too long, costs are up, etc. There is always a path towards greater efficiency and you and your team should be open to it.

Workflow Diagram Example

To better illustrate how to create a workflow diagram, see the below image of a simple workflow of publishing a blog post to drive traffic to a website. As illustrated below, the project begins with searching for the right keywords. These are search terms that potential customers are using and will hopefully bring your blog post to the top of a query.

workflow diagram exampleworkflow diagram example

Once you decide on a topic and choose keywords, you assign them to a copywriter, who delivers the first draft to their editor, who edits the draft. This is represented as a triangle, rather than a rectangle like the other activities. This is because it’s a yes or no decision.

Once approved, the copy moves to the art department and visual assets are created to accompany the piece when it is published. The copy and assets are then uploaded to a content management system (CMS), such as WordPress. Now, a final edit is made, again with a yes or no decision as to whether there need to be any revisions.

If everything looks good, the blog is published. It is then shared on various social media platforms to help draw traffic to the website. This process is completed. Of course, there are other processes afterward, such as analyzing traffic, but that’s for another flow chart.

Free Tools for Making a Workflow Chart

Drawing a network diagram by hand is good for getting your point across, but in terms of using one for a project, you need something that is clear and easy to read at a glance. Unless you have a facility drawing and good penmanship it’s probably better to use a diagramming tool. They’re easier to share and edit, too. The following are a few free ones to get you started.

  • edraw by wondershare: This free diagram solution makes workflow charts but also mid maps, and other visual tools. Great for collaboration.
  • draw.io: This free diagram-maker works with Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, GitHub and more. It makes flowcharts, process diagrams, network diagrams and much more.
  • SmartDraw: This free drawing program has many templates to get you started, from flowcharts to floorplans. It also integrates with Google Workspace, Microsoft Office, Atlassian’s Confluence and Jira.

How ProjectManager Helps With Workflows

Knowing your process and mapping a workflow diagram is only the start. You have to implement that plan and execute it on time and within the agreed-upon budget. That takes visibility into the process and resource management tools to keep your team working at capacity. ProjectManager is a cloud-based software that delivers real-time data to make more insightful decisions to control your workflow.

Create Workflows on Kanban Boards

Turning a workflow diagram into a tool that gives teams assignments and managers transparency into their work requires kanban boards. These visual workflows allow teams to manage their backlog and work collaboratively to plan sprints. Managers can view the board and catch bottlenecks before they block the team and reallocate resources to keep them working. Even if the manager is working on one of the other multiple project views, such as our interactive Gantt chart, all the data is updated simultaneously across the tool so everyone is working on the same up-to-date data.

ProjectManager's kanban board viewProjectManager's kanban board view

Manage and Track Resources

Workflow diagrams show the path forward for teams but resource management tools keep them working productively. One thing to manage is how many tasks you’ve assigned to each team member. Our color-coded workload chart makes it fast and easy to see who is overallocated and who has too few assignments. Then you can reallocate resources right from the workload chart and balance your team’s tasks to keep them working at their best.

ProjectManager's workload chartProjectManager's workload chart

Report on Progress on the Fly

Stakeholders are going to want to see your workflow chart but as the project proceeds, they’ll also want data on its progress. One-click reports on tasks, time, budget and more can be filtered to show just the information they want and they are easily shared as a PDF attachment or even printed out if that’s how they prefer to get their status updates.

ProjectManager's project status report filterProjectManager's project status report filter

Don’t rest the success of your project on workflow diagrams alone. You have the map now you need to get there with project management tools that help teams collaborate, automate notifications and help you monitor, track and report on performance. ProjectManager is award-winning software that organizes work to help you achieve your goals. Our work management tool is designed to work with hybrid teams no matter where they are, how they like to work or their skill level. Turn your workflow diagram into an interactive project management tool. Try ProjectManager today for free.

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