Mapping a business process in a flowchart makes sense at first glance.
Flowcharts take a list of steps and help you visualise them with arrows and boxes or bubbles, and we’ve all used them at some point in our lives.
They may therefore seem to be the perfect solution to visually mapping your business processes – but there are challenges to solely relying on them.
Let’s dive into the world of process mapping with flowcharts, their limitations, and some possible alternatives to consider.
How Does a Flowchart Help Companies
Business process mapping is important for companies because it helps them understand how they are currently managing their business, and where they could improve on it.
By visualising the steps your company is taking for particular instances instead of simply having a numbered list, it is easier to find where you can improve. It reduces dependency on external experts, makes your working environment more flexible, drives efficiency, and makes it easier to standardise your processes.
A flowchart is one way to approach this visualisation.
One of the seven basic quality tools for process improvement, flowcharts have all the simple steps for a particular process, laid out in sequential order and connected via arrows. They are typically done with paper and pen or a basic diagramming tool over the course of several workshops, and split up so that those directly involved with each part of the process can contribute.
Flowcharts also tend to have specific signs and notations based on which version you’re using, to help you navigate more complicated concepts.
When finished, it should be easy to:
- Understand how that process works
- Plan similar processes
- Communicate it to others so that it may be followed or replicated
- Find spots to improve upon it
- Document it for future use
If you’re struggling with how to map your processes, you may think that flowcharts are a great, easy way to do so. At least until you realise just how complex your processes and their visualisation can become.
But worry not!
Flowcharts are not the only way to visualise processes, nor are they the most exhaustive way to communicate them.
What Are the Limitations of Flowcharts for Business Process Mapping
A flowchart is the start of the right idea for business process mapping.
They’re a visual representation of your process’s steps in sequential order. What could be limiting in that?
More than you think.
Flowcharts are a great starting point, but when you begin to dive into what steps exactly your process is made of, you begin to run into issues.
To begin with, flowcharts typically are started with paper and pen. This is not conducive to retaining knowledge of that initial process map or it’s edits for improvement.
Additionally, the time to put together a flowchart that all stakeholders can agree to will end up being too long. Each stakeholder or employee involved in the process will have their own idea of what works and why, as well as their own interpretation of how to communicate that in a visual way. This lack of consensus can slow down the process mapping, as it will only become more confusing if not addressed at this stage.
Furthermore, what happens to that paper after the workshop? Stuffed in a cupboard gathering dust, it’s easily lost and rarely updated.
The reason for lack of consensus is that flowcharts are often not the right fit for complex business process mapping. They require too many additional documents to be truly understood, and this becomes a hassle for all parties involved. No one wants to do additional reading and work printing out those documents.
They are also limiting in their ability to showcase parallel processes or previous activities as part of larger processes. This is detrimental when mapping out business processes as there are a lot of additional, parallel and previous tasks that need to be documented when mapping.
There is also no clear responsibility matrix, so you do not know who is responsible for doing what, and there is also no reporting element. The tasks exist in a sequential ether without clear assignees.
A flowchart might work for a small-scale school project or even a fiction author’s plot planning, but for a business with lots of moving parts, it is not enough to deal with the complexity. This is why you need to consider the alternatives when you set out to map your business processes.
Alternatives to Flowcharts for Business Process Mapping
Fortunately, flowcharts are but one option for business process mapping. There are others available.
In a similar manner to flowcharts, data flow diagrams (DFDs) are used to capture information flows. In their case, DFDs show how data flows in an organisation. Developed in the seventies, they do not follow a step-by-step approach, instead focusing on how data is working within your organisation. It’s proven useful as an analytical tool for specific processes, or if your business is driven by data.
Gantt charts, around since the late nineteenth century, are still favoured as a process mapping tool by some organisations. Focused on deadlines, these charts create subtasks to larger tasks that must be completed within specific timeframes. For companies that have processes with sensitive deadlines or timeframes, Gantt charts are a good way to organise tasks. It is more of a checklist approach, however, which is not exactly a flow. For the purposes of business mapping, it does not do enough to capture all the steps.
Functional Flow Block Diagrams (FFBDs) are another option you may look into. In direct opposition to Gantt charts, these diagrams focus on sequential tasks and input and output data dependencies. They focus on covering as many options as possible for the process to go through. They are presented in focus blocks, however, so one block could be one smaller part of a larger whole, and often may still be up for interpretation.
If you’re good at maths, Petri Nets or Colored Petri Nets are another option to consider. Unlike with flowcharts, which as we’ve seen have a difficult time documenting parallel processes, Petri Nets can visualise several sub-processes that have to take place simultaneously or that have to be synchronized to work properly.
These diagrams include places, transitions and arcs. Of course, as you may have already gathered, there is a steep learning curve to the mathematical language and notation this map alternative utilizes. While it does make up for some of the deficiencies of relying on flowcharts, it is also impossible to expect your average employee or stakeholder to fully understand it.
A similar issue to Petri Nets is found in Business Process Modelling Notation (BPMN).
It is true that BPMN is one type of solution for the process mapping problem. With an overarching industry standard for their rich variety of shapes and symbols, it solves the question of ambiguity in your business process maps. But in order to do so, everyone involved must know what the symbols mean.
BPMN can be extremely complex visually if you do not have a specialist on your team or contracted to help you navigate the process maps. And what is the point of having such complicated process maps if you cannot refer to them yourself later without needing external help?
An alternative to flowcharts and other options for business process maps, UPN focuses on simplicity and clarity so that everyone can follow along. UPN is a computer-first approach to business process mapping, and at Skore we have taken that to heart. Our software is based on sequentially presented what and why boxes, covering the tasks themselves, as well as a space to indicate responsibility for ensuring the task takes place.
There is no need for additional credentials or hours of study, simply access to our software, a laptop, and a collaborative space is required. There is no need for everyone involved to be in the same room even!
Everyone involved is quick to understand what is happening when in your process, additional documentation can be added and accessed with ease if needed, responsibilities are clearly laid out, and workshop timing can be reduced significantly for quicker stakeholder signoff.
And, you can create and build a knowledge base of your processes to refer to in the future in a process library.
Flowcharts are a great tool – we don’t dispute it.
But not for complex process mapping.
There are a lot of alternatives out there, but for us here at Skore, UPN reigns supreme. Integrated into our software as our corner stone, our clients have found success when it comes to process improvement. And this in turn has led to financial success and growth.
Interested in taking the leap to improve your business processes? Reach out to us and we’ll be happy to chat!