How to process map: a step by step guide

Process mapping is the act of creating a workflow diagram with the goal of gaining a clearer understanding of how a process and its parallel processes work.

Mapping out business processes is a great way to understand all the steps needed to complete a workflow. With process maps, employees–especially in upper-level management, can easily gain an overview of how processes are carried out, how they can be improved or constrained, and how many of the steps taken are necessary to drive the process to its end.

Why process maps are used

Generally, process mapping is done in order to establish company execution standards or procedures. Some organizations use process maps as guides, or diagrams, for procedural tasks and to enforce employees to follow the steps of a workflow in the correct order. However, when relying on maps alone to enforce process standards, many telling metrics go untracked. That’s why process mapping is usually a precursor to setting up a workflow management tool, workflow engine, or business process management software.

With a workflow management tool, or business process management (BPM) software, you can track the amount of time it takes to complete a process, find process bottlenecks, enforce execution standards with required fields or approvals, automate work, and more.

Some tools, like Pipefy, enable you to skip creating a process map altogether.

How to map business processes step-by-step

Here are the general steps to mapping out your business processes. These of course should be applied using the best practices discussed in the section below.

1. Establish the boundaries

Define where the process begins and where it ends. Some processes will have more than one possible end, so it’s important to determine all of them in order to map all possible outcomes.

2. List the actions that drive the process forward

Now that you know where things start and end, it’s time to list the steps in between: use an action verb to start describing each step/task. You can either stick to the strictly necessary information or choose to go into detail for every action.

3. Order the actions

Now that you have determined all the actionable steps that are necessary to move your process from beginning to end, it’s time to order them. Each action should trigger the subsequent step in the process.

4. Symbols

Make sure you’re using the appropriate symbols to map your processes steps: ovals for the beginning/end of process, rectangles for tasks/steps, diamonds for decision points, and arrows to mark the process direction flow. Normally, only one arrow comes out of each box – if you’re faced with two arrows coming out of a box, you may need to add a decision point.

If the process you’re mapping is cyclical, make sure the feedback loop is closed, taking you back to the beginning.

5. System Model

Use the system model approach to draw your flowchart and map your processes. It helps you determine what information should be added and where.

6. Check

After you’re done, go back and check if the process is complete and contains all pertinent information. Add a title and a date so you can keep track of any modifications.

7. Review and optimize

Once your flowchart is done, take a look and see if the process is actually being run the way it’s expected to. Do the people involved actually follow the ideal flow? Are there any missing/redundant steps that could be crossed out? Making gradual improvements is the key to running efficient and goal oriented processes.

Best practices & methods for mapping out business processes

Quality professionals working according to the Six Sigma principles refer to process mapping as Business Process Architecture. This process, however, implies the existence of a series of cross-functional flowcharts with different levels of detail (from 0 to 4, 0 representing the least amount of detail and steps and 4 being the most detailed, in which all tasks, no matter how small, are represented).

ISO 9001 encourages a different approach, focused on quality management and the understanding of the internal correlations between the steps as well as with other processes – focusing on the impact these interactions have on the overall quality of management.

Value stream mapping incorporating best practices from lean manufacturing and is used to improve the flow of information or materials required to service a customer or produce a product. This method to mapping is an end-to-end approach and is ideal when looking to reduce cycle time or implement lean practices.

Business process mapping tools

When starting your process mapping, consider what the end goal of the map will be. If you’re looking to print a map and display it for reference, an online mapping software like LucidChart might suffice.

If you’re looking to implement a BPM or workflow management tool, some software may have mapping capabilities built in. Depending on the core process methodology of the software, no maps may need be needed at all.

All in all, it’s considered a good practice to write your process steps on sticky-notes, place them in the right order, and draw lines to and from the notes. This good ol’ fashioned strategy may be the best solution to first mapping out your business processes.

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Written by Isabelle Salemme, Product content manager at Pipefy. She uses her extensive Pipefy knowledge to write informative pieces teaching users to make the best of Pipefy. Besides being responsible for all product-related content, she's an avid reader, a coffee lover and a professional photographer.