How to Create a Workflow Diagram

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Workflow diagrams—or flowcharts—are visual infographics that outline the sequential flow of steps or tasks involved in a process. They function as roadmaps for getting work done. 

Workflow diagrams contain standard shapes and symbols representing each stage of the process or each decision. Best of all, the diagram shows how each step flows into the next, including all branching paths and multiple choices. They’re useful tools for project planning and improving how your work flows.

This guide will discuss workflow diagrams in more depth, including when to use them, how to create them, and more.

What is a workflow diagram?

A workflow diagram (or flowchart) is a visual representation of a process. It outlines a sequence of steps from start to finish and may include multiple branching options at every decision point. Workflow diagrams traditionally use different shapes, connectors, and symbols to differentiate tasks from decisions and describe the flow of work.  

These flowcharts help teams comprehend how their work fits into the company’s overall process and how it contributes to the final product. They’re crucial tools for onboarding new team members, as they translate unfamiliar processes into easily digestible infographics.

When to use a workflow diagram

Workflow diagrams are handy when you need to visualize a multi-step process or define it for your stakeholders, but there are a variety of other situations in which you should use a workflow diagram. 

Flowcharts are great for process optimization. Visually laying out a process allows you to see steps where decision or task handoffs might be causing delays. This helps you identify areas to improve and optimize. 

Flowcharts are useful for onboarding or training. If you have new team members unfamiliar with your process, the workflow diagram comes in handy as a training tool. Quickly get them up to speed using a flowchart. This is another reason why process documentation is crucial to your work: your processes are constantly changing!

Workflow diagrams are vital for project management. Managing complex projects is never linear, but a workflow diagram helps you visualize the various steps and dependencies between tasks. This visual aid is a tool for agile project management and leads to more strategic planning, as it documents every step in your process and aligns everyone to it.

Benefits of using a workflow diagram

Workflow diagrams are valuable tools for several reasons, including the following: 

  • Clarity: Flowcharts provide a way to understand a process and make it easy to follow. By laying it all out on a page, stakeholders can align on the steps of your process and your project timeline. By sharing them with your team, you can teach internal processes faster and keep everyone aligned on how to get things done within your company.
  • Bottlenecks: Flowcharts make it easy to spot inefficiencies in your process. You can easily see decision points where people may experience delays due to bottlenecks. If you identify this risk, you can optimize the process to remove those inefficiencies. 
  • Collaboration: Workflow diagrams are excellent springboards for collaboration, though they may not seem like it on the surface. When you lay out a process in a flowchart, team members can help with work when bottlenecks appear. By diagramming the flow of work, teams can also pinpoint who’s in charge of specific decisions so people know who to approach for help.  

How do you create a workflow diagram?

Workflow diagrams are beneficial, but how do you make a useful workflow diagram template? This section covers the key steps to crafting an effective flowchart, from defining the process to using the right symbols for each step.

Define the process

A workflow diagram outlines a specific process. You need to clearly define the process you intend to turn into a flowchart. What are the objectives of your diagram? Figure out the scope of work—what will be a part of the visual and what will not—and the key components that must be part of the image. Spending time getting this right will save you from creating an overly complicated visual.

List the steps

The flowchart outlines a process, so you should figure out each step and list them. For multi-step processes, break them down into single tasks that you can perform in sequence. Doing this keeps the diagram easy to understand while still creating an accurate representation of the process you want to capture.

Collect information

What details go into each step? Gather relevant data and capture it for the workflow diagram. This is information that a team member may need to complete a step and may include details such as input requirements, responsible parties, and even dependencies between tasks. Although not every bit of data will make it to the final flowchart, having these details at hand will aid you in giving context to each step.

Identify inefficiencies

Once you’ve listed all the steps and collected the necessary information, you need to take a critical view of the process. Where are the current inefficiencies? At what step do you experience delays or bottlenecks? Recognize these challenges early on to optimize the process before creating the workflow.

Create the workflow

Next, create the actual visual for your workflow diagram. Use a visualization tool to translate your newly defined process into a visual workflow. Choose the appropriate symbols and connectors to outline how the tasks flow into each step so your diagram effectively illustrates the entire process.

Jira is the perfect platform for creating this workflow diagram, as its project management features help teams define work, plan projects, and track real-time progress for important dates and deliverables. You can use Jira workflows to outline the steps your team takes to bring a project from creation to completion. 

Share with the team

Once you’ve created the workflow chart, the next step is to share it with the team that uses the process. Use the diagram as a springboard for feedback on whether it accurately portrays the process or use it as a tool for brainstorming how to improve the workflow.

Review and refine

Finally, build a process around reviewing the workflow diagram regularly to ensure it accommodates any changes or improvements to your process. Just as a product team perfects a product through continuous improvement, you need to optimize your process by updating and improving the flowchart as steps change. Doing this helps it remain a reliable reference for your team.

Utilize Jira for workflow diagrams and charts

As you define your process and work with your team to optimize it, remember it’s a work in progress. Most people are familiar with the Jira board, which shows how work flows from To Do to Done. But Jira's workflow editor allows you to create, visualize, and edit your workflow as a diagram. Here, you can build out more complex workflows than what you may see on the board. Processes evolve over time, and part of the job is documenting what it currently looks like.

Typically, teams set up the board's columns to align with the steps in the workflow. For simple workflows, the statuses assigned to issues within each column correspond directly to the respective workflow step. For complex workflows, the board columns might only show a portion of the entire workflow. In this case, teams will associate multiple statuses with each column. 

Jira is a platform that helps you build out your workflow diagram template and manage projects for every type of team. With access to many built-in templates, you can customize Jira into exactly the kind of work management tool your team needs. 

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Workflow diagrams: Frequently asked questions

What are the different types of workflow charts?

There are many workflow diagram examples, and each type has a different purpose, including the following: 

  • Process workflow: This is the classic flowchart model. It outlines the steps in a process and typically uses shapes in a sequence. It's useful for understanding how work flows and the key stages in a process.
  • Swimlane flowchart: This is one of the more common workflow diagram examples, as it breaks down a process into separate "swimlanes"—one for each team or individual executing the process. Swimlanes are useful for showing where handoffs occur, particularly in agile workflows, and may help surface potential bottlenecks.
  • Decision flowchart: This workflow type highlights where decision points occur and outlines the different paths that branch from these decisions. This diagram clarifies decision logic and analyzes potential outcomes.
  • Data flow: This type of flowchart shows how data moves through a process, including inputs, outputs, and any transformations that occur. It's helpful in identifying areas where there’s potential data loss and ensuring data integrity.  

What are the key elements of a workflow chart?

A flowchart contains shapes and lines with specific meanings, particularly when it illustrates work processes. These are some of the key elements you will find in a flowchart:

  • Ovals signify the start or end points of any process.
  • Rectangles represent single actions or tasks.
  • Diamonds represent decision points, where a yes or no answer creates a fork in the chart, leading to multiple branches.
  • Arrows show the flow for each step’s execution.
  • Parallelograms indicate a place for data input or output.  

By understanding what these symbols and shapes indicate, you can accurately map out your workflow diagram or interpret flowcharts from other teams. Note that you can always customize what your shapes mean if necessary.

How do workflow charts improve processes?

Workflow diagrams capture what your real-world process looks like through a two-dimensional visual. This helps you streamline your process by identifying possible bottlenecks, such as areas where limited resources might block certain actions or where decisions going through just one stakeholder might bog them down. By collaborating with your team to visualize your process, you open up the floor for ideas on how to continuously improve the workflow.