Charting the Flow

Finally here’s the subject I’ve been waiting for! Not because the other topics we’ve covered are irrelevant or mundane. Nope, this is more of a personal thing. Call me insane, call me weird, but I just love process mapping!

We have talked previously about what processes and procedures are and why they’re so important, but I think it’s worth starting off with a recap. And then it will be into the fun stuff – how to make a process map!

Processes and procedures as i have generally talked about them are essentially about documenting the know-how for how to do something. A process is a fairly high-level series of steps that are required to accomplish a specific end. This level of generality has made it easy for people to pick up on that word and use it fairly generically for talking about ‘processes’ in an unformalized, undocumented sort of sense. Because of this ambiguity, I am replacing this word with two for the price of one. I increasingly talk about ‘activities’ when I speak to subject matter experts about those things they do, which seems to more clearly refer to what type of things happen within the business. Then, if I’m talking about the actual series of steps used to complete that activity, well that’s what I say – something along the lines of the ‘steps taken to do an activity’. Processes can sound unnecessarily bureaucratic or technical, which adds another level of complexity to something that should be quite simple. Maybe this distinction is all in my head, but to be honest it even helps me to be clearer about what I’m on about in this way.

Procedures go to another level of detail. Procedures (often mentioned in the context of Standard Operating Procedures) are formal documents that set out the detailed steps required to be undertaken to undertake an activity in compliance with organisational requirements. Organisations will often have templates for their procedures which commonly include the purpose, people, and supporting documents and tools for completing the activity, as well as a spot for endorsement by the responsible person and a review date. Luckily people tend to understand what is meant by procedures and if not it’s a simple matter of sticking an example under their nose!

From my perspective, process mapping – aka making flow charts – is relevant for both of these things, both for documenting the high-level activity steps, as well as compiling a more comprehensive procedure document. Good diagrams are so effective at quickly communicating knowledge and can be a quick entry point into a more detailed textual explanation, if that is necessary. They are also a good rallying point for making sure relevant doers or customers of the activity are on the same page.

Activities and their method can be represented with an outcomes-based sentence and a nifty little flow chart; procedures can show a flow chart as part of the broader template and can be accompanied by a table that explains each step in more detail. Either way, process maps can be simple and to the point.

But how do you make a process map? Wonderful question.

Different people use different conventions, but the key bits generally stay the same, thank goodness.

  • The activity steps – shown as rectangles
  • The flow between steps – represented by arrows in the direction of the work flow
  • Decision points – shown as diamonds (I’m thinking more and more that these just add confusion and should be captured in business rules, as Ronald G. Ross suggests, but that’s getting into a whoooooole other level of detail!)

The bits that seem a bit more changeable include:

  • The trigger / lever that signals the process / activity should begin – often depicted as a little circle
  • The result / end point which signals the process / activity has been completed – often depicted as a little circle with a cross in it

It all makes a lot more sense though when you see it in pictures:

Flow Chart

The other useful generic feature in a flow chart that gets a fair bit of use is a swim lane. These are basically columns that are assigned to a role / person depicting that all the steps in that swim lane are undertaken by this role / person. If you have many people participating in a complex activity, you may end up with many columns and a flow chart that weaves its way back and forth between the columns. A common way of defining the boundaries of what is accomplished by following a ‘procedure’ is by where work passes between roles – ie one procedure only reflects a task that is accomplished by one person, but I think this really depends of the level of detail required in a specific set of procedures. Breaking down an activity into that level of detail is a luxury that most organisations cannot afford and for some industries and activities would be complete overkill anyway. (Turn on computer, click on Start, open Word, select new document option…)

Which takes us to, how do you actually create a process map / flow chart?

Well it would help start by talking to the people who actually do the activity, or maybe the person who does the activity is you and you’re making a laudable effort to document what you do or plan to do… Either way, I’m not going to hold your hand through the communication and stakeholder engagement side of things. Here we are focusing on pure mechanistics.

1. Think about what is the purpose of the activity. What will result from the activity? Frame it as concisely as you can with a comprehensible verb at the front and sufficient information for the ‘thing’ you’re doing to be understood and you now have your activity’s name – eg Cook dinner or Make cold call to international stakeholder. Flip the sentence more or less backwards and make the verb past tense and you now have the end point of your activity – eg Dinner cooked or Cold call to international stakeholder made. (Note that if you feel like there has to be an ‘and’ in this purpose, it is likely that you are thinking about two activities and they need to be split up!)

2. Think about what kicks off this activity. Is it a regular event that happens every year, month or day (ie time based) for example, 6pm occurs (therefore time to start cooking dinner)? Is it triggered when another activity or step within an activity is completed (eg arrive home)? Or is it something else altogether, such as when a monitoring parameter hits a specific threshold or when a certain set of criteria are met (eg when you are hungry and it’s after 5pm))? This is not always easy, but when you have that sorted out, you now know the trigger for the activity and potentially its relationship with some other related activities.

3. Think about the steps you need to take to go from trigger to completion. Start at quite a high level if you can, as you can always add more detail later through more activity steps, more explanation behind the activity steps and/or other more detailed flow charts behind each activity step, as appropriate. But maybe that’s just a personal preference. If you want to get into lots of detail to begin with, perhaps that is ok too as you can always bring your flow chart up a level later – just be careful you don’t get too bogged down in unnecessary detail and forget the broader context.

Each step should be named similarly to the title of your activity, in a verb + noun format. This is to make it clear what is achieved at the end of each step. Think back to our earlier example of cooking dinner. The steps might be: choose meal, get out ingredients, turn on cooking appliance, prepare ingredients, cook ingredients, season meal, turn off cooking appliance, plate up meal. It is very clear what will be accomplished at the end of each step, although there can obviously be a lot more detail provided for each step if required.

Without having a debate about it here, for the simplest flow chart I would not worry about identifying decision points (the diamonds we talked about earlier) separately. There is nothing wrong with calling an activity step ‘decide meal’, rather than having the decision point of ‘has meal been decided?’ and then a loop to include a ‘decide meal’ step. After all, it makes it easier to read. The simplest flow chart – ie the one that is easiest to read – will just show the happy flow, where you assume there are no hang ups and any curly bits are dealt with in the more detailed explanation.

4. Identify who is involved in the activity and determine who leads each activity step. It is probably easiest to assign the trigger and end point to whoever is responsible for the first and last activity step respectively.

5. Write up your flow chart, including the trigger, activity steps and end point and include arrows between them, making sure the steps are placed in the appropriate swim lane.

And there you have it! A process map.

What do you think?

Are process maps useful in your organisation? And what are your top tips for putting one together well?

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