Introduction to process mapping

Written by Peter Hilton | 4 min read
Published on: May 17th 2016 - Last modified: February 19th, 2021
A map

Many people find process mapping a useful way to introduce business process management concepts to an organization and help people think about their work from a process perspective.

When you first try process mapping, the trick is to keep it simple at first and save the difficult details for later. The purpose of this article is to help you with the hardest part: getting started.

Planning a process mapping session

Process mapping is easier and more fun when you work on it in a small group. Bringing people together who are involved in a process in different ways, in different roles, gives you multiple perspectives on ‘how the work works’, and a broader understanding.

A good way to work on process mapping in a group is to use a workshop format that combines this tutorial’s ideas and structure with practical group exercises. People like to discuss their own work, but find the abstract idea of process mapping less interesting.

Until you’ve done process mapping before using pen and paper, don’t try using computer software. For introductory process mapping, use the minimum amount of equipment, to avoid getting bogged down in technical issues:

  • lots of sticky notes in two different colors
  • a marker pen that writes legibly on sticky notes, for each participant
  • plenty of wall space, flip charts or a large table for the sticky notes

Process mapping tends to fill the time available when the participants become enthusiastic about it. A couple of hours is enough for a few people to get started but not have enough time to ‘finish’. Half a dozen people will need a whole day to feel like they had enough time for the session.

Understanding the purpose of process mapping

People usually have trouble getting started with process mapping because they don’t know where to start: they don’t know which business process to work on first, and which aspect of the process to begin with. Before that, you should think about is what you expect to gain from process mapping itself.

Process mapping cannot solve all of your problems, but you may be able to achieve one or more of the following.

  • Introduce the basic concepts to beginners, to create widespread process modeling understanding throughout the organization.
  • Allow experienced process modelers to practice fundamental technique, as a ‘process kata’.
  • Improve visibility of the different kinds of work in your organization.
  • Generate interesting questions and discussion about how the work works.
  • Create a basis for detailed process modeling, waste reduction, process improvement and other business process management techniques.

Before you start, choose a primary goal for each process mapping session and write it down, to avoid the confusion that results from different people having different ideas about what process mapping consists of and what results it will deliver.

If you don’t explicitly identify a clear and realistic purpose, you risk wasting time on a pointless exercise, and producing process maps that will do no more than gather dust on a shelf.

Choosing a process to start with

For your first process mapping exercise, you need to choose a business process that will be straightforward to explore and won’t get in the way of getting used to process mapping. One example that works for almost everyone is an employee on-boarding process, which deals with:

  • introductions and office tour.
  • desk and equipment, e.g. telephone.
  • accounts for IT services, e.g. email.
  • training, assignments, evaluation, etc.

This works well as a business process to get started with, because it is:

  • familiar, yet company specific
  • important, but doesn’t directly affect daily operations
  • simple, but still has plenty of optional details and things that can go wrong.

Here are some more examples of business process that could work well for a first attempt at process mapping:

  • Approve document (management)
  • Approve training request (HR)
  • Invoice customer (finance)
  • Fulfill purchase order (logistics)
  • Develop new product/service (any industry).

For more detail on this topic, see the “How to choose which process to automate first” blog post, which is part of the Workflow Management for Beginners white paper.

Once you’ve chosen a process, you need to come up with a good process name.

Naming a business process

Good names are valuable but can be hard to think of. You may be tempted to skip this step and come back to it later, but a good name makes the next steps much easier. Besides, names stick and you aren’t really going to come back to it later.

Good process names stick to the following guidelines, as do the examples above.

  1. Describe the process goal.
  2. Use an imperative verb phrase.
  3. One word probably isn’t enough; more than three or four is probably too many.
  4. Avoid vague words like ‘manage’, ‘do’, ‘process’ or ‘handle’.

Bad names for a process called ‘Ship order to customer’, for example, might be:

  • ‘Orders’ - too short to be meaningful
  • ‘Order processing’ - not an imperative verb phrase
  • ‘Process customer order’ - vague and doesn’t describe the process goal
  • ‘Check purchase order and ship products to customer’ - too much detail.

Work on naming in a group, because this will also be an important discussion about the process’ scope, what it means and what the process’ end goal really is. Don’t hesitate to change the name of the process, when new understanding suggests a better name.

Process mapping do’s and don’ts

To summarize getting started with process mapping, consider:

  • Do remain realistic about what process mapping can achieve.
  • Don’t expect process mapping to answer every possible question.
  • Do keep business improvement objectives in mind.
  • Don’t get sucked into too much detail.
  • Do make the results literally visible, starting with paper on the wall.
  • Don’t aim for perfection - be careful not to waste your time.
  • Do make time for discussion that includes all participants.
  • Don’t create process maps that will only 
sit on shelves gathering dust.

Next steps in process mapping

Now that you’ve got started, chosen a process and named it, the next steps describe the process. Each step adds a different kind of detail to the process model.

  1. Process Mapping Tasks - identifying parts of the work and how they relate to each other
  2. Process Mapping Causes/Events - why the work happens when it does
  3. Process Mapping Roles - who does the work
  4. Process Mapping Hassle vs Value - which parts of the work are essential and eliminating waste
  5. Process Mapping Conclusions - lessons learned, software tools, next steps.

Photo: Alexander Kaiser / CC BY 2.0

Published on: May 17th 2016 - Last modified: February 19th, 2021