Using process maps to improve your business

A process map is a quick and easy tool that you can use to visually describe the flow of work in your business. It can show who and what is involved in a process by outlining each step of a work activity.

The act of documenting a process has many benefits -

  • it makes it simpler to have conversations in your business around a shared understanding of how things work
  • it encourages collaboration and involves people in designing best practice
  • it sets a baseline of your current processes, to highlight inefficiencies and areas for improvement
  • it encourages standardisation as your business grows
process map

Process maps typically use a common visual language. Different shapes are used to represent different steps - an activity, a decision, a document, a predefined process, the start or end of the process. The easiest shapes to start with are the flowchart symbols standardised by ISO 5807.

The most common shapes to use are -

process Activity or Process An operation or activity to be done
process documentation symbol for decisionDecisionA point where a decision must be made
process documentation symbol for start or endStart / EndThe beginning or end of a process
process documentation symbol for directionArrowThe connection between two steps and the direction of flow
process documentation symbol for predefined processPredefined ProcessAnother process defined elsewhere (such as a sub process)
process documentation symbol for documentDocumentTo represent data or information that can be read by people

The mapping process itself is really simple -

  1. Define a starting point

    What is the trigger that kicks things off? Is it a new customer enquiry? A support ticket? A new job? A fault?

    designing a process map step 1

  2. At each step ask yourself - 'what happens next?'

    If there's an activity, describe it in simple words. If there is a decision that has several outcomes, follow each path one at a time until it hits its natural conclusion.

    designing a process map step 2

  3. Draw an arrow from one box to the next

    Lines illustrate relationships, and arrows help show direction and flow in the process.

    Process boxes only have one arrow. Decision boxes can have multiple reflecting the different outcomes of the decision. Label each path of a decision (for example - yes or no)

    designing a process map step 3

  4. Keep going until you get to an output or the end of the process
    designing a process map step 4

There are a few tricks that make the development of a process map easier -

  • Be clear in the process you are looking to document

    The better you understand the boundaries of what you're looking to describe, the easier it will be to draw lines in what is in or out. Understand where or when the process starts, and stops.

    Once you understand the scope, give it a name.

  • Involve people who understand the process well

    Make it a collaborative exercise. The act of mapping things out also educates people on how something works and confirms the collective understanding of your team. There's something valuable in that shared knowledge, and you'll also uncover things that some people do that you never knew!

  • Start from a higher level for the first go

    Starting from a zoomed-out view of part of the business allows you to capture the essential pieces. List the most basic steps in the process.

    You can always drop in a sub-process to illustrate where there are more complicated activities.

    You can always come back and do detailed process diagrams later that describe those areas.

  • Don't get stuck on the detail too early

    It's a bit like painting a picture - you want to get the general sense and shape of things first. It doesn't have to be perfect, and you can always come back and fill in the gaps. Move fast and capture the essentials.

    One way you can keep the activity focused is to set a short time limit for the high-level processes. See what you can map out in 2-5 minutes.

  • Use post-it notes (or a massive whiteboard)

    When we do a mapping exercise at Digit, we love using a pile of different coloured post-it notes. There's a wonderful impermanence about it. Often, we'll use colours to represent a different person or department.

    We write each activity on a note and then sequence it all together.

    Since post-it notes aren't permanent, they can be moved around. Sometimes there's a step we've forgotten, and the notes allow us to make room. For us, using something movable helps avoid getting stuck in getting it right the first time.

Advanced flowcharts

Once you're comfortable with doing basic process maps - you can start bringing in more context to your diagrams

A swimlane diagram for instance makes responsibilities clearer than a regular flowchart. It shows the major participants in a process. Swimlanes within a pool show the flows and activities for a certain role and define who is accountable for each part of a process.

swimlane diagram

Tools to use

There are some great tools available that help with the process of formally documenting a process. Visual tools like Visio or LucidChart allow you to drag and drop a chart together. LucidChart also allows you to create links, so clicking on a sub-process might take you to another diagram that defines that process.

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Andrew Erkins

A passion for technology and people inspired Andrew to co-found Digit. With a background in information systems, he loves business strategy and figuring out what makes things tick (and how it could tick better)

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