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Process Mapping — Tips & Tricks

May 31, 2021 - 13 minutes read

1704 Process Mapping Tips Tricks 416X300[45518]
Katarzyna Stępniowska Business Analyst

Kasia is a Business Analyst with more than three years working experience in IT projects. She loves studying processes and visually describing requirements and solutions. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and photographing.

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What Is Process Mapping?

When you work on a project, having accurate visibility of the whole process can make a considerable difference and help you get the right perspective on your work. Process mapping provides excellent support in this matter. In this article, I’d like to discuss the concept and how I apply it in my daily work.

A few weeks ago, in one of my favourite podcasts (PM Happy Hour) I heard the phrase: ‘clarity junkies’, which I believe can perfectly describe me and probably many other Business Analysts (BAs). I have to get things sorted, deeply understand them and have clarity within my solution. This is probably why there’s one tool which has a significant impact on my work. It’s called process mapping. You may say that ‘this is old news, some ancient waterfall tool’. But just because something is ‘old’, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s ‘not applicable’. It’s exactly the opposite. Process mapping is a great way to visually describe the process steps, put them in the context of actors, verify a hypothesis and quickly identify loopholes. It helps me quickly get my head around a project. It’s also a good test of my knowledge of a solution and a useful point of reference on refinement sessions.

I want to share with you some tips and my experience with process mapping. I’ll also show you an example of a map from a draft to a ready diagram. I hope that this article will encourage you to start using this tool and that you too will see all the benefits that come with it. And have some fun!

An example of a process map

Fig. 1. An example of a process map — starting from a draft to a ready diagram.

The Benefits of Creating a Process Map

I feel that there are some repetitive reasons why this tool isn’t used. In my opinion, each of these reasons is not enough to even cast a shadow on the benefits of process mapping. Let me explain why.

  • The first typical reason is that if you’re working in an agile environment or scrum framework, there’s no place for such documents.

You should always keep in mind that agile never urges you not to do documentation at all - it’s about doing the right amount. New approaches don’t invalidate the existing tools, they can actually improve their application and put them into a new context. It’s always good to try out new methods, mix approaches and keep your toolbox growing, but you can also try applying the tools you already used in new contexts or projects (e.g., make them more understandable to different stakeholders and improve the communication with your customers — isn’t that what agile is all about?).

  • The second popular reason relates to a common saying among BAs: ‘don’t write documents for yourself’.

In most cases it’s true — we create documents to help our team and stakeholders have better understanding of our solution. But if you need additional documents just for yourself — perhaps to organise your thoughts or deepen your comprehension of the solution, then why not? Even when you think that stakeholders don’t need it, I recommend showing the map to them — you’ll be surprised how many of them will actually be interested in seeing it.

  • Another common reason is either that you don’t know the notation language well enough or the people you work with don’t know it.

It turns out you can do a lot with just three to four shapes. You don’t need to start with fancy diagrams with loads of complicated icons. One of the biggest benefits you can get from process mapping is visualising complicated processes with simple diagrams and making them understandable to everyone, including non-IT people. It’s a huge help while confirming the understanding of the process or data flow — a picture is worth a thousand words.

  • Another common reason which I’ve come across is that people think they know the solution inside out and that they don’t need to create a map.

The truth is: if you know the process so well, creating a map will only take you a few minutes. It’s possible that no matter how well you know it, you’ll discover something new. The map can also be a good point of reference when introducing a new functionality or changes in the process. Taking a quick look at the map will help you identify potential risk areas and the impact of the change. Additionally, if your process or solution concerns more than one team, I would recommend showing the map to all of them and discussing it with everyone. It’s possible that they conduct the process in a different way, which may result in a number of issues.

I hope I’ve cleared up your doubts regarding when to draw a process (quick reminder: always) and what benefits process mapping can bring you. We can now move on to some tips on what to think of before you start creating your map.

What To Know Before You Get Started

Before you start creating a process map, there are two crucial things to be done. Establishing these two basic assumptions will save you a lot of time and guide you through the next steps.

The first thing you need to do is to define the goal of the process map — here comes every BA’s favourite question — why? Maybe you want to have better understanding of an area, or you want to communicate better? Or perhaps you need to find process loopholes, or discuss changes within the process with your CEO (or you might just want to practice — all these are good goals). There are countless reasons ‘why’ and you need to define yours very clearly, as there’s no point in doing something without knowing its purpose.

The second thing is to know your audience. Before you start drawing a map, you need to know who’ll read it and for what reason (if you haven’t identified your stakeholders until this point in the project, now would be a good moment). In order to create a map which is useful for your audience, you should answer questions such as:

  • Will the content of the map be clear to your readers? Will they understand your vocabulary? Perhaps it’s a bit technical or your statements can be misinterpreted as they have a few meanings? Are you using the readers’ language? Will they understand the language notation and the icons that you’re using?

  • In what context will your audience look at the diagram? What’s their role — will the map be read by the CEO, developers or customer service? What would they like to see on the map?

Such information will also come in handy during project meetings, while discussing the scope or talking about the process. People who you’ll talk to might not have yet taken part in an IT project and the phrase ‘process map’ may even scare them off. But as you perfectly know right now, it’s not a reason to quit on mapping. You just need to have the ability to do it smart and right.

Once you’ve stated your goal and the main stakeholders, keep them in your mind by all means. It should guide you through each step that you’ll take while establishing the next assumptions and drawing the map. A bit like your two north stars. So, what more do you need to know? Here’s what I think about before I start to draw a map:

  • The scope of the map and the process (each activity in your diagram should have an influence on your process and reflect the goal that you want to achieve. Be careful not to include unnecessary tasks, actors or systems).

  • A clear beginning and end of the process (nothing before or after these events should have a direct impact on your process flow).

  • The level of details you’ll maintain (the best approach is to keep the same level of granularity through the whole map).

  • Actors, meaning who takes part in process execution (if you don’t need to show servers or IT systems, just don’t; it will most likely be unnecessary to show the business process, but it can be crucial for system integration drawings).

  • Black boxes, which actions you cannot clearly specify because the connection to your process is only by inputs and outputs, you don’t need to know exactly what happens inside them (an example can be a company which doesn’t belong to your organisation but provides some information necessary in the process).

  • Choose a set of icons with their meaning or a modelling language (here knowing your audience and goal should be a crucial factor — don’t choose a modelling language that no one will understand just because it’s fancy).

One thing worth mentioning is that you don’t need to know all of these things in detail before you start drawing the process map. You can note (even just in your mind) the next assumption and actually start. You can have just a high-level view on them and, while creating the map, you should constantly verify if these assumptions are true. So let’s get to the heart of the matter and take a more in-depth look at creating the map.

Tip #1: Ready, Set, Draw!

Here’s my first tip — cut to the chase and start. Transfer your thoughts onto the paper or do it in an electronic form. Brace yourself as it will likely be messy — it will probably look like your kid’s drawing, and it may be far from the clarity and structure you’re after. If it’s easier, start without any actors and pools or swim lanes. Try not to get cornered — if you’re not sure about a step, the name of an action, decision or anything else — that’s nothing bad at this point. It’s easier and faster to make something out of your imperfect draft rather than work on nothing.

To give you a bit of additional encouragement, I’ve created a very first draft of a process for ordering a pizza. The goal of my map was to show you, my reader, how I order a pizza in my favourite restaurant. In the first diagram I used only three shapes. In the next step, I modified the diagram to be coherent with the Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN).

pizza ordering process created in draw.io using three shapes.

Fig. 2. The first draft of the pizza ordering process created in draw.io using three shapes.

The process of ordering a pizza converted to BPMN

Fig. 3. The process of ordering a pizza converted to BPMN.

 

As you can see, it’s far from perfect. I added some comments, I didn’t pay much attention to the arrows, actors or the exact beginning and end of the process. I just followed my instinct and first thoughts. It’s worth mentioning that I rarely start my drawings on paper. I prefer creating the first draft with an online tool, such as draw.io, because it always looks less messy. This way, I can also improve my diagram faster by moving the existing icons and by adding new ones.

What’s also worth remembering is that every process can be visualised in many ways. You know what you want to achieve and show, so stay true to that and your map will be just fine. The same applies to the tools you use. There’s no one tool or piece of software that should be used. For instance, I like to use three or four tools, and they are all quite easy to learn. There are many tools available online for free (like draw.io or cawemo.com).

Tip #2: Refine Your Diagram

If you haven’t verified the steps on the map while creating the draft, do so now. Go over each step and double check whether you don’t need any additional inputs or outputs, or maybe you need some additional verification or information from another actor. Make sure you have everything you need.

What I like to do next is to add actors (if I haven’t done so at the beginning) or verify if I don’t need to distinguish any additional roles. It’s also helpful to ask some more questions — put yourself in someone else's position and ask questions like: ‘When I order pizza, do I always pay by card?’

Okay, so we have a draft of the process — now, let’s ensure everything is clear. This is extremely important. Sorry to say, but no one will look at your map if it looks like one big knot. If you keep your map messy or if you don’t pay enough attention to it, you're missing the point.

In order to improve your process map and ‘make it pretty’, I recommend following these rules:

  • Do your best to avoid crossing lines as it makes the flow very hard to read. (In most cases, you should be able to avoid this. If you can’t and your lines still cross, then double or even triple check whether the steps of the process are correct. If so, make sure that the process itself is correct.)

  • Make sure that you’ve distinguished a clear start and end of the process. There can be no questions about the beginning and end of your process, it needs to be 100% evident.

  • When it comes to organising your shapes, keep them even both horizontally and vertically through the whole map. When you look at your map from a distance, you should be able to see those lines and the structure of your diagram.

  • Don’t use comments too much, they will make the map difficult to read. Personally, I like to add one or two comments on the map if I believe it’s necessary, but try not to misuse them. If you need to use a lot of them, it may be a sign that you should rethink your map or your process.

  • Don’t use too many colours. Different colours have different meanings to different people, it can be misleading. And actually, using a lot of colours can make it messier. I’m a fan of black and white diagrams.

  • Format all items on the diagram in the same style. It’s also about keeping all shapes the same size (one step of the process should not appear bigger on the map just because you need more words to describe it). Also, keep the spacing the same throughout the whole map.

If you’ve completed each step until this point, your map should have improved significantly. Don’t push yourself to get it right straight away. Sometimes I make a few attempts to create a good map.

Here I’d like to come back to my process of ordering a pizza and show you how it can be improved. First of all, I adjusted the beginning of the process — it turned out that I order a pizza only when I have guests. I must admit that I’ve never called the restaurant and cancelled the order when the delivery was estimated to take more than an hour — I didn’t verify whether such a cancellation would even be possible. This is a good example of things worth investigating to have clarity within the process and question your assumptions. Finally, I’ve added gateways when merging. I find it useful especially in alternative flows as it underlines that there’s more than one possibility that can take you to a given step.

the modified process of ordering a pizza

Fig. 4. The modified process of ordering a pizza.

When you compare the new, improved map to the first sketch, it may look as if some icons have been missed or as if the improved map consisted of only a part of the process visualised on the sketch. Take a closer look — these two maps describe exactly the same process. The second one is just easier to read because it’s well-organised.

Tip #3: Potential Risks & How to Address Them

After creating diagrams on numerous occasions and observing others creating them, I’ve noticed some issues that occurred repeatedly. These types of issues should always be a red flag that makes you stop and rethink the flow. Let’s go through these risk signs.

You’re in trouble if you're using a notation that you don’t know very well and there’s no expert who can help you verify your diagram. It’s good to try something new but you should have someone to support you, review your work and help you learn. Otherwise, you can mislead your readers and create confusion — which is exactly what process mapping is trying to resolve. You need to be 100% sure of the meaning of every icon that you use.

If you think you know the process by heart but have difficulty visualising it on the diagram, you might also be in trouble. This can mean that, unfortunately, there are still areas in which you need to dig a bit deeper. Secondly, it can also mean that your process isn’t well structured or organised and, perhaps, you should rethink how certain things are done. Here I’d recommend taking a step back and talking to people directly involved in the process.

You should also avoid creating order where there’s chaos. Not every process follows a defined order of steps and always remains the same. Don’t try to force it — doing so can have a huge impact on reading the map and it may make your stakeholders confused.

If you hate the tool you’re using, your map won’t be as good as it can be. Don’t do it, it’s a waste of your time and energy. There are many free, easy to learn tools available online. I must say I love cawemo.com for its minimalistic UI and useful functions. If you haven’t found a good tool yet — try it out.

You should also rethink your actions if you’ve created a process map and you’ve never shown it to anyone. Yes, you can create a document just for yourself, but show it to at least one other person to explain the process based on your map. Even someone outside your team will have valid questions, can spot errors or certain shortcuts which you’d otherwise remain unaware of. It makes all the difference, don’t waste those benefits, and try to gather some feedback.

Conclusion

I hope that reading this article helped you organise your knowledge, showed you how you can benefit from process mapping and convinced you to use it in your daily work. If you’ve tried this tool before but didn’t find it useful, then I hope this article has shown you that it's worth trying again — with a new mindset. Not only as a set of rules or structure steps to go through. You should always try to challenge yourself, find new uses for the tool, and explore it in a new way. You’ll see what a huge impact this will have on your project.

Retail Efficiency Ebook Thumbnail
Katarzyna Stępniowska Business Analyst

Kasia is a Business Analyst with more than three years working experience in IT projects. She loves studying processes and visually describing requirements and solutions. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and photographing.

See all Katarzyna's posts

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