Fundamentals of Process Mapping – Introducing Subprocesses Part 4

From what we have seen so far, we’d have 3 separate, but related process models. One for each of the following:

  • Buy a Book
  • Choose a Book
  • Pay for Book

Numbering the processes

Some of that was getting difficult to describe. The fact that Pay for Book is a process step in one diagram and a whole process was causing some difficulties in describing the relationship. I’d recommend reading through it again, slower this time, checking that you are certain which process step is being to referred to at each point.

Some standards help understanding by providing a key to each process step. The most common method is to assign a unique number to each process. The benefit of this is that you can define the process once (e.g. say we define “check stock level”) and then we can use it elsewhere as a process step (e.g. in an ordering, logistics or auditing processes).

Some standards help you navigate the hierarchy by assigning and set of numbers, e.g. everything at the top level has one number (1, 2, 3, 99, 123, etc). The next level down would have another point number so that all the process steps in process 1 would have numbers of 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and those in process 3 would have 3.1, 3.2. Down another level and we’d see labels such 1.1.1, 1.3.4 and 4.3.5. This does lean towards a parent-child relationship between processes. Not necessarily bad, but I prefer more freedom.

The more levels and the greater the complexity, the greater the need for a naming convention.

Reuse

By allowing processes to appear in other process maps, they can be reused. For instance, theScan Book process step above could be used elsewhere, e.g. to retrieve information about a book such as how many are in stock, price, different versions, etc. The process step would be the same in all processes.

Common Mistakes

  • The Process Start in a subprocess doesn’t relate to any process step in any other process map. So you’d never actually use this process.
  • The process overlaps with the previous or next process in the chain – as we saw earlier with the Scan Book process step.
  • The Process Ends (i.e. the outcomes of a process) for the subprocesses aren’t reflected in the higher-level processes.
  • Change in process mapping methods – giving a process step to a different analyst can result in that process step being described using different methods or no standards. This isn’t necessarily a mistake, but should be considered before responsibility for process mapping is delegated.

Why 3 Levels?

You don’t have to have 3 levels, they suited the early part of this article. It’s a common concept in a lot of domains. In Data-modelling, the hierarchy of Conceptual, Logical and Physical data models has long proved beneficial. Closer to the process domain, Alistair Cockburn was promoting multiple levels of Use Cases almost a decade ago.

When do you stop going smaller?

When everyone understands the process step without having to ask any questions.

For many clients, two levels is sufficient for the process analysts to be involved in; a high-level mapping of all the processes, then a more detailed view of each process. a 3rd level may be created for the more complex processes that require more analysis. Developers are likely to look for further detail, so either another level or different diagramming technique can be used.

Recap

  1. A process step can be described in more detail in its own process map
  2. Processes can be re-used in more than one process
  3. Process maps should contain sufficient information to relate to each other – using the Process Starts and Process Ends
  4. Different readers will have different ideas of how much detail they want to see
  5. The different levels of process maps can be used for different audiences
  6. As the number of processes and levels increases, the greater the need for a naming convention

Next Article

Notice that Buy a Book was written from the buyer’s perspective whereas Pay For Book was written from the Bookseller’s perspective. We’ll discuss how to handle that in the next article.

Which Diagram type?

All the diagrams above could be process maps. In some cases, especially with mapping the flow of user-interfaces, then UML Sequence Diagrams can be more useful than Activity Diagrams. I’ll explain why in a later article.

This is an article in the Fundamentals of Process Mapping online book provided by Alan Ward

Fundamentals of Process Mapping – Introducing Subprocesses Part 3

In the previous diagram, I’ve put two crosses, not part of any standard. I’ve used them to highlight what’s wrong with the Choose Book process as depicted above. The second of the crosses is easiest to explain.

The process step of Scan Book more properly belongs in the Pay for Book process. We can see it in the Pay For Book process, so let’s keep it there. If it’s also in the Choose Book process, then we’re duplicating actions. Someone following the overall process in the diagram above would end up scanning books twice. That’s not right.

The cross on Take to Pay Desk is more awkward and shows where we cross the boundary between science and art. Does Take to Pay Desk belong more to selecting a book or paying for it? My view is that it should be in Pay for Book. Since the book is chosen at the point that the customer picks up the book. Anything after that (apart from putting it back in the bookrack again) is beyond the scope of choosing a book. Two other scenarios come to mind that reinforce the fact that it’s in the wrong process above:

  • if they were going to steal the book, they wouldn’t take it to Pay Desk.
  • if they were going to read the book in the store, as is getting a lot more common-place in the UK, they wouldn’t need to take it to the Pay Desk.

In both the above scenarios, the process of Choose Book would still be relevant. In the second scenario, the customer would still have followed the Choose Book process.

I’ve simplified the diagram by removing the Take to Pay Desk and Scan Book process steps and inserting the Take to Pay Desk process step in the Pay for Book process.

Remember: you won’t see the processes on the same page. That’s just so I can present the relationships between them.

Process Mapping Fundamentals – Introducing Subprocesses Part 2

If you look at the Pay for Book process-step in the top row of the above image, you’ll notice I’ve included a small image of the Pay for Book process. The use of colours is just to help me show how the processes fit together here. It’s incredibly rare to have the process and the more detailed process on the same page. In fact, I can’t ever remember doing that apart from when I’m showing the relationships between processes in articles such as this one.

I mentioned that the Process Starts and Process Ends are the glue because the detailed process (the lower one in the above diagram) should be able to fit into the main process (the upper one in the above diagram). It should do this without overlapping into any other process steps. Choose Book will also have its own detailed process map.

Here’s an incorrect example highlighting Choose Book and Pay For Book.

That Choose Book process relates to the Choose Book process step. Actually, maybe I should state that the Choose Book process is the Choose Book process step. It’s the same thing, just different views of it. One view shows more detail than the other.

Process Mapping Fundamentals – Introducing Subprocesses Part 1

Introduction

Processes can be broken down into more detailed processes. In this article, I’ll take one of the process steps from the previous article and look in more detail about how it connects to the other components of the process.

Some Perspective

A key feature of any workflow system is that you should be able to look at the system from different levels, e.g. a director’s view of the system may only show 5 or so process steps and cover what it takes 10-200 people or more to perform. A user’s workflow will probably require several process maps, each relating to the different processes that they perform on a daily basis and some that are less frequent. The solution’s workflow could feature many process maps, perhaps describing the user interfaces and the core system’s interfaces with external solutions.

Each map communicates to its intended audience. That means that we, as analysts, have to write for that audience. Fortunately they all follow the same basic principles. They should all relate to each other, if they don’t, then there’s a gap that needs to be addressed.

Using the 3 levels above, we should be able to look at the director’s level process model and delve into the process steps. Say we look at the process step 1 in that model, we should be able to find a user-level process model that shows us the detail of that step. Similary when looking at the user-level process model, we should be able to look any process step and see more detail in the process described in the solution workflow.

So how do the processes fit together?

The first point to understand is that most process steps can be a processes in their own right, usually with more detail. Rather than have all that detail on every diagram, it’s more common to display a box for the process step and that refers to a more detailed process map for that step.

Let’s take the Buy a Book process from the previous example and work through that.

The Pay For Book process step includes a number of its own steps when it’s viewed as a process. We’ll take a very simple concept of paying by cash. The same principles apply to paying by credit card, just that there’s more involved in that process.


Like all of these processes, real-life is more complex. For instance, scanning the book would display the price on the till. There’s also more happening with process cash payment, e.g. what about giving change back? I’ve changed to yellow just so it’s easier to show the different levels in the following diagram.

The glue is the Process Start and Process End points. These connect to other processes.

Note the name of the Process Start? It’s the same text as the process step in the original Buy A Book process. When reading Buy a Book, you may want more detail about Pay for Book, so look for the process model entitled Pay For Book and it should have one Process Start with the same name. The End point again assumes that the process has been completed. If we were looking at more detail, it could be that the buyer couldn’t pay and so didn’t purchase a book. For the moment, we’ll leave that outcome.

Process Mapping – Introducing Decision Points

In the previous article, I introduced a basic process map consisting of a process start point, a process end point, two process steps and connectors.

It’s rare that a process map is a straight line like that simplified process. There are usually options which can take the process down different paths.

In the case of our book-buying process, we may want to ask the customer if they want the book gift-wrapped as part of free promotion.

Decision Points
The most common symbol for a decision point is a diamond (or a rhombus for the pedants out there). Similar to the process steps, the decision point is linked by a connector into the diamond. The difference is that the decision point should have at least two connectors coming out. It’s generally best to label each connectors with the outcome that it represents, otherwise the reader is guessing which outcome they’re looking at.

So back to the gift-wrap example.

As you can see, I’ve added the following items to the previous diagram:

  • Decision point of Gift-wrap
  • Outcome of Yes
  • Outcome of No
  • Gift-wrap Book process step

It could be that there are more outcomes from the decision point. Or that the decision point leads to another decision point, e.g. Red or Blue wrapping paper? More complex would be that some points are only available.

Notation
I’ve already mentioned the common use of a diamond for the decision point and that outcomes should be labelled. In addition, the text inside the Decision Point should be a question. And the outcome labels should be appropriate as answers to that question. Sometimes we have to abbreviate the responses due to space. Bear in mind it’s all about communication, so think whether the readers will understand the abbreviated labels.

Ideally I’d have had a longer label for the decision point in the above example. My excuse is that I’m creating the maps on desktop software, then having to export in a way that works for this website. That’s not the way I’d normally work, since I’d usually use the process modelling software that the client has bought into. I could still get a longer label but the process map suffices to show how decisions are depicted.

You may also see a decision point duplicated at the end of the options. i.e. the process would show a decision point, then the options/outcomes, then bring them all back to a further decision point (often empty). This just shows that the decisions have been resolved and that there’s only the one path forward from that point on. This depends on the modelling standard you subscribe to.


Here’s an example of that. I find that the additional decision point can confuse less-technical, more business-oriented readers. It also takes up more space on the screen or paper. So I tend not to use it that often or until a project is at a more technical stage.

The Most Common Mistake
The most common mistake I see in process mapping is that there aren’t enough outcomes in the process map. The analyst may have assumed that the answer is yes or no. Often there are other outcomes, e.g. don’t know, timed-out, incorrect response, didn’t understand the response. It becomes more of an art than a science as to how many of these outcomes are included. Bear in mind that as more time passes and the project moves forward, then more of those outcomes should be documented.

Note the Ending
In the case of the gift-wrap example, the Process End is the same ‘Book Bought’ whichever outcome is taken from the decision point. That suits us because the Process of Buying a Book is still completed, regardless of whether the customer wants the giftwrap or not. It is possible to have different endings depending on the outcomes inside the process, we’ll get to that later.

Is that sufficient?
In short, no. It’s a start. Some of the first few steps in the process mapping journey. There is more to learn. For instance, we’re not depicting who does what, what else they do, the details of paying for a book, or even what happens if we charge for the gift-wrapping. I stated it was a free promotion earlier since it allows us to focus on the decision point itself. I also want to go into more detail about how process steps relate to processes.

Checklist for decision points

  • Is the symbol noticeably different from process steps or other items? (actually not necessary, but very worthwhile if the process modelling tool allows it and most diagramming tools do).
  • Do the decision point have enough outcomes?
  • Is there a label on each outcome?
  • Does every decision point have a question as its label?
  • Do the outcome labels relate the decision point question?
  • Do all the outcomes connect to other items? (e.g. process step, process end, decision point)

Modelling Standards
I mentioned Modelling Standard above. I refer to standards such as BPMN or UML, specifically UML activity diagrams. In this series, we are starting with basic examples, moving towards depicting models conforming to those standards. The main thrust is to get the basics right and point out some of the common mistakes along the way. Watch out for different terminology, in BPMN the decision points are referred to as Gateways.

Process Mapping Basics

Introduction

This is the first article in the Fundamentals of Process Mapping series. In the series, I want to discuss the areas that most process mapping tutorials miss.

In this bite-sized article, I’ll introduce the idea of a basic process map.

Let’s get some background about process mapping first.

What is a process map?
A process map is a tool. It is not an end in its own right. They are often used in software development lifecycle or within Business Process Re-engineering (BPR). If the methodology you’re working in states that one is required, you’re not writing a map just to fulfill that aim, but because the creators of that methodology realised that a process map would be a useful tool to have.

I see a process as one component of a process description, not necessarily the only component. That’s worth remembering.

What are the purposes of a process map?

I have at least four aims when I’m process mapping:

  1. To describe a process in pictorial form
  2. To provide a quick way of understanding how the main steps in a process fit together
  3. To provide documentation for agreeing what happens in a process
  4. To provide documentation for what could happen in a process, e.g. process improvement

There are other aims depending on the need, e.g. for collaborative working, facilitating workshops. Whatever the discrete aims are, they all boil down to communication.

What are the components of a process map?
Every process has at least one process step, at least one starting point and at least one ending point. The process step is an action that is performed by an actor (either a person, a system or an organisation).

Our initial basic process will have the following:

  • one starting point
  • two process steps
  • one end point
  • connectors showing the direction of flow


For the process map here starts at Process Start, continues to Process Step 1. Once that is complete, continue to Process Step 2. Once that is complete, continue to Process End and the process is terminated.

To put that into context, imagine a simplified process for buying a book in a bookstore.

The customer wants to buy a book, so process start (Buy a Book), customer Chooses a Book, then Customer Pays for Book. Once that’s complete, the Book is bought. I’ve simplified it so we can discuss it in more detail later on.

Notation
Your software may have different notation for process start/initiators, process ends/terminators and process steps (often just called processes). That’s ok. As long as you can tell the difference between them.

What Next?
That’s the very basics covered. I’ll go into more detail about processes, process steps, decision points and common pitfalls in the following articles in the series.

Issues with Process Mapping

I’ve been using process mapping for over a decade now. I’ve probably been the recipient of more process maps than I’ve created, as I’ve had to implement changes that have already been designed by others. I’ve also had to talk many business users through the intricacies of their redesigned processes, especially if they (wrongly) hadn’t been designed by them. The most common scenario for me is where I’m asked to review process maps and assess how easily they could be implemented, bringing together knowledge of people, processes and IT/ICT.

Over that time, I’ve seen many sides for and against process mapping. I’ll discuss some of the issues and some of the methods for mitigating the risks associated with mapping processes.

1. Takes too much time

Mapping a process takes a long time. If that’s the only method that’s being used, then it will take longer than you expect. The only exception is that if you’ve been through similar exercises before, then you should already have some idea of how long it can take. To get a high level map is easy, to get to sufficient detail that a reader can understand the process takes a lot more time. This is time is extended if there is interaction with IT systems and different locations.

2. No standards

Some people map processes for a living. Worth bearing that in mind if you’re new to it. You can generally tell how much relevant experience a person has by looking at their output and any comments they attach to it. Have they picked a standard notation? Do all the decision points have two or more outputs? Are decisions labelled differently to process steps? And so on. Whatever the standard, a process map should be internally consistent. If a decision is a shaped as a diamond in one part of a map, then all decisions should be diamonds.

3. Conflicting standards

Assuming that the process-map author used a standard, it often doesn’t conform to the standard that the rest of the team are meant to be working with. The level of rigour required – as driven by an evaluation of potential risk – determines how closely diagrams have to conform to the standard. Some deviation is often permissible, and may even introduce new ideas, just bear in mind that a process map is a communication tool. The more standards people have to learn, the less concise and the less effective the tool becomes in communicating.

4. Not enough detail

The most common issue I see is that I receive just a process map. There has to be more information. The process map is a diagram of the process, but it isn’t the process itself, nor is it a complete description of the process. It is one tool for communication, there are others and analysts should some of these should be used. For instance, there should be a process description supporting the process map. This would provide the detail of each process step, providing elements that couldn’t be included in the diagram. Remember that a process map is a diagram and you’ll often need words to describe the process more completely. Words or pictures alone are often not sufficient, the combination of the two together work really well.

5. Too much detail

Better too much detail than too little. I’m always curious if there’s such a thing as too much detail in process maps since the aim is to capture everything so that it can be understood, replicated, changed and/or implemented.

My current answer to this is “yes”. Once you’re into the realm of mapping something that’s rarely done, has very little associated risk and you know you’re going to change it, then you don’t need much detail.

You also don’t need much detail if you’re just trying to scope out the activities of an organisation.

Another indication of too much detail is when an analyst has focussed on one area more than another such that most maps are high level and one is too detailed in comparison. So unless there’s reason to concentrate on that one area such as you know you’re going to be doing that in the following stage, I’d start to think that there’s too much relative detail.

6. Users don’t understand them

Process maps should be easy for users to understand. If they’re not, then question the standard; are you using the most appropriate standard? For instance, I noticed that early versions of UML Activity Diagrams confused users due to the diagonal lines making the sequence of events unclear. Many of those Activity Diagrams still included horizontal and vertical lines, but the standard permitted diagonals. Compare that to later versions of the Activity Diagrams. Now, I’ve no idea if it’s the standard or just best practice that means that most lines are horizontal or vertical, but either way, I’ve seen a change towards that practice.

It is also worth taking a key or legend with you or at least explaining it in person. Mention what a process step is, what a terminator is, what a gateway is and how to read them. Especially talk through the difference between parallel and sequential processes.

7. Users aren’t involved with them

This is stake-holder management. By and large, people resist change. Not involving users in the process mapping exercise increases the risk of resistance and increases inaccuracy. The fewer users, the greater the risk. Fortunately, it’s rarer nowadays to see the creation of process maps not involving any users. But take it a step further, instead of a review process, move some of the ownership or responsibility onto the users. That doesn’t mean that they should be responsible for creating the maps, but that they should be happy with their content and happy that they represent what they do.

8. Don’t have the tools

You can’t do process maps well in MS Powerpoint. You can get so far and do a very high-level sketch, but you can capture detail that way. Trying to results in a mess, a divergence from standards and a confused user.

At worst, use MS Visio. This should be the lowest level of IT tool you should use. Better still, find a purpose-built tool. Make sure you can export into a format that your audience can open and read. Test the export and read process a few times. Visio used to be a bit unpredictable in its export output, but that seems to have settled down a lot. All depends what version you’re using and what the diagram includes.

If you’re a bit old-school and use post-its on brown-paper. Tape the post-its down once the process is agreed.

9. Use PowerPoint

In contradiction to the previous point, PowerPoint has a very useful feature in that its main deficiency as a drawing tool can be thought of as an advantage; i.e. it constrains the complexity of the diagram. I use it to show value chains and simple process maps. The diagrams usually have 6-10 steps and little branching. For this brief, overview type of process map, PowerPoint is ideal.