I can geek out over a few things.  Since I was a nipper it was football and cars.  I took up running in my 30’s so can geek out on that.  Then I developed a passion for process maps.  I didn’t realise I had a passion for process mapping until I was in the self employed world and started drawing one with a client.  Then got over-excited describing the process and the notation that I was using..  When I realised that people didn’t have a clue what I was talking about I thought maybe this was something I should offer as a bolt on service to my coaching business!  Below I try to explain why you need process maps, when you don’t and how you can draw them.

Why do you need process maps?

To try and keep this as simple as possible, you need a process map when you are trying to give a clear set of step by step instructions to someone else.

Step by step for process maps

When do you need process maps?

This is where it starts to get complicated..  But when things start to get complicated, I like to add real work examples to give some context.  Let’s think first of examples that you COULD map.  Your morning routine?  Or your getting ready for your run routine (left sock, left shoe, right sock, right shoe by the way).  How do you unload the dishwasher and put the pots away?  When you fill up your car with fuel, the route around the supermarket?  All of these are examples of things that you could easily draw out into a process map, but would you?  I’d hope the answer is no for most of those and so it goes for business processes.

Not all businesses need a process map..

Things like manufacturing and production lines have to work in harmony in order that things move along as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Any halt to a production facility is lost time and lost money.  Vast sums of money are spent making a process as efficient as possible in order maximise profits.  The process maps themselves can often be hidden.  Sometimes they’re created by back office teams to decide how to to implement changes.  Sometimes they’re an intrinsic part of the technology that is used by the whole operations team.

To take an example from the other end of the spectrum, you can look at the creative side of things.  An artist will go through a process to create artwork, but it’s not something that can then be written down to then recreate.  Even writing this article, I know the points I want to make, but I just start by writing a load of words down, then rearranging until I’m happy.  I could then tweak, re-write, tweak, meddle, update and tweak some more for weeks.

So – when do you actually need to draw a process map?

I’ll make a broad assumption here that if you’re reading this your business is not one like I described above where process maps are a fundamental part of how your business operates (maybe it is, and you found this page hoping I could help you to fix what is broken with the maps you have – sorry, not in this article as that’s a whole other story to get geeky on!).  There is one simple question to ask yourself:

Are you trying to explain your process to someone else?

If the answer is no, then realistically you don’t need to map anything.  I had a meeting where I was pitching process mapping at a potential client who had been introduced to me.  They’d approached me as I had said I can draw up a process.  I asked why they wanted one and who was it for, they didn’t really have an answer.  Just that their business coach said they should have one.

Examples where it is a great idea to map things generally fall in to two areas:

  • Task assignment (or reassignment)

In these cases, it might be that you want to outsource some work, or work needs to be redistributed to another team or department.  It’s well worth mapping this out to get a clear agreement up front on what is being done, when it’s being done and who by before you move the tasks around.

  • Fixing broken processes

In these examples you might find that things are being done, but they’re inconsistent, or things are falling down cracks.  You might find that customer service is being affected, or that one member of the team is constantly picking up the slack.  Drawing up what happens and when is often a great way to explain the inter-relationships between people and their tasks to enable a conversation to take place around how to make things work.

How do you draw maps?

So you’ve come to the conclusion that you might need to map something out.  How do you go about it?  Similar to the above, you’ve one question to answer here:

WHO are you trying to explain this to?

It might be an obvious question, but keep it in your mind all the while you’re trying to map out your process.  From years of drawing these kinds of things out they can get incredibly complicated VERY quickly!  You’ve already determined why you need a map and who for so keep that in mind when you start to write things up.

When you’ve decided who the process is for, you then need to know the level you’re playing at.  Take a multi-storey car park as an example, it has five levels.  Imagine that each level is the level of complexity of your process map.  The top floor, floor 5 is the highest level.  This is where you’re talking in really simple steps like “Pre-sale->Sale->Operation->Post Sale”.  The ground floor is the complete opposite where you might write the level of detail such as “turn knob A 6 times anti-clockwise->press button G 3 times->flick switch C to the middle position”.  You determine the level by understanding the level of understanding of the recipient.  In the complicated cases, you might need to map the same process at a couple of different levels while you build up the knowledge of the team.

A couple of warnings!

Once you know what the map is for, who it is for and the level you are playing at, you’re good to go.  Two warnings for the perfectionists though:

  • There is no such thing as a 100% complete process map

You can ALWAYS add more, you can ALWAYS take things out.  You might have included things from different levels, you might have missed a key step that one of your stakeholders didn’t spot

  • There is no such thing as a “correct” process map

I mentioned art as an example of creativity above, and a process map should be judged in a similar way.  It’s not exactly going to be the kind of thing you’ll hang at the Tate Modern (although I’m game if they are).  But depending on who is looking at your process map, they may have a different view or opinion.  This is the main reason it is key to understand who you are mapping for.

What tools should I use?

This is again going to be heavily dependant on your audience and what you need to get from mapping out a process.  You could scribble on a whiteboard, paper, use some post it notes, whatever works.  If you need a more permanent record then there is an overwhelming set of products that can help you.  Visio was the go to product for so many years but with more and more online products becoming available Lucid is my current favourite.

Have you picked a language to map in?

A what now?!  That’s right, a language and the last point I want to cover here.  You should agree a simple format and toolbox to map your processes, this becomes your language.  That way your maps mean a similar thing to each of the people reading them.  I always use a swim-lane diagram with BPMN2.0.  I’m not affiliated to any company for those.  I’ve paid for my Lucid licence and find it to work well.  BPMN2.0 is also easy to use if your map is simple enough!


Hopefully that’s given you an insight and some help before you attempt to map some processes.  As I mentioned at the top, this is something I now offer as a standalone service.  I have been with clients in front of a whiteboard, drawn up the draft process to then take home and write up in Lucid.  If you are attempting this yourself, just remember to keep in mind why you’re writing your maps, and who for.  I’ll leave you with a generic BPMN2.0 diagram I’ve drawn as an example below.  If you’re reading this from the Tate Modern, I’m on 07766 962751 if you want to talk about displaying it.