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Business process mapping best practices

Artem Taranenko
A collection of best practices for mapping and drawing your businesses processes

There are different ways and standards to depict a business process. Each method has its uses, audiences and even industries where it is considered a standard. In our extensive experience working with business processes across multiple industries, we've noticed a few patters that we humbly believe can be called best practices.

Here are our process diagram best practice recommendations:

Avoid intersecting lines

It's easier to misread the direction when two lines intersect. If you cannot avoid crossing two lines, draw one so that it “jumps over” the other one, which makes direction of each clearly visible. Most diagramming software has a feature that will depict intersections in this manner automatically.

No spaghetti

Straight lines, drawn horizontally or vertically, are easier to track visually. Avoid using curved or free-hand lines which create a "spaghetti" effect that's inappropriate for a process diagram.

Do not use curved lines

Maintain direction

Be aware of your audience when directing diagram flow. In the west, people read from left to right and from top to bottom. This means that for a western audience the expected flow start is in upper left, and flow right. It is permitted for decision diamonds to lead left in the event that process is returned to a previous step, otherwise branches should continue flowing right.

Standardize object dimensions

Use same dimensions for each type of object. Note that bigger or smaller shapes may indicate their significance to the user, therefore maintaining a standard size sponsors a more uniform understanding.

Clarity over compliance with notation standard

Adherence to a notation standard (such as BPMN) is of critical importance when processes are subject standard imposed by regulators, auditors or integration with BPM systems. In other cases where process diagrams are expected to be read and understood by business users, clarity should prevail over adherence to standard. Don't use advanced sets of process shapes whenever there is a risk they won't be understood by your audience. Sticking to basic shape sets is usually good enough.

You should definitely not use Sequential Access Storage flow chart shape, ever.

Use simple shapes

Show participants

It's always a good idea not only to describe what steps are being performed, but also who is performing them. The most common way to depict participants is to use swim lanes, where each lane describes a participant. Other ways include color-coding each task to identify who it is performed by, or adding tiny icons or symbols inside the step shapes. Note that both color-coding and icons method requires a legend to be included with the process diagram.

Show who is performing the steps

Use process header

This step is mostly applicable when the diagram is used or presented outside of a process document. Similar to a process document, process header should include information about the diagram such as process name, version number, version date and author.

Break it down

Diagramming large processes can quickly become unreadable or difficult to present. A single process with many steps can be broken down into sub-processes and presented in parts via diagrams. It does not need to be broken down into different documents, simply each diagram should contain a number of steps that's easy to present. Look for an opportunity to divide the process when there is a change of state, change of participants or any meaningful transition in operations performed.

Shorten step descriptions

Use short and concise descriptions for every step. Hopefully, your process diagram is accompanied by a process documents where you can describe all the important details. Diagram should only contain enough text to communicate the minimum required for understanding. Symmetry is beautiful. Align shapes and use same amount of white space between them. Symmetrical diagrams are easier for viewer to understand and process.

Explain branching

Whenever a processes has branching logic (commonly depicted by a diamond shape), ensure to name each branching flow, even if you believe it is obvious.

A beginning and an end

Process diagrams must have a clear beginning an an end. Use a shape to depict a start, and a different one to depict an end. If a process has an exit to another processes somewhere before a "normal" end, use different shapes for "normal" end versus an exit branch. If a process end is actually a beginning of another process, using an exit instead of an end will show continuity. As an example, BPMN has a "link" symbol that can be used to depict an exit to another process.

QDC is a Toronto-based consultancy focusing on helping businesses achieve process excellence. Check out this case study to find out how our Business Process Management certified consultants helped a European drug safety company document their processes and achieve compliance with regulatory requirements.

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