“The first step in any organization is to draw a flow diagram to show how each component depends on others. Then everyone may understand what their job is. If people do not see the process, they cannot improve it.”

– W. Edwards Deming, Management Innovator

Over the years, I’ve taken over dozens of teams and functions spanning 100+ team member marketing organizations, high-tech product development teams, operations supporting 15,000 associates, 50+ person warehousing teams, and many more. In taking over the leadership responsibilities of a team, one of the first things I do is get some of the team in a conference room with a whiteboard and start mapping out the processes.

It always amazes me the insights you can get by mapping out the processes with a team. More often than not, there is a bit of confusion and misalignment on who does what, when, and how relating to the processes. Everyone starts to align on the issues and opportunities to drive the efficiency and effectiveness of the team. As a strategic leader, one of your roles is to elevate the performance of the team’s processes, and step one is often mapping out the processes with them.

Imagine being an architect without drawings and blueprints. It is similar to somebody tasked with improving a function or process without process maps, which is a simple and effective tool to help define a process, align people on the process, and serve as a starting point to problem solve improving a process. So, let’s go over some of the basics of processes and process mapping.


What is a process?

Everything everyone does in an organization is a process, whether or not it is acknowledged as a process. A process is a series of actions and steps to achieve a particular end, which transforms inputs into outputs. All the people, infrastructure, and partners of an organization are processing inputs and making them into outputs. While this may seem like a gross oversimplification of an organization, it is an important and necessary conceptual foundation.


process map example


Think about what work is. We go to work every day and we do things. Maybe we work more with our hands or maybe we work more with our brains. Regardless, we take inputs such as data, information, documents, materials, product, people, and resources and we do something with those inputs, or process them, to get some sort of output. And, hopefully, by processing inputs into outputs, we create value, that over time can be tied to revenue, cost, and capital improvements.

Now, while everything everyone does in an organization is a process, most processes aren’t formally recognized as a process. And, I’m not advocating that you need to acknowledge everything that everyone does as a process. But, you should formalize, document, standardize and continuously improve those processes essential to the organization, a function or team.


What is process mapping?

Process mapping is abstracting a process into symbols and flow creating a model of a process. In the simplest form, the symbols that make up a process are:

Ovals for the start / finish or input / output
Rectangles for tasks / activities
Diamonds for decisions
Arrows for flow

Below is an example of a process map for a hiring interview process, utilizing the simple process symbols.


process map real example


A simple way to increase the insight of a process map is to add swimlanes, which segments a process by “who” completes different steps. Below is the same process map as above, but with swim lanes.


process swim lane example


The process map above is the same hiring interview process, but with the addition of swim lanes for those tasks done by human resources versus the people in the function that are trying to find a candidate to fill a role.


How do you create a process map?

Process mapping is not complicated. You just have to spend the time to do it. Here are some of the best practices with process maps.


Start simple

Get a whiteboard and some markers and start mapping out the process from step 1 to the finish, focusing on the inputs, processes, and outputs. Go through the basic process questions listed above. You’ll be amazed by how much you will learn in a short amount of time.


Map processes with a group

Processes are made up of stakeholders, customers, and people. Get them all in the same room as you map out the process. Typically, the various people have never discussed the process as a group, and they’ll bring a richness of perspective that will drive insight.


Start and end somewhere

One of the nuanced challenges of processes is where do you start and end them. The best rule is to start and end them either where there are natural breaks, important inputs/outputs, or where you think you have an opportunity to improve a process.


Understand the level of specificity

A challenge in process mapping is hitting the right level of specificity as you define tasks since you could define a task as detailed as “hit the right button of your mouse.” Start with high-level tasks, and then figure out which ones you should disaggregate more. Make sure you define tasks at similar magnitudes of effort or importance.


Get to know the other symbols

Typically ovals, rectangles, diamonds, and arrows can map out any process. Yet, there are many other helpful symbols to create more specificity in a process map. Below are other useful process mapping symbols.


process map template icons free


Use mapping software

Once you get serious about processes you’ll want to start using software to map and improve your processes. You can try Process Maker Open Source, SmartDraw, or Microsoft Visio.



To get you going on process mapping, download the free and editable Process Mapping Template with the mapping icons and two examples of process maps.


Exercise 1 – Map your Process

Take an important process. Use the various symbols to map out the process. Then, if you have data, note how long each step takes on the process map. The next step is to identify where there are issues or bottlenecks and then create ideas on how to improve the entire process.


Exercise 2 – Create a Standard Operating Procedure

Once you’ve mapped out the process, codify it by writing a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). Identify the outputs, the stakeholders, and the inputs, and then document the various steps of the process, and also the service levels (how long it should take, the quality level, etc.) Have someone else read it and try to replicate the process to ensure that anyone, with the right skill level, can execute the process.




 Learn more about Joe Newsum, the author of all this free content and a McKinsey Alum. I provide a suite of coaching and training services to realize the potential in you, your team, and your business. Learn more about me and my coaching philosophy.
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