Your introduction to process mapping: a tool to manage any process

Your introduction to process mapping: a tool to manage any process

From the smallest boutique to the biggest corporation, every business requires processes to run. When processes are managed effectively, then work tends to run pretty smoothly. But when they’re not, unexpected errors arise, productivity slips, and budgets become difficult to properly estimate or stick to. Understanding each series of steps and interactions that form the organization’s operations is crucial for efficiency, and process mapping can take that efficiency to new heights.

Process mapping gives you a high-level view of every step taken and decision made, as well as the relationship between each stage. In short, creating a process map diagram is a visual way to understand your business processes from start to finish.

Why use a process map?

The ultimate goal is to improve efficiency, identify bottlenecks or other potential issues, and define responsibilities. The act of process mapping helps you work out how to achieve this and clarifies the information by presenting it in a format that’s easy for everyone to understand.

Process maps are used to:

  • Help people understand complex workflows through visual communication that’s easy to follow.
  • Show an entire process from start to finish.
  • Refine and improve specific processes.
  • Improve communication between individuals either engaged in the process or seeking to understand it.
  • Provide documentation.
  • Help with planning and decision-making.
  • Help with scenario testing and what-if assessments.
  • Prove to your investors or stakeholders that your business processes are reliable.
  • Train new employees.
  • Act as a jumping-off point to more complex process diagrams, including data flow diagrams, flowcharts, and more.
  • Comply with many types of standards and certifications, such as the ISO 9000.

Types of process maps

There’s no one-size-fits-all, and it’s a good idea to acquaint yourself with as many as types of process maps possible. There will be times when you need to change types to suit your project’s goals.

  • Activity Process Map: This represents value-added and non-value-added activities in a process. It’s helpful for when you’re trying to streamline workflow and manage budgets because it shows which activities directly impact revenue.
  • Detailed Process Map: This gives you a detailed look at each step in the process.
  • Swimlane (or Cross-functional) Map: This diagram separates two or more flows within the organization while retaining their sense of interconnectedness.
  • Rendered Process Map: This represents the current state and/or future state of processes to help you locate areas for improvement.
  • SIPOC Map: A form of swimlane diagram, this is a high-level representation of a process involving interactions between the Supplier, Input, Process, Output, Customer (SIPOC). It focuses on analyzing the different aspects of workflow and distinguishing its levels of importance.
  • Value Stream Map: This is a lean-management technique that analyzes the current state of your processes and designs an improved future state that takes the process from its beginning through to the finished product or customer.
  • Workflow Diagram: This provides a high-level visualization of the process as a whole.

Process mapping symbols: what they mean

Each process map consists of several key elements. Namely, you have your inputs/outputs, actions, activity steps, decision points, functions, people involved, process measurements, and time required. And each of these actions is represented by a symbol.

Having a universally-recognized set of symbols means that anyone — technical or not — can follow your process map and make sense of it. Likewise, the key to making this work is in using the standardized symbols correctly and consistently. There are over 20 to choose from, but here are the most commonly used:

  • Oval: This signifies the beginning and endpoints of a process. You’ll find these at the edges of your diagram.
  • Rectangle: This is where you put instructions or actions.
  • Diamonds: These signify decisions. Just like in a flow chart, they contain a question, which leads to a yes or no answer, which you must choose to progress.
  • Arrows: These connect the shapes. Follow arrows onto the next step.
  • Circles: These are connectors; they are used when the reader has to make a leap from one section to another, bypassing other stages. They connect via arrows.
  • Parallelogram: These show inputs or outputs.

Example of a swimlane diagramExample of a swimlane diagram

Numbering conventions

Another way to help with your process mapping organization is to follow a numbering convention. This helps readers navigate your steps; something that’s especially important if you have a Detailed Process Map. Here’s an example format:

  • Process 1
    • Sub-process 1.1
      • Sub-process 1.1.1
      • Sub-process 1.1.2
    • Sub-process 1.2
      • Sub-process 1.2.1
      • Sub-process 1.2.2
  • Process 2
    • Sub-process 2.1
      • Sub-process 2.1.1
      • Sub-process 2.1.2
      • And so on.

How to create a process map

So you’ve decided what type of diagram you’re going to create. You know your symbols like the back of your hand, and you’ve decided on a numbering convention. Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to it.

Step 1: Identify your goal

First, take some time to define your process or workflow. What is the key focus? Turn this into your diagram title, then add a date for reference.

Step 2: Define the activities involved

You don’t need to sequence everything at this point, but listing all the stages will help you remember everything that needs to go into your diagram. Furthermore, you should assign a person to each stage and set a completion time. It’s okay if this changes later on, just plot it out roughly for now. How much detail you include at this stage is down to you and your time constraints.

Step 3: Sequence your process

Where or when does the process start? Where or when does it end? Add this to your diagram. You should also sequence each step in-between your start and end. You can either show this as a more general flow or add loads of detail to each action; it’s completely up to you.

Top tip: Use a verb, such as ‘start’ or ‘meet’ at the beginning of each description. It helps give each stage an actionable purpose.

Step 4: Draw basic flowchart symbols

Use Unified Modeling Language (UML) and make sure each element in your process map is represented by a specific symbol. Make sure everyone knows what they mean; you may want to add a glossary/key page to your diagram so those not familiar with the various shapes have something they can refer to.

Step 5: Review with others

Review with team members, supervisors, suppliers, customers, or any other relevant parties, and make sure everyone’s on board. Some key questions to ask include:

  • Are there any steps missing?
  • Is this the most efficient way the process could run?
  • Are any steps redundant?
  • Is everyone in agreement?

Step 6: Implement and monitor the changes

Focus on the smaller scale improvements first, then apply changes on a larger scale. And don’t forget to monitor these to see whether any stage needs further optimization.

Step 7: Choose your tools like a pro

You can create a process map on a wide range of software, but by far the easiest option is with a dedicated online diagramming tool.

When you create diagrams in the cloud, your team always has the latest version at their fingertips. You can get feedback right on your diagrams with in-app comments, and you can edit your diagrams together, simultaneously, in real-time.

Avoid teaching yourself the latest complicated design software; stop sending out repetitive emails whenever you make an update. A quality diagramming tool will streamline your designs and your collaboration with others.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).