Think You Don’t Need to Diagram Business Processes? Think Again

Modeling business processes can be time-consuming and frustrating, especially if your processes are complicated. But here’s the thing, it is also an eye-opening, collaborative exercise that helps you improve the efficiency and productivity of your employees and the happiness of your customers.

A business process is a set of tasks and activities that done together, achieve a business goal. That goal might be processing an insurance application or a loan application, or something else.

Business process modeling is the act of diagramming your processes so you can easily see how each process works from start to finish, who and what steps are involved, what other processes may be connected and so on.

Why You Need to Diagram your Processes

We could simply tell you that need to document your business processes because it helps you understand how your business works. But sometimes a few examples easily explain how important it is to do.

Think of it this way: You’ve decided to hire a new nighttime manager to help run your call center. To help her learn the nighttime process, you sit her down in a room and verbally walk her through the escalation process, then put her to work. During her first night, she has three major issues that couldn’t be solved quickly because they didn’t exactly follow the process your described. Lesson Learned: Documenting a process ensures everyone who needs to know it, knows it and can easily refer to it when they aren’t sure.

As another example, your new insurance agent manager is working with two other managers. You tell him if he has any questions or problems speak to one of these existing managers. The new manager gets his first problem, and he isn’t sure what to do, so he goes to manager Bess. Bess gives him instructions, and he resolves the problem. Later on, the new manager is chatting with manager Paul about the problem he just solved and how he solved it. Paul tells him he solved it wrong, that it should have been solved differently. Which manager did it right?

Each example offers important lessons. Often, when a number of people work the same business process they tend to adapt it slightly based on their work style, causing the process to be done differently by different people. Which way is the right way? Why are people doing it differently? How can you properly measure performance if there is no “one” way to do the process?

A few reasons to create business process diagrams:

  • A picture tells a thousand words. You can easily see how a process works. You could just write it out, and we encourage you to write it out but link the writing to a diagram that gives that high-level look.
  • Everyone gets on the same page. Every person involved in performing the process can see their role and what activities or tasks they are required to do.
  • Find issues quickly. If a process doesn’t seem to be working as expected, diagramming it lets you quickly see where problems or bottlenecks are occurring so you can resolve them.
  • Identify repetitive tasks. Diagramming lets you see where certain tasks or activities in the process are repetitive and could be improved through automation.

Creating the Business Process Diagram

So you’re convinced and you want to create a process diagram. A few things you need to think about before you get started:

Who Should Lead?

If your business process is implemented or going to be implemented through software or a custom built application, it might make sense to have a technical analyst lead the process. However you don’t want to bend your business processes around technology, so it’s better to have a business analyst or one of the people who performs the process lead the diagramming exercise.

Whom to Involve

Typically more than one person performs a business process, each having a set of activities to perform. You could ask a manager to walk you through the process, but they don’t always fully understand all the tasks and activities performed or relationships between roles and other processes. To get the most accurate business process diagram, get all the people in a room who perform the process and walk through it step by step.

Tools and Technologies

There’s no one right way to create a process diagram, and depending on the type of process you might use a number of different process modeling tools or technologies. Some may simply document their diagram using Visio or a similar flowchart and diagramming software while others will purchase BPM (business process management) software. The more complex your business processes, the more sophisticated the technology needs to be. BPM software provides many advantages over simply flow charting software such as a central repository and task management for all your processes.

Modeling Notation

Consistency is critical when diagramming business processes. You need to create all your diagrams using a standard set of elements to ensure that everyone involved understands how the process works. Standard modeling helps business analysts and users understand and communicate the process consistently and helps systems analysts understand the process correctly as they design systems that support it. BPMN 2.0 (Business Process Modeling Notation) is a formal modeling notation, but there are others such as UML and basic flowcharts.

Start at the Top

Modeling business processes can be a complex activity. The key to quickly getting through it is to do it in stages. First, start with the top level, which is often the most difficult level to figure out.

Note the start of the process and the end of the process and list all the activities that the group says needs to be performed. Once you have the high level documented, get into the details. You will find that as you outline the details of each stage of the process, it’s easier to figure out what comes next.

As you move through the details, note any exceptions or multiple ways to perform an activity or task. Also, note where another process may connect with the process you are documenting. The important thing is to take your time, listen to everyone involved and ensure you have documented the process correctly.

Process Diagraming is Essential for Business

As was said earlier, it’s not a simple task to diagram a business process. But the benefits far outweigh the potential challenges involved. The key is to put together the right group of people who understand the process best and can explain it clearly. When documenting a business process, don’t have it led by a technical analyst. You don’t want to design your processes around technology; you want the technology to work with your process.

Also, remember that like most things in business, designing business processes is an iterative process. Business needs change and as a result, the processes need to change. Be prepared to revisit your process diagrams on a regular basis to ensure they are up to date and cover the processes as they work today.

When you choose to look at business process modeling as a necessary activity, set aside the appropriate amount of time and involve all the people involved in the process, you will reap the benefits in terms of overall efficiency and productivity.

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