It was during a vinyasa in a steamy, dark yoga class that I realized I was a flowchart nerd. An instructor encouraged us to clear our minds and “let the process flow through us,” but far from clearing my mind, I went straight to, “Process flow? There has to be a yoga flowchart for that.” And, in fact, there is.
For every type of process, there is a flowchart. For business, there’s even an entire process flowchart language. It’s called Business Process Model and Notation, or simply, BPMN 2.0. But if you’re an overscheduled business professional, learning a new diagramming language is likely to be the least pressing item on your to do list. And that probably won’t change. So let me do you a favor and make BPMN a little easier.
If overwhelmed, frustrated, or procrastinating describes your attitude toward BPMN diagrams, this one is for you. Today I present “Diagrams for Dummies: A BPMN Tutorial.”
The value of BPMN diagrams
The main benefit of using BPMN is that it is a standardized diagramming language. Much like UML has standardized diagrams for software modeling, the creators of BPMN hoped that it would do the same for business. Therefore, by learning BPMN, you will be able to create and share diagrams that business stakeholders will readily understand. Not to mention, you will be able to understand diagrams that your colleagues share with you.
Interest in BPMN has increased significantly in the past decade. A study conducted by BPTrends found that, in 2005, only 20% of surveyed companies were interested in adopting BPMN notation, whereas 64% of companies showed interest in 2015. Concurrently, interest in all other modeling languages declined. It stands to reason that learning BPMN will increase your value in the business world, especially if you are interested in process management.
The basic shapes of BPMN diagrams
BPMN notation includes dozens of specific shapes. We divide these into a few main groups: events, activities, gateways, connectors, pools, and artifacts.
Every BPMN diagram starts and ends with an event. Events can also occur in the middle of a process and may include an icon that indicates the type of event represented. For more detail on events, see our complete guide.
Activities are represented by rectangles. They should always be labeled using the format verb + noun to represent an action. Check out our guide for more information.
Gateways split and rejoin process flows. They are represented by a diamond shape and may contain icons to indicate the conditions for splitting and rejoining process flows. Learn more about specific gateways.
Connectors, a.k.a. lines, show the flow from one element of a BPMN diagram to the next. Various line textures indicate the distinction between a flow of activities and a flow of messages. Get more detail here.
Just like in the Olympics, BPMN pools can be divided into swim lanes. Pools and swimlanes are used to show groups and individuals that are responsible for certain parts of a process. Every BPMN diagram must contain at least one pool with one swim lane.
Artifacts add additional information to a BPMN diagram. They include annotations, groups, and data objects, which you can read more about in our comprehensive guide.
How to draw BPMN diagrams
Before you start your BPMN diagram, you will want to define the scope of the process you are diagramming. This important step will determine the level of detail you should include. High-level diagrams should be general and leverage subprocesses and additional documentation to go further into detail.
Once you have clearly articulated your scope, it’s time to open a Lucidchart document and start dragging and dropping shapes onto the canvas. If you don’t have an account with Lucidchart, you can set one up for free right now.
Your first shape should be a start event. Because you know that your diagram will end with an end event, you can drag one of those onto the canvas as well. I’ve colored mine green and red. Even without the color coding, you can tell the difference between the start and end events because of the thickness of their borders. Standard notation for events requires a thin border for start events, a thick border for end events, and a double circle border for intermediate events.
Next, let’s add an activity and name it using the verb + noun format, like so:
Every BPMN diagram must have at least one pool with one swim lane, so let’s add one.
Voilá! You have a completed BPMN diagram. Of course, it’s very simplistic, so let’s add a bit more complexity.
This BPMN example is still relatively simple, but it illustrates a number of key points and features you should keep in mind as you build your own BPMN diagram:
- Keep the direction of your flow consistent. Notice that even when moving between pools and swim lanes, the diagram always flows from left to right, never up and down.
- Make sure your connectors never cross over the top of each other. If the direction of your flow is consistent, this point should be relatively simple to follow.
- In the customer section, we used a gateway to show what happens during a long wait at the Chinese restaurant. Notice that the primary scenario is all level while the exception is tacked on above. Diagramming the primary scenario first helps to keep your BPMN diagram clean and easy to interpret.
- Include separate end events for distinct end states. For example, there are two end events in the customer pool: one represents a successful end state (eating Chinese food), while the other represents an unsuccessful end state (a long wait and no Chinese food).
- Only include one process in each pool. This BPMN diagram shows two processes that interact. One is the customer’s process, and the other is the restaurant’s process. They each have their own pool.
- When two pools interact, use dashed message connectors rather than solid sequence connectors.
BPMN experts give a number of tips for making professional diagrams.
First, keep your diagrams simple by clearly defining the scope of each BPMN. You can dig into details as needed by creating BPMN diagrams for subprocesses and sub-sub processes. These sub-processes are especially easy to create in Lucidchart. Build a high level diagram, and then create additional tabs to build out separate, more detailed diagrams. You can link them all together using hotspots.
Another way to keep your diagrams clean is by adding details with separate documentation. For example, explain process requirements in a Google Doc, and then link to the Doc from your Lucidchart document. Links allow you to connect all of your information to one source without cluttering your diagram.
Next, when you print your BPMN diagram, make sure it fits on one page. Lucidchart makes this easy by including a “fit to print” feature. Simply highlight your diagram, navigate to the page settings, select your desired paper size, and then click on the icon that says “fit.” Lucidchart will automatically shrink or scale your diagram to fit the paper size you selected.
Finally, practice version control with your diagrams. Once you have finalized a process, make sure that it stays the way you left it. Lucidchart facilitates version control by letting you choose who can edit, comment on, and view your diagrams. And even if you experience unexpected changes, you can always return to a previous version with revision history.
Leave your best BPMN tips in the comments below!