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Do you find it easy to see multiple paths, the risks associated with each, and the people or systems responsible for them? 

Do you bring order to chaos and have the ability to visualize each step and task from start to completion quickly? 

Read on to gain an in-depth overview of workflow mapping, its benefits, various types and tools, and how it can streamline processes, enhance communication, and identify organizational inefficiencies. 

Most of the time, you’ll be using workflow management software or workflow diagram software to manage this process.

What Is Workflow Process Mapping?

Workflow process mapping visually represents how individuals move through their work within an organization—it’s sometimes called business process mapping. 

It's like crafting a blueprint that illustrates how each task in the workflow links to the next, ensuring a seamless flow of operations. It's about ensuring everyone adapts and understands their role in keeping operations efficient and customers satisfied.

By mapping out workflows, you gain a bird's-eye view of how different parts of your organization fit together, identify areas for optimization, and ensure that everything runs seamlessly and efficiently through business units, even when issues arise out of your control.

Simple Workflow Example

Here is a simple workflow example for employee expense submission and reimbursement to get us started.

  1. Expense Submission: An employee fills out an expense report form detailing expenses incurred during business activities.
  2. Review and Approval: The employee's manager reviews the expense to ensure compliance with policies and budgets. If everything checks out, they approve the expense for reimbursement.
  3. Accounting Verification: The approved expenses are forwarded to the accounting department. Accountants verify their accuracy and ensure they align with budget allocations.
  4. Payment Processing: Once verified, the accounting department processes the reimbursement payment to the employee.
  5. Bookkeeping: A record of the reimbursement transaction is maintained for auditing and reporting purposes.
expense reimbursement process
Here's a simple workflow for reimbursing expenses.

Advantages Of Workflow Mapping

Let's explore the multitude of advantages that come with workflow mapping:

  1. Establishes best practices: By clearly defining what works best for your business and assigning responsibilities, workflow mapping ensures that customers and employees receive a consistent and reliable experience.
  2. Supports operational excellence: Workflow mapping enables organizations to identify inefficiencies and streamline processes, improving productivity and overall operational excellence.
  3. Facilitates business digitization: By mapping out business processes, organizations can pinpoint areas where manual tasks can be automated, increasing workflow efficiency and cost savings. It provides a roadmap for digitizing your workflows, highlighting opportunities for innovation and technological integration.
  4. Simplifies onboarding: Well-documented processes streamline onboarding for new employees or clients. They can quickly grasp their roles and responsibilities, accelerating their integration into the team, tool, or project and contributing to faster productivity, increased retention and recurring business success.
  5. Enables continuous improvement: By visualizing the entire workflow, companies can identify areas for improvement and plan for iterative changes to optimize efficiency and effectiveness over time. Workflow mapping fosters a culture of continuous process improvement, driving innovation and growth within the organization.

Types Of Workflow Maps

Workflow diagrams come in different types to cater to organizational needs and complexities. From basic flowcharts to swimlane diagrams and even project management Gantt charts, each provides a unique way to visualize business processes. Here are a few process mapping examples.

A mind map is a great starting point for brainstorming. It allows you to categorize tasks by business area or group and is also referred to as a creative or non-linear map.

generic mind map example screenshot
Here's what a mind map might look like.

Flowcharts are the most commonly used mapping technique. It shows the separate steps of a process in sequential order using defined process mapping symbols, as in the chart below.

example project workflow
Here's what a project workflow might look like (source).

Swimlane diagrams divide the flowchart into "swimlanes," each representing a different department, role, or entity involved in the process.

This diagram style clarifies individual responsibilities within an organization and facilitates effective handover of responsibilities. It uses defined process mapping symbols for a workflow diagram highlighted below, just as a flow chart.

workflow example with swimlanes
Here's what your workflow might look like if you add swimlanes to it.

Value stream mapping concentrates on pinpointing and eliminating inefficiencies to enhance productivity and deliver greater customer value. They typically include additional information such as cycle time, lead time, and process metrics to help identify opportunities for improvement.

Value stream mapping example
Here's an example of a value stream map (source).
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Workflow Mapping Process

Once you build a few workflow maps, have the correct tool for your needs, and have gathered all the required information, you can start creating all your business processes.

1. Identify What to Map and the Stakeholders Involved

Clearly define the scope of the workflow map by identifying the new process, current process, or system flow you want to map out. Understand the process's boundaries and the specific objectives you want to achieve with the mapping exercise.

Identify the key stakeholders involved in the process, including those who perform the steps, provide inputs, or receive outputs. Engage these stakeholders to gather feedback and incorporate insights into the process, as well as to help choose the priority workflow to build.

2. Choose The Type Of Workflow Map

I've mentioned the workflows, such as linear, parallel, and cyclical. So, how do you choose the correct one? Consider the following:

  • Assess the complexity of your process. Is it straightforward or multifaceted? 
  • Determine the level of detail necessary to capture each step/task accurately.
  • Identify the intended audience for your workflow map—are the team members, stakeholders, or external parties? You can tailor the process map to suit their comprehension level, which is crucial for effective communication.
  • Clarify the specific objectives of your workflow mapping endeavor. Are you aiming to streamline processes, enhance collaboration, or identify bottlenecks?
Tip

Tip

I’d advise adopting an iterative approach to creating a workflow map. Start with an essential representation, then gradually incorporate additional intricacies or nuances. This approach ensures that the final workflow map accurately reflects the process and serves its intended purpose.

For example, start with a high-level overview of the process and then add more detail with each iteration, ensuring the map remains accurate and useful.

3. List Out Steps, Sub-Steps, Inputs, & Outputs

When doing the steps below, complete them with the chosen tool, so there is less manual work transferring from a document to the plan. Adjusting and moving around to map out relationships and responsibilities is easier.

  1. List the high-level steps: These are the major activities or milestones that must be completed to achieve the desired outcome. For example, Discovery -> Process Drafting -> Review & Feedback -> Documentation -> Training and Rollout
  2. Break down steps into sub-steps: Break it into smaller, more detailed sub-steps for each high-level step. These step-by-steps are required to complete the high-level step. Continue breaking down the process until you reach a level of detail that is manageable and actionable. For example:
    1. Discovery
      1. Interviews
      2. Stakeholder identification
      3. Document review
      4. Market trend analysis
      5. Etc.
    2. Process Drafting
      1. Select tool
      2. Select process flowchart type
      3. Map out the initial process
      4. Highlight gaps, risks, and missing roles
      5. Etc.
    3. Review & Feedback
      1. Send to stakeholders for review
      2. Document feedback
      3. Input updates into the initial process map
      4. Etc.
    4. And so on…
  3. Identify and document inputs and outputs: Identify the inputs required to perform the task and the outputs produced for each step and sub-step. 
  • Inputs are the resources, information, or materials needed to complete the step.
  • Outputs are the outcomes or deliverables generated by the step. 
  • Document the inputs and outputs associated with each step and sub-step. Be specific about the nature of the inputs and outputs and how they are used or produced within the process.
  • For example: Your inputs for interviews would be interview questions, and the schedule and availability of stakeholders. The outputs would be insights gathered from stakeholders identified pain points and challenges.

4. Put Everything In Sequence and Create the Map

Arrange the steps and sub-steps in sequential order in your chosen process mapping tool, following the chronological flow of the process. Use arrows or connectors to indicate the flow of the process from one step to the next.

  1. Map relationships & assign owners: Map out the relationships between steps, sub-steps, inputs, and outputs and who owns them. Use connectors or arrows to indicate the flow of information or materials between different process elements to show dependencies within the workflow.
  2. Consider parallel activities: Multiple steps or tasks may be performed in parallel. Identify these activities within the process and represent them accordingly on the workflow map. Use branching paths or parallel lines to indicate parallel activities.
parallel activities example
Here's an example of tasks happening in parallel.
  1. Include decision points: Identify decision points where different paths or outcomes are possible. Represent these decision points on the workflow map and indicate the criteria or conditions determining the route taken.
  2. Map inputs and outputs: Collaborating with process owners, participants, and customers in a brainstorming session is an excellent initial step for identifying inputs and outputs. This enables the effective capture and organization of their ideas. Utilizing the SIPOC (Suppliers, Inputs, Processes, Outputs, and Customers) framework helps pinpoint the primary inputs and outputs associated with each step. Document these inputs and outputs on the workflow process map to provide context and clarity.

5. Get Feedback & Iterate

This involves reviewing and validating the map's accuracy and completeness, followed by continuous iteration and improvement to enhance clarity and optimize workflow efficiency.

  1. Review and validate: Scrutinize the workflow map to ensure correct sequencing and logical flow of steps. Validate it with stakeholders or subject matter experts to verify accuracy and completeness.
  2. Iterate and improve: Workflow mapping is iterative. Continuously review and update the map, integrating feedback and making revisions to enhance clarity and accuracy. Utilize the map to understand the process, pinpoint bottlenecks, and refine workflow efficiency.

These steps enable you to systematically map a workflow, offering a concise and visual representation of the sequential flow of activities throughout the process. Take a look at this article to learn more about the specifics of designing a workflow.

Tools For Workflow Mapping

Just as our GPS guides us along the best route to the destination, the right tools for workflow mapping are crucial for charting a clear path through the complexities of business processes. 

There are a variety of intuitive software platforms offering AI-powered capabilities and collaborative visualization tools, which offer invaluable support in creating detailed flows that enhance productivity, improve efficiency, and sustain growth.

Some elements you should consider when choosing a workflow diagram software:

  1. Integration with other systems
  2. Customization and flexibility
  3. Data analysis and visualization capabilities
  4. Scalability and performance

You can build and collaborate on a workflow map using a pencil, paper, or marker on a whiteboard. Still, helpful online tools for remote collaboration make everything cleaner and easier to understand. Not to mention color-coding—I love color-coding! 

Free Tool Options

These tools usually have a free basic tier if you are just starting and can’t justify the cost of a full-plan platform.

  1. Miro is a versatile online whiteboarding platform that supports the creation of workflow diagrams, among other types of diagrams. It offers collaboration features such as real-time editing, commenting, and video conferencing integration that can be used when working with cross-functional teams.
  2. Lucidchart is a flexible diagramming tool that enables users to generate workflow maps. It provides an extensive selection of shapes, templates, and collaborative functionalities. Also, it integrates with Microsoft Office and Google Workspace, making it suitable for teams. 
  3. Google Drawings is a free web-based tool in the Google Workspace suite. While it may offer fewer features than dedicated diagramming tools, it can still create basic workflow diagrams using shapes, lines, and text.
  4. Cacoo offers a free plan with limited features that allow users to create up to 6 diagrams. It provides a user-friendly interface, various shapes and process map templates, and collaboration tools for team projects.
  5. Diagrams.net (formerly draw.io) is a free, open-source diagramming tool with a user-friendly interface and a wide range of capabilities, including workflow mapping. It can be used online or offline, supporting integration with various cloud storage platforms.

Paid Tool Options

  1. FigJam, a collaborative whiteboarding tool offered by Figma, is primarily geared toward brainstorming, ideation, and collaborative design sessions. Although not specifically tailored for creating workflow process maps, it can provide valuable assistance.
    1. Real-time collaboration: FigJam facilitates real-time collaboration, allowing multiple users to simultaneously work on a single board.
    2. Freeform drawing tools: With FigJam, users can access freeform drawing tools, sticky notes, shapes, and connectors, enabling flexible and intuitive sketching of workflow diagrams.
    3. Pre-made process mapping templates: While FigJam may not have dedicated workflow templates, it offers a variety of templates for brainstorming and diagramming purposes. Users can adapt templates or create custom ones to meet their needs.
  2. Microsoft Visio Online is the web-based iteration of the renowned diagramming software Visio. It offers robust features tailored for creating workflow diagrams, including drag-and-drop shapes, customizable templates, and seamless integration with other Microsoft tools such as SharePoint and Teams—limited integrations with tools or apps beyond the Microsoft Suite.

AI-Powered Tool Options

AI isn't going away, so why not embrace it and use it to make your workflow mapping easier and allow technology to do the analysis work for you?  

Important note about AI features within tools

Important note about AI features within tools

After researching and playing around with various workflow tools with AI features, I realized they have limitations across most tools. The AI features still need to be fully baked and improved to be solely relied on, especially if you are using a tool where AI is a minor component of their more extensive offerings.

  1. Flowster simplifies business process management with AI. It uses innovative technology to find problems and improve your workflows.
    • Time-saving: AI checks your workflows and creates maps for you, saving time and manual effort.
    • Accuracy and consistency: Flowster's innovative tools map your processes precisely, ensuring accuracy every time.
    • Scalability: Flowster adjusts to fit your needs as your business expands, keeping things efficient and accurate.
  2. Decisions—Workflow Manager enables users to integrate artificial intelligence seamlessly into their organization's workflow. This integration results in the precision-controlled automation of operations, leading to increased efficiency. With the platform's rules engine feature, users can easily codify their business logic and automate decisions, simplifying the decision-making process. The process mining feature also helps users identify and fix issues, optimizing their business operations further.
Expert Tip

Expert Tip

If you’re a small team, you should be able to utilize one of your other department tools, which you already pay for, or you can choose a free mapping online tool. Many have templates and essential functions for creating maps or have a free tier plan that could be sufficient for the needs of a smaller business.

Mistakes To Avoid

Avoid these common mistakes to create workflow or business process maps that accurately represent processes, ensure understanding and support process improvement efforts within your organization.

  1. Overcomplicating it. Overly complex maps can confuse rather than clarify processes.
  2. Being vague or general. Provide specific steps and actions within each process.
  3. Ignoring UX. Ensure the user experience is friendly and accessible to all relevant parties or risk slack of confusion with users.
  4. Not engaging with relevant stakeholders. Ensure that all relevant parties provide input to capture the process accurately, allowing for deeper understanding and adoption.
  5. Disregarding feedback can result in overlooking chances for optimization.
  6. Not updating the workflow map regularly to reflect changes and keep it relevant. Otherwise, users will be following an out-of-date process, which may lead to a less consistent experience for stakeholders or customers.
  7. Not prioritizing what to map first. Prioritize mapping the most essential processes first to ensure resources are allocated effectively.
  8. Lack of consistency. To enhance readability and understanding, maintain consistency in symbols, terminology, and formatting throughout the map.

Expert Tips

Here are some tips I've stumbled upon in my years of building workflow process maps.

1. Get Fresh Eyes on Your Workflow

As a manager, I assign a business process to a new hire and have them map it out. They meet with individuals and groups within the company, shadow other employees within the specific business process, and map it out based on their learning.  

This allows them to learn by asking questions and genuinely understanding the roles and tasks within the process. You also gain a new perspective on how the process is understood and works. If we are too embedded in the process, sometimes, it causes blinders, and we cannot see gaps or efficiencies. 

2. Map Multiple Scenarios

Try creating multiple versions of the workflow map based on different scenarios or use cases.

This will allow stakeholders to understand how the process may vary under different conditions and prepare them to handle various situations effectively. Still, ensuring their buy-in and adoption of the new or improved workflow is also essential.

3. Make it Visually Appealing

Incorporating visual elements such as icons, illustrations, and color coding makes the workflow map visually appealing and easy to understand. This improves clarity and increases engagement with the map.

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Kelly Ostrowercha
By Kelly Ostrowercha

Kelly Ostrowercha is a freelance project management leader with 15+ years of experience successfully developing people, teams, and processes in digital agencies, small start-ups and larger corporations, with a people-first mentality.