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Process Mapping – If you can’t describe what you’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing

7 people around a table with a brown paper on it.

Allowing a team of people to discuss their process – how they are doing the work – is one of the best investments an organisation can make. People often do not have the same understanding of how tasks are done, and rarely have the complete overview of a cross-functional process. The work is often more complex than it appears at first glance. Many processes or tasks are not standardised or measured, resulting in a lack of visibility. Opportunities for improvements are not clear and not discussed. Errors and rework creep in. Workarounds become engrained in ‘how we do things’. And we often have ‘key-person dependency’: how the work is done is knowledge an individual holds and is not captured by the organisation.

W. Edwards Deming, the American industrial engineer and business theorist, known as the father of the quality movement and credited with the post-WWII Japan resurgence as a dominant global economy, said: “If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing”.

Do you know how your organisation completes the work? If not, this means there is:

  • Variability in customer value delivery, i.e., customer outcomes are not consistent or repeatable,
  • A significant business-continuity risk, e.g., knowledge lost due to staff turnover or retirement,
  • A long list of improvement opportunities not systematically identified,
  • All resulting in lower productivity and performance.

How does an organisation understand how the work is done? Let’s introduce process maps and value stream maps.



Process maps are a visual representation of how a product or transaction is processed. You ‘follow the process’, for example, you follow the carrot from field to harvesting to pack-house to supermarket, or you follow a timesheet from a blank piece of paper, to work done and recorded, to completed timesheet to payroll and finance, or you follow a sales lead all the way to conversion. Often process maps are done on a brown roll of packing paper with post-it notes, that’s why it is sometimes called ‘brown-paper process’.

Process Maps:

  • State the scope, using start and end points,
  • Organise tasks in a logical sequence,
  • Identify decision points and alternate paths,
  • Identify information and resource requirements,
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities,
  • Can include phases or timing.

When mapping a process, opportunities for improvement become evident: duplication, errors, rework, overcomplication, and gaps. Team members get an appreciation of the entire process and how well they support other functions that are part of the same cross-functional process. They put the ‘whole before the parts’.

Like the processes, Process Maps are never linear and often loop back on themselves, and switch between functions. If you want to take Process Mapping to the next level, you record each function’s tasks in a separate row or ‘lane’. We call this a swim-lane Process Map, where we can visually see responsibilities, hand-over points, and sometimes constraints.

The facilitation of Process Mapping by Productivity People at Huntly Doors is described in this case study.



Value stream mapping is similar to process mapping in that they both map activities, identify the current state, and help visualise the desired future state. Value stream mapping has an emphasis on identifying waste as well as promoting product, service, or information flow.

Value Stream Maps:

  • Identify inputs and outputs including material and information flows,
  • Allow for a high level of numerical process data such as inventory or wait times, resource levels, cycle times, lead times and takt times.

As with Process Mapping, Value Stream Mapping can start on a whiteboard or brown paper however, in practice, you may need to use software to calculate data elements.



Process and value stream maps help clarify and standardise processes at different levels so they can be used for training, quality assurance, and as a basis for continuous improvement. You reduce variability, risk, and errors/rework. You improve business performance, employee engagement, and competitive advantage.

Both process maps and value stream maps improve the whole, not just the parts.

We often come across poorly executed process maps that use random shapes, arrows and colours that don’t meet the agreed standards of process mapping. Why does this matter? Because these maps can only be interpreted by the person who documented them and won’t bring clarity to the process for anyone else. They therefore don’t add value to the organisation.

Another common mistake is trying to combine process maps and value-stream maps. The outcome is a mismatch of detail that provides both too much and too little detail where it is needed; process maps covering too many processes and value stream maps covering unnecessary task detail.

When you study your processes at the right level,  you will find what is universally true: that the process design is almost always the cause of problems, not the people in it.

Low-hanging fruit can be capitalised on early, and relatively easily. Before embarking on technology improvements existing processes should be mapped and improved to ensure that unnecessary steps and waste aren’t carried through to the new technology. Automating unnecessary tasks doesn’t bring about improvement.



  • Follow the rules. Process maps are more than shapes and arrows on a page, there are rules that ensure a coherent and logical map.
  • Include all participants in the process of developing it. Using brown paper, a whiteboard, and post-its, get the team together and nut-out the process as a group.
  • Use an experienced facilitator who isn’t a participant in the process; they can ask ‘dumb’ questions and won’t have a preference for how the work is carried out. They can challenge authority where workers do not dare to, and they often identify logic gaps because they don’t have the knowledge to instinctively fill in the gap.

If you want to know what the rules are or want help with process or value stream mapping, give us a call.

Written by Amanda Green, Senior Consultant at Productivity People.