How to Process Map When You Don’t Know What You’re Doing Peacocks and ProcessesThis week a friend emailed me to ask for some process improvement advice. He has been thinking about a business process in his office, and knows something isn’t working the way it should, but isn’t quite sure what it is.

In fact, he wasn’t even sure how to articulate what he was looking for.

“This is probably the kind of thing that you guys could do for me, but I don’t even know what I want yet. Do you have anything like a template or a document that lists your process for drawing out how a process is working?”

Funnily enough, we don’t. When Nicole and I facilitate process improvement sessions it comes to us naturally, based on a few key questions:

  1. What is the “pain point” that you want to fix? Or, what is that “one thing” that drives you bananas when you drive home on Friday evenings, thinking “if only we didn’t have to deal with “this thing”, everything would be better?
  2. What kicks off your process? What’s the first step? You might think this is an easy question, but we once spent 45 minutes with a client helping them answer it.
  3. When is your process finished? What’s the last step? Is it when something is produced? Or when the customer recieves it? Or when the cheque comes in?

And that’s enough to get us started. From there we interview the key people involved in a process, draw it on huge Post-It paper on the wall, and then review it with people to ensure it’s accurate.

At that point the opportunities to improve pretty much jump off the page.

My Response to Him

Assuming you know nothing about a process map (forgive me if you do):

  • square shapes represent a step in the process
  • circles/ovals are beginning and end points
  • diamonds are decision points
  • arrows direct the flow from one step to another
  • the rows, or swimlanes, represent each person or group or organization who “touch” the process
  • A completed process map a beginning and end (duh), has all the process steps in the appropriate row depending on who completes the step, has decision points where ever an approval is needed (e.g. Approved? Y/N) and then appropriate steps for both Yes and No possibilities, has numbered steps (makes it easier to refer to specific steps later if you’re talking to someone about it).

You can use a pencil to document your process directly on the page, or you can have a big piece of paper on the wall and use sticky-notes (one for each step). This makes it easy to move them around if you need to. Use the attached template to help you out. (Click here for the process map template: WBC Process Map Template.)

  1. Determine the swimlanes – who has some involvement (no matter if it’s only one step) in any aspect of the process?
  2. Determine the trigger point – what kicks the process off?
  3. Consider the end point – how will you know when the process is done?
  4. Put a circle shape in the swimlane for the person/group that starts things off. Write the word “START” in it.
  5. Put a square shape next to the circle and label it #1, and write the step.
  6. Proceed with each consecutive step.
  7. Add the arrows last (you almost always have to change them as you go).
  8. When you reach the end point, put a circle with the word “END” in it.

His Response to Me

Ever the clown, my friend responded with, “do you realize how ironic it is that you don’t have a process document for your process mapping process?”

Isn’t it though. So ironic. See if I help HIM out again… sheesh…

Until next time,



6 thoughts on “How to Process Map When You Don’t Know What You’re Doing

  1. Having started out my lengthy career as a process engineer, there is one thing that drives everything. You must start with the many customer needs, and there are many customers. Defining your customers is critical. There of course are the users of the final product or service and serving their known needs. But, there are many external and internal customers who must satisfied, such as various regulations, weather/environmental issues, etc. that all must be identified and then made as critical input demands. The process transformation must flow these inputs to the starting point as you develop specific detail to deliver the desired output to meet your many demands. Experience is the need for anyone employing these process control methods. If you are a perfectionist, as I was, it is no simple task to achieve 120 percent satisfaction with your work.

    1. Love your point re: the Customer. When working to improve any process, we agree it must be done with the Customer’s needs at the forefront. For small (or any, really) businesses, just understanding the current process is the first step. Then, ask “and how does the result make the customer feel?” Thanks for your comment!

  2. Hi Ruth,
    Great piece and very helpful for people who are allergic to process maps which is about 99% of all small business owners.

    I spent 13 years in US multinationals (production, projects, process and logistics) 5 years in banking and 5 in the food industry and I would say that the single most important driver of all is attitude. You either want to improve now or you are happy with incrementalism. I have seen people spend months on process flows for issues that can be mapped and rectified in weeks. I’m not saying that you don’t have to be thorough, you do, but once you find a system / process that works (e.g. DMAIC etc), keep moving forward. By default you will never achieve perfection as you will never stay still long enough to achieve it. However, perfection can be achieved in the culture and the attitude of the people.

    1. Thanks Dermot – we like to think of ourselves as the anti-histimine for process-allergy sufferers. 😀

  3. Very interesting piece. I work with lots of organisations that struggle to understand what they do and process mapping is a great way of providing clarity. However, I always start by asking, ‘What is the process for?’ It is not uncommon, when asking this of a group of stakeholders, to be greeted by a sea of blank faces. It’s an important question and one which, if remains unanswered, results in a myriad of start and end points. Once we have agreement on the answer, the rest rapidly falls into place.
    As for the mapping process, yes, I use the trusty post-it method, using different colours (as well as the symbols) to help distinguish between events, tasks, sub-processes and gateways. It works well.

    1. Thanks Tony – love that question “what is the process for?” A great way to help people figure out the first and last steps!

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