All About Business Process Mapping, Flow Charts and Diagrams
Learn all about business process mapping and discover how you can effectively use it within your organization.
9 min read
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What is business process mapping?
Business Process Mapping details the steps that a business takes to complete a process, such as hiring an employee or ordering and shipping a product. They show the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where” and “how” for these steps, and help to analyze the “why.” These maps are also called Business Process Diagrams and Business Flow Charts. Like other types of diagrams, these maps use defined symbols such as circles, rectangles, diamonds and arrows to depict the business activities.
Business Process Mapping can be used to document a current process and to model a new one. Its purpose is to gain a detailed understanding of the process, people, inputs, controls and outputs, and then potentially to simplify it all, make it more efficient and/or improve the process results. It requires time and discipline to conduct this mapping, but the payoff can be significant over time. Mapping has become common in the business world to standardize procedures, become more efficient, meet audit requirements and gain competitive advantage.
Business Process Mapping has its roots in the 1920s and ‘30s. In 1921, industrial engineer and efficiency expert Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr. introduced the “flow process chart” to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). In the early 1930s, industrial engineer Allan H. Morgensen used Gilbreth’s tools to teach business people at his work simplification conferences how to make their work more efficient. In the 1940s, two Morgensen students, Art Spinanger and Ben S. Graham, spread the methods more widely. Spinanger introduced the work simplification methods to Procter and Gamble. Graham, a director at Standard Register Industrial, adapted flow process charts to information processing. In 1947, ASME adopted a symbol system for flow process charts, derived from Gilbreth’s original work.
Current-day purpose and benefits
Business Process Mapping can be used to prepare for business audits or a sale, to reduce expenses, to plan for automation, to understand impacts of pending changes, to realign related processes, and to measure and realign the efforts of people involved in the processes. Often, a business may think it understands its processes, but then discovers twists and turns during a mapping initiative. When modeling a new business process, the mapping is sometimes called Business Process Modeling, or BPM. (That same acronym means Business Process Management, a related area.) For a more detailed look at Business Process Modeling, see this article.
Here are more specific examples of the uses of Business Process Mapping:
- Compliance with International Organization for Standardization, called ISO 9001. It’s used to conduct third-party audits of an organization’s quality management, and Business Process Diagrams are often a key part. ISO 9001 tries to ensure that a company’s product is complying with government regulations and meeting customer needs.
- Internal audits. Businesses can ensure that they are meeting their company standards, and that their processes are aligned with their mission and goals.
- Compliance with the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, or SOX. It’s also known as the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act, and it protects the public and shareholders from accounting errors and fraudulent practices. It requires public companies to disclose compliance issues. As with ISO, Business Process Mapping plays a key role in SOX compliance.
- Standardizing a process. By documenting a process, a business can standardize it so that it’s always performed in the same, most optimal way, reducing confusion and inefficiency.
- Training employees. The mapping also provides a standard training document for anyone to learn the process.
- Improving a process. Once an existing process is mapped, it can be analyzed for bottlenecks and inefficiencies. Business Process Modeling can be used to model a better process.
- Communication. Mapping provides visualization that may be much easier to understand than narrative text would be. This can help for interpretation and collaboration, either with an internal team or external team or consultants.
Business process mapping symbols
Check out the complete list of BPMN symbols.
Here’s one more important entrant in the acronym arena: BPMN. That’s Business Process Modeling Notation, the set of symbols and notations in common use today for modeling. It was developed by the Business Process Management Initiative. It depicts these main components of Business Process Diagrams:
- Process: A set of activities, performed by people or systems, in a sequence, monitored and modified by controls.
- Task or Activity: A particular activity performed by a person or system. It’s shown by a rectangle with rounded corners. They can become more detailed with subprocesses, loops, compensations and multiple instances.
- Participant: Person or system that performs a task or provides an input.
- Flow: The sequence, shown by lines and arrows on the map.
- Event: A trigger that starts, modifies or completes a process. Event types include message, timer, error, compensation, signal, cancel, escalation, link and others. They are shown by circles containing other symbols based on event type.
- Gateway: Decision point that can adjust the path based on conditions or events. They are shown as diamonds. They can be exclusive or inclusive, parallel, complex, or based on data or events.
Another important mapping concept is called swimlanes, which show who is responsible for specific work. Just like swimlanes in a pool, tasks are shown for a particular participant in a lane, or row, on the map.
Need more detail? See this article on BPMN.
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How to do business process mapping
This requires a commitment of time and energy, but the payoff in understanding and analysis can be large. There are four major steps to a mapping initiative:
- Identify the process. Clearly define what is being mapped and what you hope to gain from it. Make sure the scope is appropriate for your goals.
- Gather information. Observe and study the steps involved, capturing who, what, when, where and how it’s all occurring. Get down to the necessary level of detail. Keep digging and breaking down the process into more detail.
- Interview participants and stakeholders. Talk with the participants in the process as part of your mapping to understand what they are doing. This also often helps to uncover inefficiency, miscommunication and potentially better ways to do things.
- Draw the maps and analyze. Document it all in your Business Process Mapping software, and now you will have the basis for in-depth analysis and interpretation.
To conduct a significant mapping project, you will need to have a support structure in place first. As with any project, you would follow these steps:
- Create a project charter or purpose statement explaining what you plan to do and hope to achieve.
- Have an executive sponsor for the project.
- Select the team to do the work.
- Plan and conduct the mapping, as outlined in the four steps above.
In Business Process Management, the idea is to create a life cycle of continuous improvement. The steps are model, implement, execute, monitor and optimize.
Business Process Mapping is better for some types of processes than others. For example, it usually doesn’t lend itself to diagramming decision-making processes. High level, open-ended decision making often has too many intangibles and wild cards to effectively map. Business Process Mapping is better for the other two types of processes: transformational and transactional, both of which have more clearly defined activities. Transformational refers to processes such as manufacturing or systems development, which take inputs and change their forms, either physical or virtual. Transactional refers to an exchange such as a sales process or any other transaction.
As with any type of diagram, there are situations when another diagram method might be more fitting. For example, a Data Flow Diagram (DFD), popularized by computing pioneers Ed Yourdon and Larry Constantine in the 1970s, is best at illustrating how information flows through a system or process. Value Stream Mapping (VMS) details the steps required to deliver a product or service. Items are mapped as adding value or not adding value from the customer’s standpoint, with the purpose of rooting out items that don’t add value. And Unified Modeling Language (UML) is used in software engineering to visualize the design of a system.
Key tips for business process mapping
- A skilled practitioner, such as someone trained in Six Sigma, can make a mapping project go much, much smoother. If you don’t have one in house, consider a consultant to work with your internal team.
- Identify metrics of importance. This will enable your mapping to speak effectively with data.
- Interview one or two people at time. If you interview in groups, some people might not speak up or might not want to contradict another person.
- As you interview, keep asking how, where and why. Such as: How do you spend most of your time, and why? Where in the process do you repeat work, and why? Do you ever skip steps? Why? Where are your pain points, and why?
- Be on the lookout for assumptions that may not be true. Keep asking questions until you reach the definitive answer.
- Validate your maps after you initially draw them by reviewing them with participants and your other data sources.
Drawing your map
For a simple process, you might start with Post-It Notes, a white board or a hand-drawn map. However, you might find yourself limited rather quickly as the complexity increases. With chart software, you can draw professional-looking maps that allow for more detail. You also will be able to do subsequent breakdowns with multi-level Business Process Maps, typically ranging from Level 0 (overall view) to Levels 1 through 4 for breakout detail of subprocesses, tasks and flows. Sometimes, a sequence table can be the best way to supplement a map by showing a series of steps. Map software will provide you with the shapes you’ll need to map out the process.
How to do mapping with Lucidchart
Lucidchart makes it easy to do business process mapping with its intuitive drag-and-drop design. Whether you’re trying to standardize a process, train new employees or streamline a business process, Lucidchart can help you visually communicate. Try it now for free.
Want to make a BPMN diagram of your own? Try Lucidchart. It's quick, easy, and completely free.