Process Mapping Step by Step Guide

Written by Ian James, May 26, 2019

So, you are looking to improve your process. Great! Process mapping will help you with that. Check our guide & watch the step-by-step video to get started.

A video explaining the value and pitfalls of process mapping

Process Mapping Steps:

So, you are looking to improve your process. Great! Process mapping will help you with that. Watch the video above to get started and here is a summary of what it covers:

  1. Map the process “as is” first

  2. Don’t get sidetracked by exceptions

  3. Involve the people who do the work

  4. Document processes online

  5. Use a big map

  6. And … collect examples of all the documents associated with an activity

Of course, that is not the whole story. Here are some pro-tips to help to make your process mapping efforts more successful.

  • How detailed should a process map be?

  • Process Mapping Pitfalls And How To Avoid Them

  • Free Process Mapping Tool

It is almost impossible to improve a process without a visual representation of it. I have never found a better tool to analyze workflow. Once you have the workflow, you can identify opportunities to improve cycle times, efficiency and communication. So, you need a process map.

Even the process mapping process itself is of value. Having a bunch of people who work together actually map out how that happens is something to behold. There is almost always a head-slapping moment when someone says something along the lines of “I never knew you did that” or “Why are you still doing it that way? I thought we had agreed that we would do so-and-so…”

So how do you do that? The classic method is to get people together and get them to tell you. Then you sketch it on a whiteboard. Pulling the details of people’s tasks and responsibilities out of them is hard. It will seem to be slow going at first. Typically, not every member of the team has an equal amount of buy-in to the whole concept of process improvement. Before long however, after a few people have spoken up and their comments converted to post-its on the whiteboard behind you, what seemed like a trickle of ideas can soon become a flood.

How detailed should a process map be?

One of the things that crop up pretty early when you’re creating a process map is the question of how much detail you need to go into. If you keep to the high-level stuff only, you won’t provide enough detail for anybody following the process to know what to do. If you go the other way and put in massive amounts of detail, you will quickly clutter up your diagram. It will add to the confusion rather than simplify things. And that is exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do here.

So, what we need is a guideline that will help us find the middle path. I guess you could refer to this as the Goldilocks rule. “Not too hot, and not too cold”. Or, in this case “Not too much detail” and “Not too little”.

First, let’s define a couple of terms. A task is the most basic of useful descriptions of work. It’s sort of like the atomic level of the process. An activity is a set of tasks. You can think of that as the molecular level.

An activity box is simply that rectangular thing on the process map. It typically has a verb and a subject. For example, “Review submissions”. Using our definition there could be many tasks involved in the activity of reviewing submissions.

But when is a task an activity in its own right? And sometimes can’t tasks have their own subtasks? How do you deal with all that?

What I have found works the best is to treat a single activity box on a diagram as a sort of checklist of tasks that an individual performs on their own and in sequence. There is a simple test. Is it accurate to say “Joe does this bit of the process all by himself”? If the answer is “Yes” then it is safe to abstract all those tasks into a single activity box. If the answer is “No” then you need to break it up into separate activities so that it’s true for each activity box. That sounds more complicated than it is, so let’s look at an example.

Suppose we have a set of sixteen tasks that the process requires us to complete. Let’s say that a single individual can complete six of these and then performs a hand-off to somebody else who does the remaining 10. To me, it seems pretty straightforward. The right way to do this is to draw two separate activity boxes.

Now, of course, the job of a process mapping flow chart is to capture what goes on in the process. And you want to do that in sufficient detail that somebody else can read what goes on and do it. So you’re going to have to record all the activities one way or another.

That means you’re going to want to record all 16 tasks. What is the right way to do that in this case? In our example here, I would create two checklists, one for each activity box. So you have a checklist of six items on it and another checklist with a set of 10 items on it. That way you have captured the right amount of detail but you haven’t completely obscured what’s going on the process map.

A caution: this is a guideline. Not a golden rule. There might be times when it makes sense to create more than one activity box even though the same person performs the activities. I would say that if a checklist had more than 20 items it would be very ungainly. Take a good look and you will probably find at least one logical break. Then you would separate them into separate activities. Or, it might be that there is a natural grouping within a set of tasks and of course it makes sense to use that as a way of deciding where to put the activity boxes.

Once you have defined an activity, you’ll need a name for it. The label on the box acts as a sort of summary of the activity.

There is a very useful convention when it comes to naming activity boxes. Use a verb followed by a noun. Let me show you what I mean these two real-life examples:

• Example 1: “Monthly Sales Commission”

• Example 2: “Calculate Individual Sales Commissions”

As you can guess, this was an activity for a sales manager. But which example conveys more?

Now, you may be the only person who will ever read the diagram. If so, you can probably get away with a label for your box, like the one in Example 1. But if you want to communicate the process to someone not familiar with it, then you should use the “verb and subject” format in example 2.

Things to watch out for when mapping a process

Putting peoples names, their actual names, as in “Joe Doe” on the activity box. Now, I get why people do it. But what happens the person concerned leaves or moves or delegates the job to someone else? You don’t really want to render your process obsolete when someone delegates an activity.

The right way to do this is to allocate a role to an activity. So in our last example, you allocate the activity of calculating the sales commission to the role of sales manager. You don’t add the name of the sales manager, Roberta Chu. So, if Roberta moves on to another job in the company, the new incoming sales manager will be able to look at the process and know that is his or hers job now. Your process map is still good.

Process Mapping Pitfalls And How To Avoid Them

Mapping is a crucial part of process improvement efforts. It looks easy but there are some pitfalls. Let’s look at what they are and how to avoid them.

The most common process mapping error people make is diving into improving the process before they have finished mapping it. It is natural to want to fix the problems as you uncover them – but it’s better to define the existing or “as is” state before you try and improve it. You need to see the whole picture before you can make informed decisions about what you want to change.

Conducting a process modelling session

When you are conducting a process modelling session, the participants will naturally bring up process exceptions and typical ways things go wrong. It is easy to bog down in the details. But be firm, make a note but table these issues until you have the basic process mapped out. Then you can go back and look at exceptions and errors.

The only people who can tell you what the issues are, and what changes will and will not work, are the ones who use the process. They are also the people who have most at stake in the process. So make sure that all of them participate, not just one or two representatives. Unless everybody is there you will not create the sense of ownership and control the process users need in order to make successful changes.

Processes are changing all the time

If you record and print a process out on paper and store it in a binder on the shelf in an office, it won’t be long before it is out of date and ignored. But documenting processes online, allows you to have a living document. There is only one version to update and everyone can have access to it.

Map the “as is” process in small groups on a big map. Use a wall or a whiteboard where all the participants can see it simultaneously. If it looks temporary and sketchy, good. People will feel OK about changing it. If you try to capture it straight to a computer in some fancy graphics package, it looks formal and official on the screen and somehow, nobody wants to mess with it.

And finally, don’t forget to collect examples of all the documents associated with a process. That means forms, policies, checklists, tutorials, FAQs, any document that is used in the process. It’s not just about the map.

What software program to use to draw your process diagrams.

So now you have your map. But it’s not much use on a whiteboard for long. You need to get it down on a piece of paper. Or better yet, into a computer in a nice tidy flowchart.

There are numerous graphical programs you can use for process mapping. People often ask me to give recommendations. In particular, I am asked if is there one that is a cheap, or even better, free. For the longest time, I could not in good faith recommend any of the free programs. So for the most part, Microsoft Visio was the default choice.

However, there is one exception to the free tools are no good rule. It has been around a while but it does have some drawbacks. However, if you know how there are some easy workarounds. I have a video course to help you get started.

Free alternative to Microsoft Visio

I have now started using something called yEd for some of my client engagements. It is free and you can download a copy here.

Why choose yEd ahead of any its rivals? yEd has a number of features that make it uniquely suited to process mapping.

  1. It has a layout engine that easily handles the chore of placing process activities neatly and evenly on a map. All you have to do is get the activities on the map and it does the rest. This makes for fast editing and a clean map with minimum effort.

  2. It allows you to import activities from an MS Excel spreadsheet. During the import, it creates the activity boxes as well as the connectors between them. Particularly when you have a lot of activities to record, this is a very efficient method of getting started.

  3. It has a swim lane feature that, provided you have the activities in the correct lane, will auto-arrange the activities. This takes the tedium out of making small editing changes with swimlanes.

  4. You can export your diagrams in a wide variety of formats. Among them html and SVG. If you have embedded links in a diagram associated with an activity, for example to a sub-process, you can use the exported SVG image in an html document and it will preserve the links. So you can create have an interactive diagram on a web page that users can click through to sub-processes or associated documents.

  5. yEd is freely available and runs on all major platforms: Windows, Unix/Linux, and Mac OS X. As I write this, the current release is version 3.10.2.

It has some quirks and limitations. There are a few times when it does not follow the conventions of either Windows or Linux/Mac applications. For example, it takes a while to get used to the fact that when you click on the canvas, by default it creates a shape. If you did the same on a Mac or Windows application, nothing would happen. But the many strengths of yEd far outweigh whatever the quirks it has.

yED Video Tutorial Course

Much as I enjoy using yEd, like all similar software, it has a learning curve. To make the process easier for my clients, I created a series of tutorials for them on using yED for process mapping. After some consideration, I have decided to make the whole course available to The Process Consultant site visitors. You can find out more about the (paid) yEd tutorials here.

Sign Up For:

Image of document illustrated with sketches of process

Sign up for my newsletter and receive my FREE white paper, “Preparing For Process Improvement: An Executive’s Guide To Setting Things Up So Your Process Improvement Efforts Succeed.”

Most Popular Articles

Most Popular Videos