The Art of Workflows (with Google Draw)

Workflows? I don’t need no stinkin’ workflows.

Jazz musician Miles Davis.
“Even Miles Davis needed sheet music…”

Yes, you do. Lists and todos are for grocery stores and dentist appointments – real processes require real, logical steps. If you aren’t already putting together workflows and ordered lists, then you (A) don’t know what these are or (B) think that winging it is just a better way of doing things. For those of you that believe in the Gospel of Wingin’ it, I say this: sometimes, you’re right. Sometimes, it really is just better to wing it and play it by ear – improvise. But sometimes is not always, and even Miles Davis needed sheet music from time to time to get him started.

For those of you that have no idea what a workflow is or have some vague notions of diagrams, charts, graphs, cats, cogs, and gears with arrows sticking out them – fear not. You probably already know how to diagram a workflow. In fact, you probably did this in grade school when you were learning how to brainstorm or every time you played Candyland. You certainly don’t need an MBA and you definitely don’t need an expensive program. All you need is the ability to draw and a list of ordered steps. A workflow is nothing more than each of those steps, laid out in one place, with arrows connecting them in order. The value of a workflow over an ordered list of steps is that you can visualize the process more easily, and you can add some basic logic to your steps, i.e. if my mailman delivers my Netflix DVD today, then I go to step 3, otherwise, I go to step 4. (You’ll see what I mean when we get to an example below.)

Step One: Figure out steps two, three, four…

Some people like to just jump into the drawing part of the process – putting squares and arrows down on paper. I think it’s best to just start with an ordered set of steps. The process I will workflow as an example is “A low-key Friday night.” My steps are laid out below:

A Low-Key Friday Night:

  1. Commute home from work
  2. Pick up some groceries
  3. Arrive at home
  4. Get the mail
  5. Cook some dinner
  6. Open a bottle of wine (or beer)
  7. Eat dinner
  8. Wash the dishes
  9. Watch a movie
  10. Read a book
  11. Go to sleep

This seems like a pretty discreet and simple set of steps, but as you’ll see once we put these steps into a workflow, there is a world of logic between each item.

Step 2: Put it in a “Drawering.”

Now that we’ve got the steps down on paper (errrrrr… on screen), we need to start drawing. Each one of these items can be represented by an individual box, or circle, or whatever graphical representation you would like to use. There are all sorts of diagramming standards, but we don’t really care about any of them. Right now, we just want to get started with workflows.

The tool I like to use for drawing out workflows is Google’s Draw. I’m no Google fanboy, but they definitely make some useful products. Most importantly, the app is free and it’s easy to use. You can drag and drop all sorts of shapes and easily add text within the shapes by double clicking. You can access Draw using Google Drive clicking the “Create New” button. Get access to Google Drive, you’ll need a Gmail account (or any Google account). If you don’t already have one, you may sign up here:

Friday night workflow, part 1
Low-Key Friday Night Workflow, part 1

As you can see above, I used Google draw to just create boxes that represent each of the steps in my new workflow. So far, this doesn’t look like much, but in the next step, I will add the actual logic to the workflow. Note that the first box is a different color than the other boxes – I consider that the entry point or starting point into my workflow (i.e. the first step).

Step 3: That’s pretty illogical.

At this point, we need to stat adding some logic to our workflow diagram. So far, all we’ve got are actual steps, but in between some of these steps are decisions that determine which step we will take next. For instance, if there is a Netflix movie in the mail, then a movie will be watched, otherwise, it looks like a quiet night with a book. (Obviously, we could also watch TV, but except for NBA playoffs, Friday nights are generally pretty crappy.)

Low-Key Friday Night, part 2; Usually wine and movie go together, but you get the point...
Low-Key Friday Night, part 2; Usually wine and movie go together, but you get the point…

As you can see from the example above, the workflow of the evening is beginning to make a lot more sense. The logic I added accounts for the availability of a movie to watch as well as whether or not I purchased all of the necessary ingredients to make a nice dinner. The one thing it doesn’t account for is that wine is usually paired with a movie or a book, but we can always chalk that bit up to “wingin’ it.”

What’s the point again?

Obviously, my example is somewhat nonsensical. If you need a workflow to step through a Friday evening, then you don’t really understand the point of a Friday evening. However, by using the same process above, you could easily create workflows for some of your more intensive business processes. Say for instance you have a sales department. It would be good to know how leads are generated,and how they are processed once they come in contact with your team. You could map out each individual person’s workflow or the entire process from beginning to end. Heck, you could even make a workflow about how to make workflows (feel free to use this guide as a base) – a kind of meta-workflow… trippy.

The whole point of documenting processes is so that you can more easily understand what is going on. With the “Low-key Friday night example” above, it’s obvious what’s going on – I’m going to turn off my phone, eat something delicious, and get blotto. However, in a complex organization, it’s somewhat difficult to know how things work. By documenting workflows, you can better understand how an organization works, how you can improve the process, and what sort of technology you can use make everything run more smoothly.