How to Map Out Processes

Before drawing up a plan for improving business processes, it can be helpful to “map out” these processes to ensure their current components are fully understood. From there organizations can better analyze these processes and come up with ideas for strengthening them.

Key questions to ask during mapping

When mapping a process from start to finish, it can be helpful to consider the four questions below. Processes are driven by data, people, and technology, as reflected in these questions.

  • Where does the data come from, and where does it enter the process (the input or start)?
  • Who handles the data, and why?
  • Where does it go from there?
  • Where is the process exit (where the process or task is finished)?

Another consideration is ensuring you are not oversimplifying your mapping detail, as many processes contain sub-steps. It is also important to involve staff that actually perform these tasks in your mapping endeavors. They often have the best knowledge and understanding of the processes, including their weaknesses.

Documenting processes with a flowchart

A diagram like a flowchart can help with the mapping process. A flowchart is a basic process diagram that lays out sequential tasks and the information used for each task. The flowchart may also have a staff member or function attached to each step or decision in the process.  

Figure 1: Example of a flowchart (chapter approval process)


Document processes with a swim lane/Rummler-Brache diagram

Another kind of graphic tool is a swim lane or “Rummler-Brache” diagram. These are a type of flowchart that visually groups processes and decisions into “lanes.” A “swim lane” may belong to a department, individual, or other organizational unit in your business. Swim lane diagrams are useful in illustrating the interaction between individuals, teams, and other organizational units.

Figure 2: Example of a swim lane diagram



Walking through a process map: manufacturing example

Keypoint Intelligence-InfoTrends, a leading market research firm, maps out various processes by industry and department to help clients streamline operations. One industry they have focused on is manufacturing, which includes processes like product planning/design, procurement, production, and fulfillment.

In regards to production, Keypoint Intelligence-InfoTrends created the following flowchart to illustrate a common production process across companies (based on research).

Figure 3: Manufacturing production workflow

Source: InfoTrends


Source: Keypoint Intelligence-InfoTrends

The process has three main steps: planning of manufacturing process, product manufacturing and assembly, and finished product approval for fulfillment. The planning step involves an engineer and plant manager using data, including possible federal regulations, to come up with a manufacturing process.

That plan is then sent to a raw material supplier as well as a product assembler. The raw material supplier provides the raw materials to the plant manager, who turns it over to the assembler. The assembler builds the product, before sending it to the plant manager/quality assurance team.

Quality assurance tests the product; if there’s a defect, the supplier is contacted for reimbursement or changes to the material. The customer, meanwhile, is asked to approve any change. Once the product is satisfactory, it is sent to the plant manager for fulfillment approval.

Looking at the production process this way, manufacturers can more easily identify any issues. It may help them realize, for instance, that a certain individual tends to slow down the process. Or one particular step is not needed. Or new software or technology would speed up the workflow and/or improve quality assurance.

3 takeaways

  • Mapping out processes can be a good first step toward understanding and improving them.
  • Basic flowcharts and swim lane diagrams are two visual ways to map out workflows.
  • Maximize the effectiveness of your process mapping by including sub-steps as well as seeking input from those involved in the process.