What Is Business Process Modeling? Definitions and How to Start

Benjamin Babb

Your organization’s day-to-day operations rely on a variety of processes, but do you really understand them? Keeping track of each step in the process and the connections between them without visual aids is a daunting task. That’s where business process modeling comes in.

By allowing you to visualize entire processes from start to finish, business process modeling serves as an invaluable tool for analyzing and improving business processes at every scale.

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What is Business Process Modeling?

Business process modeling is the practice of representing business processes in visual form. These models often take the form of flowcharts or workflow diagrams that display all the steps in a process and how they are related.

Business process modeling is a key step in implementing a business process management (BPM) strategy. BPM is an organization-wide practice that requires modeling, analyzing, and optimizing business processes, with the goal of improving efficiency and effectiveness. Increasingly, companies are investing in low-code BPM strategies.

The modeling component of BPM allows business managers to visually break down these processes and better understand how they’re operating. This involves both the current state of processes — the “as-is” processes — and the ideal future state of processes — the “to-be” processes.

dedicated BPM platform can be invaluable in creating and optimizing business process models. For instance, user tagging and alerting can help speed up the triaging and hand-over times between process steps, and historical data can be used to make smarter decisions about how to improve models in the future.

The business process model defines the steps that comprise the process, clarifies who is responsible for performing them, shows any possible variations in the process, indicates the expected duration and importance of each step, and so on. By tracking and monitoring the performance of each stage of the model, you can better determine where inefficiencies may lie and start developing new to-be processes that can minimize issues.

For example, customer onboarding is an important, complex process that benefits from building a visual model. You want to make sure that the unique needs of each customer are met while they’re onboarded, which requires a process that branches out and features multiple variations. Without mapping out these branches, your team members will likely fail to keep track of such a complex process, and customers will be left confused and dissatisfied.

Or take expense reimbursement, another process many businesses employ daily. Employees want to know exactly what they need to do when submitting requests and what stages the request will go through before they are reimbursed. Building and sharing a process model makes all team members aware of how expense reimbursement is handled and will reduce frustration among employees and the reviewers in HR.

Why is Business Process Modeling important?

Business process modeling is a physical representation of process activities and provides a holistic view of processes. It also provides a more granular understanding of the specific steps involved. To better understand the importance of business process modeling, consider these benefits:

Gain process visibility

By listing and detailing all events, actions, and connection points that exist between Point A (the action that sets your process in motion) and Point B (the overall result of your process), it becomes much easier to identify redundancies, unnecessary steps, and performance bottlenecks. These benefits apply to all parts of your business, from customer service to accounting to sales.

Create process alignment

Business process modeling also removes any ambiguity regarding what steps to follow when performing a process. All team members know their responsibilities and exactly what their roles are. This keeps your employees aligned and facilitates improved communication and collaboration.

Improve employee productivity

As noted above, business process modeling is also a critical part of practicing BPM. Without visualizing your organization’s processes, it’s impossible to accurately diagnose issues and decide on improvements that make sense. By optimizing the processes your business runs on, BPM makes each employee more productive and ultimately improves the bottom line.

Techniques for Business Process Modeling

There are many methods for producing business process models. Three of the most popular are Business Process Model and Notation, process flowcharts, and Universal Process Notation.

Business Process Model and Notation

Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) is a standard methodology for the graphical representation of business processes. It defines different elements such as events, activities, and connections. BPMN allows different stakeholders within a business to standardize their language when describing and analyzing processes. It does require team members to familiarize themselves with its nomenclature, which creates more of a learning curve than other available techniques.

Process flowcharts

A process flowchart is a diagram that uses flowchart symbols to illustrate the steps of a process and the decision outcomes that can come at each step. It typically shows a processing step — called an “activity” — as a rectangular box and a decision step as a diamond shape. Process flowcharts are great for representing sequential processes, but they can be a bit harder to manage for state machines or parallel workflows.

Transformational Process Modeling

Transformation Process Modeling is defined by a series of input-output relations that ultimately lead to the final process. With this model, each process is divided into actions usually referred to as either steps or activities. They then are divided again into sub-actions and each of them has inputs that are transformed into outputs, creating a logical work sequence.

Hierarchical Process Models

Unlike more traditional business process modeling techniques that work in a linear manner, this model uses process trees. To help visualize this, consider an actual tree’s trunk and branches.

The process tree represents the process itself, the branches represent the flow of tasks, and the leaves represent the tasks within the workflow. Because of its build, this technique works best with complementary modeling techniques, so as to better connect related processes and define correlating tasks, and subtasks.

Universal Process Notation

Universal Process Notation (UPN) is an alternative to BPMN that attempts to make processes more visually compact and allow any type of user to understand them. The basic component of UPN defines the following question words: When, What, Why, How, and Who. This makes it clear exactly what the intent of each step is and who is responsible for them.

How to implement Business Process Modeling

How you create a business process model depends in part on which of the techniques above you use, but each approach will involve the same general steps once you’ve identified the process you want to model:

Model the as-is process.

You should review relevant data and interview those who use the process every day before modeling it in its current state. Using a business process management platform for modeling will make this step much easier than trying to draw the model on paper.

Design the to-be process.

Before creating the to-be process, carefully evaluate the as-is process for existing problems and ways it can be improved. Can it be streamlined by removing or combining steps? Are there any steps that cost more than they should or are consistently unreliable? (Learn more about business process design. )

Model the to-be process.

Finally, it’s time to model the to-be process. After creating the model, run it by the key stakeholders to see what they think and incorporate any useful suggestions they have.

The steps above are only a part of business process management — we haven’t touched on how to identify your most important processes or the importance of testing the to-be process before implementation, for instance. That’s why business process modeling needs to be part of a comprehensive BPM strategy.

Best practices

It’s important to structure your models in a way that’s useful and understandable for everyone involved in the processes. There are a few best practices you can implement to do so:

  • Avoid making the model overly complex. While you may be tempted to try to map out every possible step and outcome, this can lead to models that are hard to understand due to their excessive scope. When possible, try to be compact and remove any redundancies.
  • Plan the steps ahead of time. In other words, don’t just dive right into building the model. You’ll want to discuss the plans with all process stakeholders to make sure the information is correct and makes sense to them. Otherwise, you risk an incorrect or over-complicated model as you start to modify it in response to feedback.
  • Keep in mind that the goal is process improvement. Therefore, you should structure the model as an aid in detecting inefficiencies. The scope of steps should be wide enough to encompass useful information but narrow enough to locate specific issues. You may have to iterate on the model to find the optimal balance.

Business Process Modeling examples

To further illustrate the benefits and use, here are some examples of why these modeling techniques are useful:

Business Process Model and Notation

  • Graphical representation of a business process
  • Commonly designed as a flowchart
  • Supports better process management for technical users and business units
  • Adopts a common language and provides a standard notation that is understood by all stakeholders, including business analysts, developers, and managers

Process flowcharts

  • Graphical representation of a business process
  • As the name implies, designed as a flowchart to
  • Provides a top-down understanding of how a process works and the steps that makeup the workflow
  • Ideal for improving or standardizing processes
  • Also used to model and create a standard operating procedure

Transformational Process Modeling

  • Graphical representation of a business process
  • Made up of six elements: inputs (what’s needed to provide service or product), transformation process (actions needed to solve input needs), outputs (how transformation processes affect inputs), customers (recipients of product or service), and feedback loop (opportunity to judge work)
  • Typically used to outline the processes involved in producing a product or providing a service 
  • Ideal for process improvement modeling

Universal Process Notation

  • Graphical representation of a business process
  • Less complex than BPMN because it maps processes with five standardized building blocks: who (is involved), what (happens), when (does it happen), why (does it happen,  and how (does it work)

Business Process Modeling tools

Companies leverage BPM tools in order to assess their existing processes and to build better, more efficient versions of those processes. BPM tools can be used to model, automate, and orchestrate any of the different types of business process. In addition to conventional BPM software, businesses today have alternatives that can meet many of the same needs.

One of the most powerful alternatives to traditional BPM tools available is low-code automation software. Low-code tools give business users a visual interface that allows them to quickly and easily model their processes, customize workflows, and automate tasks. Low-code tools also help IT teams by providing a secure set of tools so that business users don’t have to send every change request to the IT backlog.

Low-code automation also helps business teams stay agile by allowing them to model, modify, and monitor their processes in real-time, in response to competitor activity, customer feedback, or internal requirements.

See why more companies trust Pipefy’s low-code automation to build better processesLearn more


Written by
Benjamin Babb
Senior Writer at Pipefy, where I focus on helping businesses manage workflows, optimize processes, and deploy automation. I'm also a ghost story aficionado who listens to more Enya than anyone should.

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