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“Shelley Sweet was recommended to me at a time when I was seeking professional assistance to lead the District in the development of a strategic plan. It was a fortunate meeting – with Shelley’s experience and guidance we were able to assemble a broad range of community members to form a design team. The team participated in a series of activities to assess, discuss, and develop the outcomes to create the classroom of the future. Under Shelley’s leadership, the design team was able to propose to the Board of Education, seven completed “initiatives” that would provide the course of action to realize the District’s vision.”

John Deasy
Superintendent of Schools (former)
Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District


Which Process Improvement/BPM Diagramming Notation Should We Use? (Part 1)

Should we use flow charts, swim lanes, value stream mapping, proprietary software notation, or BPMN?  Yes, there a number of notations you could use, and you want to pick the right one for  your organization.

The first question to ask is what is the purpose of the process diagramming notation?  Since there are several purposes  for process diagramming at different stages of a BPM/ process improvement project, you may switch to one type of notation or another at different times.

Purpose 1:  A high level map to scope the project and as part of the charter.  Here I suggest using a simple flow chart with 6- 10 steps using rectangle for  activities/steps, diamond shaped decision diamonds and directional arrows.  You could actually create it in PowerPoint, but I usually do it in Visio.  The purpose of this map is to get people understanding what a process looks like. 

  • Not a bulleted list of the activities.  You want to begin to switch to a process focus, so model the high level map by drawing a process.  It gets everyone seeing it on the wall or screen, and shifts away from just one person talking. 
  • Not Chevrons.  Chevrons are a popular way of showing concepts or stages at a high level.  They serve that purpose well.  I would not use them here, because you want the organization to begin to see what a process map is – the flow, a few standard symbols, and the directional arrows.  The chevrons are a good way to represent that roadmap of what will be happening in the overall BPM effort; I used them to depict that.
  •  Not your creative symbols.  If you use symbols that you like (some boxes, some parallelograms, arrows that go all over the place, some other stencil  figures) you will have to explain the whole map, and you will be the only person who knows what the symbols mean.  The high level map is a good time to introduce the basic notational symbols.  If you want to do something creative, do a storyboard, but do not call it a high level map.  The storyboard might better represent a story about today’s process and some of the challenges.  I really do not recommend it here; in fact you would still need the high level map for the charter.
  • Not a BPMN top level map because I think there are too many “unknown”  BPMN symbols for the business side.  Keep the BPMN diagram until the next step.  
  • Sometimes a value stream map.  This map has many lean notational symbols and may be overwhelming to the business side.  If your organization has adopted Lean as a whole and many  employees and managers have had training on the Lean tools then you would want to use a high level value stream map.  I love the data on the value stream map, but use it at a later stage in the BPM methodology.
  • A variation.  I have had colleagues tell me they start using Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) the process modeling standard right from the getgo.   They use Level 1 or the basic BPMN symbols and keep the model simple with the same 6-10 tasks –often one internal pool, no swim lanes, one start event and one end event, activities, gateways, and sequence  flows. Often they are using a proprietary BPMN modeling tool that they are selling as well.  I prefer to start with BPMN in the next phase.

Purpose 2: Transition to BPMN at the Top Level

After the high level map is completed (which is part of the charter—another critical element to get a BPM project off to the right start), I suggest taking the high level map and using BPMN to model a top level model.  There are many similarities to the high level map you have already done, but three critical differences:

  1. Now the model uses BPMN, the standard notation that allows the process model to be shared across tools, departments and between business and IT.
  2. The top level BPMN model is the hierarchal parent for the process and will become more detailed with children sub-processes and even more detailed “grandchildren” sub-processes within the first level of sub-process.
  3. The top level BPMN model will elucidate the critical exception end states, so whereas the high level will only have the happy path end state, the top level BPMN will show critical end states, differentiating how the process ends under specific conditions. 

Want to learn more?  Sign up for my live-online BPMessentials workshop, Starting and Organizing a BPM Project on September 25 and 26. Find out how to build high level maps with process owners and project leads, how to write a charter in 90 minutes, how to get the right members for a BPM team,  and how to document process models in the BPMN standard, using the free ITP software. 

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