Guide to simple process mapping

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

How to do simple process mapping in 2023

Show a complex process map to your colleagues and chances are their eyes will roll and they’ll abruptly excuse themselves. The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. This guide will help you to do process mapping using just four shapes to keep it simple and clear enough for everyone.

The oft-used saying “less is more” is also applicable to process mapping. As so often with the best design, it’s about elegant simplicity – using the bare minimum to achieve a balance of functionality and clarity. This means that you create simple process maps that people don’t need special training to decipher because they are instantly self-explanatory.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”

Albert Einstein

First, what is process mapping?

A process map is a visual diagram that explains who is responsible for executing a single work activity that involves more people. Moreover, you can think of the process map as a chain of activities where each activity delivers the output for the next one (and requires the input from the activity before.)

This could be…

  • ordering new stock,
  • handling a customer complaint,
  • sending a late payment notice, or
  • hiring a new department head

these are all examples of work activities that can be useful to create process maps for. ISO defines a process as

“a set of interrelated or interacting activities that use inputs to deliver an intended result.”


What are the benefits of process mapping?

Process mapping offers a number of benefits:

  • They help you to see proecss improvement opportunitiies, in terms of customer experience, cost-saving or time efficiency.
  • They ensure that everyone involved in a particular work function clearly understands their responsibilities and how to do the work they are responsible for.
  • Importantly, process maps also ensure knowledge stays in your company. If key personnele leaves – his or her replacement will know how work is done by looking at the processes.
  • They lay the foundation for automation, ISO and other certifications and the introduction of new business systems.

Read more about the requirement for a process approach in ISO 9001:2015 in this ISO reference document (PDF).

Process maps must fit into a bigger ‘process hierarchy’

Let us give you some context. Process maps should be part of a process hierarchy. What is this? A process hierarchy shows the big picture for all the work processes in an organisation and how those processes relate to one another.

Process maps illustrate how one particular piece of work is conducted. So, if the process hierarchy is the blueprint for your organisation’s regular work, then the processes are its building blocks.

Why simple process mapping?

The world of process mapping is large and diverse. Like languages, process maps can be highly complex with upward of 50 shapes to create them with. However, more often than not they bewilder people. Instead of being instantly understandable, some of the more complex process mapping techniques require employees to attend workshops just to understand them. This is (often) unnecessary.

The alternative to simple process mapping is the Business Process Model Notation framework. This uses 55 shapes and is useful for detailed mapping to support ERP implementations.

Map of all BPMN 2.0 shapes for use in process mapping.
(image credit: BPMN)

From BPMN’s 50+ shapes Gluu have used the four basic shapes that ISO also uses.

How to draw a processmap with just four shapes

The foundation of a processmap is its swimlanes. Each swimlane represents a role, for example, your sales assistant or your shop manager. They illustrate who is responsible, and for what. If you don’t reduce the scope of your process map in this way, then you run the risk of making convoluted processes for the sake of sophistication rather than usability.

Here’s how Gluu’s founder, Søren Pommer, explains it:

Focusing on “who does what” supported by research. Processes fail because handoffs and knowledge transfers between people go wrong. One person thinks his or her job is done and the next one doesn’t know the baton has been passed to him or her. A swimlane diagram helps to recognise these points. They show exactly which role that is responsible for which activity. When you connect people with roles then it starts to make sense for everybody.

A processmap consiting of two swimlanes
Two swimlanes for a process that involves two roles

The basic shapes in process mapping

We just explained the first, foundational shape: The swimlane. The remaining three are:


The purpose of these is to show when an event activates or ends a process. In our case a customer calls Support, which sets our process in motion for the responsible role: Support Desk Specialist.

The event that starts the process mapping for the Support Desk Specialist role
The event that starts the process for the Support Desk Specialist role


These show the work that must be done, by the responsible role, to produce the output or outcome. A rule of thumb is that a process map should have between two to ten activities: If it has less than two, it’s an activity, not a process; If it hase more than 10 it should split into multiple processes. In our case the Support Desk Specialist must first understand the entirety of the problem prior to solving it.

Process mapping with activities
To solve the customers problem, the Support Desk Specialist must first understand the problem

Decision Gates

Notice the white diamond shape in the illustration? These indicate that a decision must be made. For example, if the Support Desk Specialist can solve the problem or if escalation to the Customer Success Manager is needed. You use decision gates along with a question that leads the responsible in new direction depending on the answer.

process mapping with decision gates
Decision on the best way forward

These are the four basic shapes.

Let’s start mapping a process!

You have your swim lanes in place, and you know the shapes needed to draw the flow of you process. Here are three steps to creating a usable map:


Setting it up
Before you start getting creative, there are a few things you need to do first.

Select and define a process to map
To begin it is important to chose a process that really matters for your company. Top picks are usually processes that involve legal or financial actions, quality related – or the processes that are really time consuming.

As Support handling is important, so we will use that as our example. When naming a process, you should use an imperative – “Handle customer complaint”. This makes it personal and actionable.

Define its outcome

What is the desired outcome of your process? What initiates it? And what brings it to a close?

In our example, Complaint handling the output is essential to turn angry customers into happy ones.
In our case the desired output is, “satisfied customer.”

[alert heading=”Outputs” type=”alert-info” block=”true” close=”false”]An “output” is the outcome or deliverable that the process or activity should result in.[/alert]

Assign a process owner

Now you know what the outcome is, it’s time to designate a process owner. A process owner is a person of flesh and blood residing within your company.
In our case, we are looking for a process owner to take care of complaint handling. What’s most important is that the process owner is experienced in that area. Consider these factors when assigning your process owner, who…

  • has the most at stake?
  • understands the end-to-end flow best?
  • has the authority to really change the process?

You can read more about the process owner role here.


Start drawing your swimlane map

Now you are ready to start adding the three shapes into your swimlane diagram. We will continue using the example of handling a customer complaint in our discussion here.

Defining the roles

First you must consider which roles are involved. Each role has its own swim lane indicating what activities and decisions that they are responsible for. In our case the Support Desk Specialist has the authority to escalate to the Customer Success Manager – or to solve the situation.

Starting the process

Our example process begins with a customer calling. Essentially, the event is what kicks off the rest of the process. In an ideal world, without complaints or need for support, you would not need a complaint handling process, as it would never be set in motion. But here we are.

The work activities

The different types of work required to complete a job are called “activities”. The face of the activity box shows a text on what should be done (ex. “Understand problem”) by the role.  The location of the activity box on the swim lanes shows who is responsible for the solution.

You should use activity text much like chapters in a book. They should describe the content in a forward fashion, but the chapter itself might contain more details. Splitting the activity into several tasks, gives your reader (eg. person who follow you process) more detail on how to solve the activity as a whole. Understanding a problem requires both listening, asking, testing and so on. If you have specific requirements for “Understanding problem” you can create to tasks: 1) Listen to customers issue, 2) test if the issue can be replicated. If needed you can add a task regading logging the call if you do not do this automatically.

The next step in our example, after understanding the problem, is deciding whether the issue should be solved or escalated to the Customer Success Manager. Generally, this is going to be the Support Desk Specialists responsibility. However, in some cases, they may need to escalated the problem. If this is frequently the case it is a good idea to include them in the process with their own swimlane.

Decisions, solutions and the happy path

Decisions in a process are, maybe not surprisingly, called “a decision point”. You show decision gates on your swimlane diagrams as diamond shapes. They can illustrate everything from a simple yes or no decision to a more complex one, perhaps with more than two or three answers. Decision gates help us to see the points at which the responsibility for the solution may change. In our example, the Support Desk Specialists must decide whether the complaint can be immediately or it needs to be escalated. If the Support Desk Specialists solves the problem without escalation this would be our preferred solution – also called the “happy path”.

We’ll keep this process simple for now and just add a closing event “Support case solved”.

process mapping with basic shapes

Diverting from the ‘happy path’

If your Support Desk Specialist decided to escalate the problem to the Customer Success Manager the problem might be bigger that we initially anticipated. Your process should also be able handle this. The activity “Analyse and solve problem” should probably more tasks, as the solution might need more steps.

But maybe the problem requires a hot fix to you application? Then you need to ensure that the Customer Success Managers fix works across all possible areas. In other words: You need quality testing, which is a topic that is outside the scope of understanding and solving everyday problems.

Luckily we have a “Quality assure software”- process on stock. So instead of creating that from the ground up you can include a Process link. In our case “Quality Assure software”.

If the content of that process is updated our process is updated too. Again we need to tie the flow up with a “Support case solved”.

process map that splits in two

This concludes our guide to simple process mapping. Next step is to add work instructions.