Guide to simple process mapping

Guide to simple process mapping


How to do simple process mapping

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 show you how to create simple process maps using just four shapes.

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. If you create simple process maps then people don’t need special training to decipher them because they are instantly self-explanatory. Knowing how to create these will help you get everyone on your team on the same page.

What is process mapping?

A process map is a visual diagram that explains how a single recurring work activity is done and by whom. Ordering new stock, handling a customer complaint, sending a late payment notice, or hiring a new department head are all examples of jobs you can create process maps for. They are a bit like an electric circuit diagram, but rather than the flow of current, they show the flow of work and responsibility for completing a recurrent job.

ISO defines a process as

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

A new concept to you?

Don’t worry. Let us give you some context. Process maps are often, but not always, subparts of a process hierarchy. A process hierarchy is a big picture that shows all the work processes going on in an organisation or business that help fulfil its purpose, and how those processes relate to one another. (For more on this have a look at our guide to creating a process hierarchy.)

Process maps illustrate how one particular piece of work is conducted and, potentially, improved upon. They are conceptual tools used to gain better understanding and cooperation. So if the process hierarchy is the blueprint for your organisation’s regular work, then the processes are its building blocks.

What are the benefits of process mapping?

Process mapping offers a number of benefits:

  • They help you to see where improvements can be made, in terms of customer experience, cost-saving or time efficiency.
  • They also ensure that everyone involved in a particular recurrent work function clearly understands how things are done and his or her own responsibilities.
  • Importantly, they also ensure knowledge stays in your company. If your key HR person leaves, for example, his or her replacement will be able to refer to the process hierarchy quickly to understand how things are done. This saves time and avoids mistakes.
  • 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).

Why simple process mapping?

The world of process mapping is large and diverse. Like languages, process maps can be highly complex, like Russian or Japanese, with upward of 50 shapes to create them with. They can look highly sophisticated, and may even win a few wows from your colleagues. However, more often than not they bewilder people. Instead of being instantly graspable, some of the more complex process mapping techniques require employees to attend workshops just to understand them. You need a process to understand the process. This is often unnecessary. Less, as the saying goes, is more.

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.

Process map from BPMN a highly complex and unintuitive design.
(image credit: BPMN)

From BPMN’s 50+ shapes we have used the four basic shapes that ISO also uses. With no special artistic ability or insider knowledge, these four are all you need to create simple process maps that will galvanise your team and show you where improvements can be made.

How are they drawn?

They are made with simple swimlane diagrams. These are diagrams divided into long rectangular boxes, like a lane in a swimming pool. These rectangular shapes are the foundation of your diagram. Each swimlane represents a particular role, for example, your sales assistant or your shop manager. They clearly illustrate who is responsible for what. This is what people really care about. It keeps things simple. 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 explains it:

Focusing on “who does what” is also an approach supported by research. Dewey showed that processes rarely fail due to individuals not doing their job. 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. This uncertainty interferes with the process. 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.

Two swimlanes for a process that involves two roles:

The basic shapes for process mapping

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

The event circle

The purpose of these is to show when an event activates or ends a process, or in some way changes its direction. An event could be a reminder notification that a certain customer is late paying an invoice, which then sets the process in motion of sending a late payment notice.

The activity box

These represent the different activities that must be done in order to complete or hand over a particular process. A good process map has two to 10 activities. It has less than two, it’s an activity, not a process. And if it has more than 10 it should be broken up into multiple processes.

The decision diamond

Notice the white diamond shape in the illustration? These indicate when in a process a decision of some kind must be made. For example, if a customer wants his or her money back a customer service rep might have to decide if the amount of money involved requires approval from management. These decisions are often posed as questions.

These are the four basic shapes.

Let’s start!

You have your swimlanes, and know the three other shapes – you are ready to start depicting how a process is conducted and by who. Here are three steps to creating a usable map.


Setting it up

Before you start getting creative with the shapes, there are a few things you need to do first.

Select and define a process to map

To begin top management should choose a process to map, looking through your company’s process hierarchy, value chain or business model. It’s important that senior management decide which processes are of a high priority and where to start. However, in the later stages, the staff actually working on those projects themselves must be involved.

As Complaint 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. “Complaint management” sounds more like a department name. Avoid lingo.


Define its outcome

Once you have chosen and your process and given it a title it’s time to set its output or outcome. What is the 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, hopefully without spending too much! So, in this case, the main output is, “satisfied customer.”

An “output” is the outcome or deliverable that the process or activity should result in.

Assign a process owner

Now that you have selected a process to map and noted what the outcome is, it’s time to designate a process owner who will fit the role naturally. Of course, there is no surefire way to easily identify the correct candidate for the process owner role. It depends on your business. For example, in our case, we are looking for a process owner to handle complaint handling. In an organisation with few, but large clients it could be best for senior management or even the CEO to be the process owner. Whereas, an organisation with a lot of individual customers will likely have a customer service department in place, in which the perfect individual most likely is. 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

Firstly, consider which roles are involved in your chosen process. In our example of a customer handling process, we have three separate roles participating in our process. Each role has its own swimlane indicating what activities and decisions that they are taking part in. For this case, the customer, the customer service rep and the technician are the roles involved.

Starting the process

We call the start of a process and event, in Gluu an event is indicated by their circular shape. Our example process begins with a customer making a complaint. Essentially, the event is what kicks off the rest of the process. In an ideal world, without complaints, there would be no need for a complaint handling process as it would never be set in motion.

The work activities

The different types of work required to complete a job are called activities. For example, recording or taking the details of a customer complaint is an activity the customer service representative is responsible for. Activities are illustrated in your diagram with square boxes. An activity box shows what outcome a role is responsible for achieving to allow a process to proceed towards completion.

In the case of handling a customer complaint, the first activity is carried out by the customer service rep who receives the complaint. He or she needs to complete the tasks of interviewing the customer, filling in a complaint form and submitting it. In this case, the activity might be “receive complaint” and the output is the case is recorded in the system.

You might be wondering how much of the work your company does can be defined as an activity. Good question. An activity can be made up of several tasks, so it could vary between a few minutes to many days before you are ready for the next step in the process.

The next step in our example, after receiving a complaint would be to attempt to resolve this complaint. Generally, this is going to be the customer service rep’s responsibility. However, in some cases, they may need to get a technician or other role involved. If this is frequently the case, it might be a good idea to include them in the process and also give them access to this activity in their swimlane. Hopefully, the customer service representative can resolve the issue without assistance and in a timely manner. This gives the best customer experience.

Decisions, decisions!

Deciding whether or not this is possible is what is called “a decision point”. These are shown in swimlane diagrams with diamond shapes. They can illustrate simple yes or no decisions or more complex decision, perhaps with more than two or three answers. Decision diamonds help us to see the points at which the work process may change hands. In our example, the service rep must decide whether he or she can resolve the complaint immediately or whether he or she will refer it to a technician or perhaps a team leader.

We’ll keep this process simple for now and just add a final activity. Say the technician resolves the complaint and the service rep gets confirmation the customer has gone away satisfied. Here we can add an event circle to close the process – or, in the case of something else, indicate which process naturally follows on (then, you’re starting to show the relationships between your processes – a future topic).

Once you have created multiple processes then you can view them as building blocks for other processes. The white shape in the diagram illustrates another process.

This is a swimlane and how you create it. We now have a simple process map. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to turn it into action. This inevitably means it will have to adapt and evolve.


Keep it alive!

Where do you draw your process map? Some use Post-it notes. Other draw them up on a whiteboard. Some use paper so they can bring it along with them wherever they go.

But what do you do when you want to share and change it perhaps over the following week or month or even year? This is an important question. For process maps to be meaningful, for them to stay alive and be of lasting value, they need to be shareable and accessible to more than one or two people.

Many process owners will take their initial findings and draw them up into a large, detailed process map in software like Visio or Lucidcharts. The problem this creates is that staff will often just ignore these process maps when they learn a more effective way to work. They might attempt to suggest improvements to their process owners, but even then many process owners can be stubborn. If you subconsciously see it as your creation then you may defend it passionately. You cannot risk your process map becoming dated and ignored. Process maps can take a lot of time to set up and to make the most of that investment, you need to be ready to pivot and adjust your work where and when necessary.

So, we suggest picking a tool, such as Gluu, that:

  • is collaborative.
  • allows you to delegate ownership.
    involves people.
  • makes it easy to communicate around changes.
  • automatically tracks changes.

Where do I start?

If you want to try creating a process, then we have a built-in guide in the Gluu platform. Why not get a free trial account and start practising?

What comes after process maps?

Then it’s time to add work instructions. Read our Guide to writing work instructions.

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