Guide to process mapping: Definition, how-to, and tips

Team Asana contributor imageTeam AsanaAugust 2nd, 20217 min read
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Do you ever come up with a great idea, but you’re not sure where to begin? To see your ideas come to fruition, you first need to organize them and come up with a plan. 

Process mapping can help with the organizing process. It’s a visual representation of the workflow, similar to a work breakdown structure, and it can be useful for helping you identify issues and areas of improvement.

Process mapping can be an advantage when you’re doing team brainstorms, making decisions, or planning projects. Process maps also come in handy for process documentation, new hire training, and process improvement.

To make project planning and communication more efficient for your team, find out how process mapping works (with examples), the benefits of process mapping, and how to create a process map.   

What is process mapping?

Process mapping is a technique used to visually map out workflows and processes. It involves creating a process map, also referred to as a flowchart, process flowchart, or flow diagram. 

The purpose of process mapping is to communicate how a process works in a concise and straightforward way. It allows any team member to be able to easily understand how to complete a given process without lengthy verbal explanations. By mapping out a process from start to finish, you can have a better understanding of how the entire process works and identify inefficiencies or make improvements.

You can use process mapping to visualize any type of process, but it’s common to use them for process analysis, training, integration, or process improvement. They’re useful when you need to communicate a complex process, address a recurring problem within a given process, or coordinate the responsibilities of multiple team members.

How to create a process map

Creating a process map is simple and can be done on paper or using workflow management software and templates. The steps below explain how to create a process map from scratch. 

How to create a process map

Step 1: Identify a problem or process to map

First, determine the process you’d like to map out. Is there an inefficient process that needs improvement? A new process you’d like to concisely communicate to your team? A complex process that employees often have questions about? Identify what you want to map and name it. 

Step 2: List the activities involved

Document all the tasks required to complete the process. At this stage, the order doesn’t matter. Make a list of all the activities involved, as well as who is responsible for each. 

It’s a good idea to collaborate with teammates and other stakeholders who will participate in the process so you can accurately account for all of the steps required and determine what level of detail is needed. Also, make sure you establish where the process begins and ends so you know which tasks should be included to produce the desired result.

Step 3: Write out the sequence of steps

Now that you’ve compiled a list of all the activities, the next step is to arrange these activities in the proper sequence, until the full process is represented from beginning to end. This is a good place to check if there are any gaps you may have missed in the previous step.

Step 4: Draw a flowchart using process mapping symbols

Select the appropriate process mapping format and draw out the process, representing the steps with process mapping symbols. There are around 30 standard symbols you can use to represent different elements of a process, but we’ll cover the most common ones in more detail later on in this article.

Step 5: Finalize and share the process map

Once you’ve finished drawing your process map, review it with other stakeholders involved in the process to make sure everyone understands it and agrees with how the process is mapped. Make sure no steps have been left out and there are no redundancies or ambiguities. 

Step 6: Analyze the map to find areas of improvement

After you establish that the process map accurately describes the process workflow, your completed process map now serves as a tool you can analyze to discover ways of improving the process. 

With the help of feedback from your team, identify where there are bottlenecks and inefficiencies in the process. What steps can be eliminated? Which tasks can be completed more efficiently? Once you’ve identified these areas of improvement, take action to fix them and rework the process map to reflect the improvements. 

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Why use a process map?

Process mapping allows you to solidify ideas and streamline processes by visually communicating the steps needed to execute an idea. 

Here are some ways that process mapping can be useful for you and your team:

  • Identify inefficiencies: Helps you identify bottlenecks, gaps, and other issues in a process flow.

  • Simplify ideas: Breaks down complex ideas into smaller steps.

  • Increase comprehension: Promotes thorough understanding of a process.

  • Plan for contingencies: Allows for contingencies and provides problem-solving guidance.

  • Delegate responsibilities: Coordinates responsibilities between various individuals or entities. 

  • Create documentation: Provides documentation of the process.

  • Communicate clearly: Simplifies communication through a user-friendly, visual format. 

  • Make decisions faster: Enables faster decision making due to faster communication.

  • Assist employees: Improves employee performance and job satisfaction.

  • Meet standards: Helps businesses comply with ISO 9000 and ISO 9001 standards.

Read: Efficiency vs. effectiveness in business: Why your team needs both

Types of process maps

Process maps come in all shapes and sizes. They all serve the same purpose, but certain types of process maps may be better suited for particular projects. Here are some of the most common types of process maps. 

Types of process maps

Flowchart

The simplest form of a process map is a basic flowchart. The basic flowchart uses process mapping symbols to illustrate the inputs and outputs of a process and the steps included in completing the process. 

Basic flowcharts can be used to plan new projects, improve communication between team members, model and document processes, solve problems in a current process, and analyze and manage workflows. 

Best for: Showing how a process is done from start to finish, typically in sequential order.

High-level process map

A high-level process map, also known as a top-down map or value chain map, provides a high-level overview of a process. Steps are limited to the essentials of the process and the map includes minimal detail. 

High-level process maps can be used to define business processes and identify the key steps involved. These process maps are also useful for discussing processes with superiors or third parties who don’t need to know the specifics of the operation. 

Best for: Communicating the essential steps of a process.

Detailed process map

In contrast with the high-level process map, a detailed process map provides all the details of each step and includes subprocesses. It documents decision points and the inputs and outputs of each step. This process map provides the most thorough understanding of the mapped process and is most effective in pinpointing areas of inefficiency due to its high level of detail. 

Best for: Providing a comprehensive understanding of a process, including all details and contingencies.

Swimlane map

A swimlane map, also known as a cross-functional or deployment flowchart, delegates process activities into “swimlanes” to designate who is responsible for each task. The map is divided into channels for each stakeholder in the process and lists each activity in the channel of the appropriate stakeholder. This type of process map highlights the different roles involved in the process and the interaction between stakeholders. 

Swimlane maps are ideal for training employees on their roles in a process and increasing accountability. They are also useful for identifying inefficiencies in the process such as delays, redundancies, and potential process failure. 

Best for: Clarifying the roles of multiple stakeholders in a process.

Value stream map

A value stream map is a lean management tool that visualizes the process of bringing a product or service to the customer. Value stream maps tend to be complex and use a unique system of symbols to illustrate the flow of information and materials necessary to the process. 

By documenting data such as cycle time and the number of people involved in each step, value stream mapping is useful for identifying areas where waste can be reduced and revealing opportunities for focusing future projects. 

Best for: Describing the process of bringing a product to a customer and documenting quantitative data about the process.

SIPOC diagram

The acronym SIPOC stands for Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs, Customers. A SIPOC diagram is not so much a process map as a chart identifying the key elements of the process, which may be created as a precursory step to crafting a detailed process map. 

As the acronym suggests, the SIPOC chart should feature five columns which include the basic steps in the process, the outputs of the process, the customers, the inputs of the process, and the suppliers of each input. In addition to preparing for a more detailed process map, a SIPOC diagram is also useful for defining the scope of complex processes. 

Best for: Identifying the key elements and stakeholders in a process.

Process mapping symbols

Process mapping uses symbols from the Unified Modeling Language (UML) to represent key elements on a process map, such as steps, decision points, inputs and outputs, and participating team members. 

Here are the most common process mapping symbols and their usage:

  • Terminator: Ovals denote the beginning and end of the process.

  • Process step: A rectangle represents an activity or task in the process.

  • Flow: Arrows connect steps in the process and show directional flow.

  • Decision: A diamond illustrates a point where a decision needs to be made, usually with “yes” or “no” options branching from this point.

  • Delay: A D-shaped symbol indicates a delay in the process.

  • Document: A rectangle with a wavy bottom line represents a document or information that people can read. Multiple documents are indicated by a symbol resembling multiple stacked wavy rectangles.

  • Data: A parallelogram represents data that is an input or output of a process step.

  • Manual input: A rectangle with a slanted top line indicates a step in which data must be manually entered.

  • Subprocess: A rectangle with double vertical lines indicates a subprocess which is predefined elsewhere. 

Process map symbols

There are a number of other symbols you can also incorporate into your process map, but these common symbols will be the most helpful, especially as you get started. 

Process mapping example

You can create a process map for any type of process, but you may still be wondering how to apply this tool to your team. 

To help you get a better idea of what a process map might look like, here is an example:

B2B sales process example

Process mapping techniques

You can customize process maps to match your needs and preferences, but there are also general tips to keep in mind when process mapping to maximize effectiveness. Here are a few process mapping best practices to apply as you get started:

Planning your process map: 

  • Establish the boundaries of the process so that only necessary information is included.

  • Set clear objectives for the process.

  • Only map processes that have a defined, objective output.

Drafting your process map:

  • Work backward from output to input.

  • Keep subprocesses simple.

  • Include all necessary details, no more and no less.

  • Use standardized notation so everyone is on the same page.

Reviewing your process map: 

  • Get feedback from everyone involved in the process.

  • Detail alternative routes to meeting a preferred condition where applicable.

  • Map the process in its current state, not necessarily a perfect or idealized state, and make improvements from there. 

Apply these tips in each stage of your process mapping so you can produce the most effective process maps.

Steer projects in the right direction with a process map

Process mapping is an effective tool for documenting and improving your processes. Combine the information above with these seven simple steps to creating a workflow. Using the right tools, you can begin mapping and managing processes to achieve clear communication and improved efficiency.

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