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December 12, 2022

What is Process Mapping? Here’s How It Can Save Your Business

"We already have process documentation. It's in a Google Doc or PDF somewhere."

Seasoned business leaders have heard this refrain more than once. It usually follows a question asking why no one in a given department can produce a visual map of their core processes. This type of inquiry often leaves executives concerned and middle managers confused. Processes obviously exist — the department does its job every day — so where's the issue?

Processes Glue Your Business Together

Leaders lead, sales reps sell, marketers hype, service reps deliver, and processes hold the entire messy affair together. Smaller businesses have inherently less reliance on processes, but as a company grows and becomes a more complex system, processes become absolutely critical for scaling. Very, very few businesses can operate effectively if everyone reinvents the wheel every single day.

What is a process? Semantically, it's a repeatable series of standardized actions that an individual or team takes to consistently achieve a goal. From a business theory perspective, it's an intangible concept that somehow holds together hundreds of moving parts inside a machine that would otherwise collapse in a pile of steaming junk.

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Let's focus on the word "intangible." Because processes themselves can take so many forms — and because they often exist entirely in our minds — many professionals underestimate just how different the same process can look in the imaginations of two individuals in the same department. When processes exist principally in this way — inside the minds of those who practice them, often referred to as "tribal knowledge" — problems arise.

One Small Process Gap Can Cost You

Process intangibility manifests itself in very different ways. Sometimes the ways people imagine processes to work and the way processes are actually supposed to work (or should work) are small: Think two employees on the same team independently (and redundantly) tracking the same data point or double-tapping a client touchpoint.

On the other hand, sometimes the gap between individual perception and institutional intent is enormous: Think terminology confusion leading to systemic accounting mistakes, or major components in a new software product being missed due to messy project management.

Real-Life Example: Client Handoff

Even small gaps can cost you. Consider the two individuals from the previous section, working in the same department. Let's say they're on the service delivery team and positioned in-process so that one consistently hands off the service baton to the other. At the point of handoff, one employee — let's call him Alan — sends an email to the client and copies the other employee — let's call her Ashley — on the email thread. Handoff complete! Process followed.

But wait. For years now, Alan has been receiving periodic replies to that email from clients in which the client fails to include Ashley on the thread. It's the difference between clicking Reply and Reply All in an email client — not a terribly uncommon occurrence. Alan is a hard worker and prides himself on responding quickly to customer questions, so he often just handles these emails himself. He sometimes copies Ashley on the emails if he thinks any of the content would be relevant to her workflow.

Ashley, however, assumes Alan has been copying her on every client email he receives in which she has been removed from the thread. She's grateful Alan understands the need to do this, because these emails often contain questions that Alan doesn't have the requisite expertise to answer accurately. She finds it a little odd that he tries to provide answers when he adds her back into these email threads, but his replies are almost always harmless, and Ashley simply fills in the correct information and continues to move the client through the process.

In the past few months, Ashley has had a handful of clients for whom it feels like the ball was dropped somewhere. The client tells her critical information was conveyed to a rep at her company and expresses concern that this information hasn't already been integrated into the active project. In some cases, the dropped information handoff has been fairly serious, pushing back delivery timelines by weeks or even months.

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In two cases, Ashley believes this has led to a non-renewal of services, costing the company over $450K in bookings. She has asked Alan about this once or twice and gotten a shrug and a change of subject both times. She once asked Alan to investigate his own inbox, and he reports nothing out of the ordinary. She considered asking one client to provide a name and email proof, but with the relationship already on the rocks, she feels that would only make the situation worse. Without a company CRM to track and log emails, Ashley has no way of seeing communication logs with the client other than her own inbox. She feels confused and frustrated and has become increasingly worried that these non-renewals will endanger an otherwise stellar performance record.

In this scenario, one simple email-related step and an innocuous break in team communication lead to lost revenue, internal confusion, and decreased morale in a top performer. One small process gap is having significant consequences, and in this case, the problem will only increase and compound with time. Unfortunately, no one involved has enough information to identify or articulate the gap, and leadership remains unaware.

Now, imagine a tool that would enable Ashley to identify the likely point of process breakdown. Imagine she was able to use that tool as a visual yardstick when bringing her concerns to Alan (or their manager, if needed). Imagine if all employees were trained on that tool and held accountable for its steps. Sound useful? Welcome to process mapping!

Process Maps: Your Beaten Path In the Wilderness of Business Operations

If anyone tells you they have no use for a visualization of a complex, intangible concept, they probably haven't seen a visualization of that concept yet. Most people, even those who don't consider themselves visual learners, benefit enormously from the power of a visual shape-based representation to manifest the intangible. This is why process maps are invaluable for transmuting processes out of a practitioner's imagination into the physical world.

A process map gives people a tangible reference to use for better understanding processes, identifying gaps, and considering opportunities for optimization.

It vastly reduces time wasted on resolving confusion around the finer points of a given process — think of every meeting you've ever attended that was dominated by conversation about a process issue. A simple collection of shapes and words, when built well and followed closely, can bring order to chaos and resolve inefficiencies you didn't even know existed.

So, what's the catch? Process maps require serious work to build — and once created, even if built well, they're useless unless businesses have the will and diligence to follow them. On top of that, like any system, a process should be monitored consistently for health — and the quantification and tracking of a process's health at any given time can be a very tricky thing to achieve.

How to Get Started With Process Mapping

When it comes to process mapping in 2023, leaders are no longer restricted to whiteboards and sticky notes. The web app market is full of intuitive process mapping solutions like Miro and LucidChart. Some top-tier project management platforms like Asana offer process mapping as one of many features. The best solutions offer preset templates that mirror the most successful process frameworks: Flowcharts, value streams, swim lanes, etc.

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Your biggest challenge probably won't be finding a robust tool to build process maps, but rather understanding and implementing the methodology to efficiently create process maps that will stand the test of time. For its intended purpose (ex: visualizing the daily operations of a department), the map must encompass both the ordinary and also outliers with outsized impact. It must be both intuitive and sufficiently detailed to resolve likely points of confusion.

This usually involves sitting down with department managers (and sometimes individual contributors) for hours at a time until every drop of relevant knowledge they have is translated into graphical form. A skilled process map builder must have a sense of what to include, what to exclude, and what to investigate further.

When you put the last end cap on your process, can you imagine it being used easily and consistently for months (maybe years) to come? 

Finally, once the process map you've created has been approved and disseminated, it must become institutionally accepted and monitored closely for compliance. Acceptance is a time-bound project, but monitoring is perpetual and very difficult to maintain manually. This is where a CRM like HubSpot — properly configured — can close the gap and automatically monitor certain process events that leaders can treat as performance indicators. With skilled configuration, process health can even be quantified and measured on a rolling basis.

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Zach West

Zach leads New Breed's demand generation program. His areas of focus include in-depth market research and modeling, customer journey design and optimization, strategic application of data-based insights, technical integrations and data flow design, and technical content support.

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