Process Mapping

Whilst in 201x probably everyone visiting this page has seen a process map, there are a few points worth considering when creating or reviewing them.

  • What do we know about how the process presently works?
  • Do we have written documentation or a workflow management system?
  • How do we know if the process follows these guidelines? 

There are three ways to find out how the process works, and all have their good and bad points.

Process Flowchart FlowOfficial Documentation

In the first instance, it’s worth looking at the process’s official documentation. The first question is whether there is any applicable documentation. The second and third questions are whether the documentation is relevant and whether it is reasonably current.

The process documentation will tell us what at some point in the past someone thought the process ought to look like. It may contain flowcharts, or it may be written in more or less clear plain language. The problem with flowcharts is that they can be quite cryptic to read; the problem with plain language is that for anything other than a straight linear flow it can be difficult to follow the decision structure (that’s why lawyers get paid a lot of money.)

However the process is documented, we need to look beyond the basic description of the method to see what else is captured in the documentation. For example, does it cover the qualifications required to operate the process? The training requirements? Authorities for changing how the process works? Rules for escalating problems? Clear definitions of customer requirements, and how the process is to be measured? These are all important factors in governing how a process operates, and need to be captured and conveyed somehow, so the first port of call is the written documentation.


The second round of inquiry is to interview or workshop the process with people who work in the process. There are many ways to do this. The difficulties with the interview / workshop technique are that people may tell us what they should do rather than what they do do, that they may omit points that are crucial but to them so obvious as to not be worth mentioning, and not least that they will give us such an overwhelming amount of detail that we can’t see the wood for the trees.

There are a variety of ways we can work with a group to elicit a map of current process operation. We tend to favour the traditional brown-paper-and-sticky-note technique, because it is democratic and relatively unthreatening. It is good for idea capture but not so helpful for complex flows and logic, where we are better off using a computer package. The other disadvantage of the sticky note method is that it is not very helpful for including remote participants.

There are nuances to the information gathering that depend upon the relative definition of the as-is process itself and the process analysis skills of the working group. Options include round table discussion scribed by the facilitator, and silent brainstorming and clustering of ideas generated by the team.

Documentation and workshop representation of processes can occur on a number of levels, each developing a more detailed view. Process levelling requires clear thinking and likely a few iterations to get to an acceptable point.

Checking out the workplace

The third round of inquiry is to go and see for yourself what is happening in the workplace. There will often be tell tale signs of work building up, ad hoc information storage (such as Post It notes), and people moving around as they chase paper or seek advice. The challenges with observing the workplace are that in a modern IT centred workplace, much of the work is “invisible”, and that unless you have prior expertise then you may not appreciate the significance of what you are seeing.

What you see will depend to a great degree on what you expect to see, which is why we recommend working through the document, interview / workshop, and workplace observation methods in that order. 


Quality Concerns

Throughout the activity of investigating and documenting the process, you will come across a great range of observations about the process that are just as valuable as the map you build of the process. These are known as quality concerns. Especially in the workshopping stage, you have a great opportunity to capture the perceptions of a wide range of stakeholders. To keep participants focused, it is helpful to direct their attention in turn to each of the four views in the picture at right.

This information can easily be gathered on PostIts as a silent brainstorm. You might also want to publish your draft process map and invite comments. 

As a facilitator, you don't have to know all the answers yourself - let the team and the stakeholders do the thinking!

Immediate Improvements

As we are working through the process, we look for areas that lend themselves to relatively short term improvements - fixing the obvious problems. As a quick guide to what might fall into this category, use the following checklist:

  • Can we fix the problem within our project budget, i.e. without seeking additional funding?

  • Do we have authority to make the change to the process?

  • Is the solution reasonably self evident? Do we all agree it's a good idea?

  • Are we reasonably sure that fixing “our” problem will not cause problems for related processes or for the customer?

  • Is the recommended change reversible - can we go back to plan A if things don’t work out?

It is always good policy to be able to effect some improvements without having to ask the sponsors to fork out more money. It also builds a sense of capability amongst the team, and helps to convince people in the work place that change is possible.