Process Mapping: Lessons I’ve Learned

Rick Bohan

Over the years, I’ve helped a number of clients with process mapping exercises.  Now, process mapping is one of those things you can read about and look up on the interweb and still not get much help when it comes to actually doing it with a team.  (That said, a good book on the topic is “Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart” by Geary Rummler. )  I’ve learned some things that can help you.

First, get very clear on just what process is being mapped.  A team might start out with the intent to map the order entry process but, generally, there are several such processes within any company.  Are domestic orders handled differently from international orders?  (Of course they are!)  Are some orders picked from stock while others are made to order?  Does the order entry process differ for different products?  It can be very difficult to capture all these variations on one process map.  Better to provide some definition at the front end, e.g., “We’re developing a process map for domestic orders of Product Family X.”  Again, this will keep you from getting stuck providing all the variable loops and sub-processes at each step.

I use just a few symbols: circles (first step and last step), rectangles (all the other steps), and arrows (between the steps).  I don’t use diamonds for decisions or anything else…they just clutter things up.  Those “decision diamonds”, in particular, can cause messiness.  The team will use them as an excuse to go down every “if this happens, then we do this but if this other thing happens, then we do that” rabbit hole.

Work to stay at the “5000 foot level”.  Even complex processes shouldn’t involve more than 10 to 15 process steps when you’re developing an initial map. Will that map capture every step and every task currently needed to complete the process?  Of course not, but, again, trying to capture all those intricacies will send you down all sorts of rabbit holes and get you lost in the weeds.  For example, your map might end with the step “Product is Shipped”.  We all know that shipping involves lots of steps and tasks.  And if you’re developing an instruction manual, yeah, you want to capture them all.  But that’s not what you’re doing here.  You’re seeking to capture the basic flow of information and material.

Instruct the team to map the process assuming that everything goes the way it’s supposed to. That’s not the same as capturing the ideal process.  Tell the team, “At each step, imagine that it happens just the way it’s supposed to happen.  We won’t talk about what happens if things go wrong at that step. We’ll just assume the step gets done right, then we’ll go one to the next step.”  Trust me, if you don’t do it this way, you’ll spend all day on the first two steps of the process…because that’s where most of the stuff goes wrong.

Facilitating process mapping discussions can be challenging.  There can be a tendency for team members to get way down in the weeds regarding process and task minutia.  A certain amount of such conversation can help the team get clear on just what happens in a specific process step but, after a time, a team leader might want to step in and move the team on, saying something like,  “It sounds like we have a good handle on that step.  What happens next in the process?”

Team members can also get involved in discussing “improvements” and “solutions”.  Don’t let these conversations get too far along.  Remind the team that the objective, at this point, is to lay out the current state of the process, not to figure out how to improve the process.  That will come later.

All that said, it can take a good bit of time, even under the best of circumstances, to lay out a process map of even as few as ten or twelve “high level” steps.  Allow time for talking about process inputs, process outputs, process customer expectations.  Allow more time for discussing the process steps to make certain that everyone understands and agrees with the definition of that step.  A process step might be labeled “Take the order” but that can mean lots of different things.  Make sure you’ve allowed enough time to talk about just what it does mean, while remembering to keep the discussion on current state.

Keep these guidelines in mind and your process mapping efforts will be fruitful.


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