Process Mapping

Wed, Dec 10, 2008

Process and Innovation

ist2_11535431-icons-on-white-board-business-plan-workflow“This is completely unacceptable.” Mary’s boss tells her. “Every month, our customers are giving us an average rating in customer satisfaction. We need to improve these numbers. In fact, if the numbers don’t improve, your group won’t see a year-end bonus. Think about that.”

Talk about lighting a fire under Mary. No way she was not going to get her bonus. And certainly, there was no way her group was going to jeopardize her financial well-being.

Determined to fix this problem immediately, Mary called a two-day offsite meeting with her group. They brainstormed ideas on how to bring up their customer satisfaction rating. “Get back to the customer sooner” was a suggestion. “Have more face time with the customer” was another. Soon, they had 5 ideas that they all agreed would improve their numbers. The session seemed to be of value.

A couple of months passed and the results got marginally better. Certainly not enough for the team to get their year end bonus. Mary was at her wit’s end and she let her team know it.

A few days later, Mary is talking with her friends, Jim and Fran. As always, work issues came up. She begins to tell them of her current problem. She explains that their customer feedback was average and she explained the ideas that her group came up with. Jim immediately chimed in. “Those sound like good ideas but they seem a bit general in nature. And clearly they aren’t working. Can you narrow down the problem areas at all?”

Mary then notes that the customers were happy in the timeliness of getting their product but somewhere within the ordering process, things must be going south. Fran then asked what her employees exactly did during the ordering process. Mary went through the process as it came to her in her head and scribbled them down on a cocktail napkin.

  • Open order database
  • Double check important info (i.e. address, phone)
  • Take order info
  • Take credit card info
  • Submit order
  • Send order to shipping
  • Package order
  • Send order
  • Call customer and provide delivery estimate

Jim shot back. “Yeah, but you’ve been working there for 10 years. I bet some of your employees have only been there a couple of months. Can you expect them to know what you know? With that, Mary replied, “Maybe not to the letter of the law but they’ve been trained and they have each other to rely on if questions should arise. If they aren’t doing these things, then they’re not doing their job,” Mary says. Jim laughs. But just because they’ve been told and trained, still doesn’t mean they understand it. That happens all the time. People need structure.

Fran chimes in. I think you need to talk to a friend of mine. He just went through some seminar. Something called Process Mapping. I think it has something to do with flow charts and it seems to relate to the same problem you’re having. His employees kept forgetting to do things and it was causing problems. Here’s his number. He seems to think it helped immensely.

A few days later, Mary meets with Fran’s friend, Bill. Over the phone, she had explained her dilemma and Bill agreed he could shed some light on the problem and would bring some flow chart stuff. After listening silently to Mary for 10 minutes, Bill asks the following question, “Without any doubt in your mind, do all your employees follow the same process to complete an order?” Mary sheepishly replies, “They should but honestly, I don’t know. I would hope so.”

Bill then places a wager. “Mary, I bet that if you sit down with your employees, you will find that they are not each following the same process. On top of that, I have a way to help you immediately.” Mary won’t take the bet and is willing to hear more. There is something called a process map. Simplistically, you document the steps that need to be taken to start, perform and complete a process.

Bill then proceeds to take something out of his briefcase. ‘This is a type of process map. Some people call them flow charts. The purpose of these charts is to help document your processes. Where it helped me specifically was that my employees were doing things their way ‘“ the way it worked best for each of them. But there was no agreed upon standard so some tasks fell through the cracks. Even worse, some employees didn’t even know about some of the tasks. Once everyone understood each step that needed to occur, we cut down on a ton of problems. Do you think this could add a lot of value to your group?’

Mary thought for a minute and then said, ‘In theory, it probably would. However, I have no idea what that thing is. I’m just going by what you just told me.’

‘Mary, Fran told me that you scribbled down your order process the other night while you were all out knocking a few back. Do you have that with you? If so, let me see it,’ Jim inquires. Mary digs it out of her purse.

Bill says, ‘Ok, this is a good start. If you agree to buy me a drink, I’ll turn this into a process map by the time our waitress comes over. But before I delve into your process, I want to explain how this works using a generic example. Let’s create a map of a simple non-business process. Something like’¦. serving dinner. I’ll ask you some questions and you just answer them off the top of your head.’

Jim: ‘What steps do you take when serving dinner? Don’t worry about the exact order of the steps for now.’

Mary: ‘Well, let’s see. I first decide what to eat. Or at least find out what my family wants to eat. Then, I have to buy the ingredients. I then cook the food and then serve it.

Jim: ‘Good but let’s break down the last thing you said. What do you mean by serving it?’

Mary: ‘I have to set the table, bring the food to the table, and oh yeah, I also have to serve the drinks.’

Jim: ‘Good. That seems like a simple list of tasks. Look at these tasks I have on the table. Again, there’s no order yet.’

Mary looks at the table. Jim has scribbled the steps she said on individual napkins.

Jim: ‘Now, tell me what you need to do all that. Specifically, what kinds of equipment, material, information, and people do you need? These are known as your inputs. Some people struggle with inputs. Don’t over-concern yourselves with this. Just throw out the things that come to your mind. Nothing is set in stone. You can always change things later.’

Mary: ‘Umm, ingredients. Can’t make food without the ingredients. And if I don’t remember how to make something like chicken cacciatore, I need the recipe.

Jim: ‘Good, what else?’

Mary: ‘That’s all I can think of.’

Jim: ‘What century do you live in?’

Mary: ‘What?’

Jim: ‘Sorry, just making fun of you because I got the same thing pulled on me. Do you eat with your hands?’

Mary: ‘Ahh, right, I need tableware. At least I try to convince my family to be civilized.’

Jim: ‘Again, all those things are called inputs. You use those things during your process to come up with an output. The outputs are the end results of the various parts of your process (fried onions) or the final output of your process (dinner). In this example, it’s dinner. Now, let me just move these napkins around and see what we have.’

Jim then appears to make some semblance of order on the table. He lays out all his napkins like this:

Jim: ‘Take a look at what I’ve done. I’ve written down your words and I’ve made an assumption of the order the tasks should be in. Do you agree with this order?’

Mary: ‘Yeah, it all looks fine to me.’

Jim: ‘The first column represents your inputs. Again, those are the things you need to carry out the process. The second column, moving from top to bottom represents all the tasks needed to complete the process. And the third column is simply the output of the process ‘“ the thing that is delivered to the customer. In this example, your customer is you and your family and it’s a product. But in the business world, in many instances, it can be a service. Does all this make sense so far?

Mary: ‘Yeah, it’s pretty simple as long as I can remember all the tasks.’

Jim: ‘Ok, so let’s transfer this to paper so I can add a few more things.

Jim then proceeds to transfer all the napkins to a paper copy. Mary sees him add some lines and arrows and change some shapes. But she waits until he finishes to ask questions.

Jim: ‘Ok, here is our process map for serving dinner. Check it out.’

Serving Dinner Process

Mary: ‘I have some questions because you did some extra stuff there. Specifically, you changed the shape of the inputs and outputs. Why?’

Jim: ‘Believe it or not, flow charts have standard symbols and protocols. In fact, some common word processing programs have built-in symbols for you to use. Inputs and Outputs are parallelograms. Tasks are rectangles. I’m telling you this simply because it’s good habit to get into. For this small example, nobody would really care if you kept everything a rectangle. However, as you get into more complex processes, it helps you to quickly scan a chart and see what’s a task versus inputs and outputs.’

Mary: ‘Simple enough. And should I assume the lines with arrows represent the sequence of the tasks?

Jim: ‘Right you are. Along that note, as you may have noticed, I put the task of ‘Set Table’ after ‘Cook Food’ because that’s how I serve dinner. You didn’t seem to argue that point. However, someone else may do the reverse just out of his or her own habit.

Mary: ‘So which way is right?’

Jim: ‘For this example, there really isn’t a right way unless you can tell me otherwise. But what should be noted is that in most processes, there is definitely a correct sequence. You’ll discover that as you create the process maps. Sequence is definitely important but more importantly, we want to capture all the steps. That is core to this whole process. This document should also illustrate what you actually do, not what you think you do. That is necessary and is required if the process is to be improved’”I’ll say more on that later.

Mary: ‘So what else do we have to do to complete our process map?’

Jim: ‘Nothing. That’s it. There’s our map. Pretty simple, eh?’

Mary: ‘Yeah, but that’s just a generic example. My ordering process is a lot more complicated than that.’

Jim: ‘You may have more steps but is it that much more complicated? I bet we can create a flow chart for that in no time. Where’s that napkin you had out earlier?’

Mary: ‘Here it is.’

Jim: ‘Ok, so let’s go through the same process. Why don’t you write down all your steps on individual napkins.’

Mary transfers all her tasks a bunch of napkins. The table now looks like this:

Jim: ‘So what are you inputs? Feel free to refer back to our dinner example.’

Mary: ‘I guess I need our computer system along with customer database. And of course, we need the customer calling to order something. And I need a person to take the order. Later on, I need shipping material. And since we have our own trucks, we are our own shipper. And duh, we need the product they are ordering.’

Jim: ‘Ok, what is your output?’

Mary: ‘Our product is shipped.’

Jim: ‘Ok, write those down on napkins.’

Jim: ‘Let me ask you a question. Who is in charge of shipping? You?’

Mary: ‘No. That’s another group. I just make sure the order gets into their hands.’

Jim: ‘Ok, then maybe we have more than we need. Remember, we are documenting the ordering process. That’s something you control. You don’t control the shipping process ‘“ that’s someone else’s job. One of the goals of documenting this shows us who are responsible for certain tasks. You are the process owner for the ordering process. As such, you manage the process. You coordinate process diagram development and then coordinate the various functions and work activities at all levels of this process. You also have the authority or ability to make changes in the process as required.

But keep this in mind – just because someone else is the owner and you just receive a deliverable from them, doesn’t let you off the hook. If someone at shipping doesn’t provide you what you need, you should step in and help bear the responsibility.

Now back to the task at hand. Let’s focus on the ordering process. Now, let’s transfer all this to paper. We’ll put down our inputs and outputs, and well put our tasks in the sequence in which they are supposed to occur.

Jim and Mary shuffle things around and come up with the following Ordering Process Map.

Ordering Process

Jim: ‘So that was pretty simple. But if we look closely, something doesn’t seem right. As someone that doesn’t know your process, my question to you is how the ETA is determined. Where does that info come from?

Mary: ‘Oh, once the order goes to shipping, they supply us with the ETA. It’s at that time we call the customer.

Jim: ‘Hmmm, well then, we need to revise our map. We’re missing that input. Plus, our output doesn’t feel right. Do you see that something is missing?’

Mary: ‘No, not really.’

Jim: ‘Here’s a simple check for inputs. Let’s go through each of our tasks and ask ourselves if we have all the material, information, equipment, and people listed to do that task. Let’s just run down the tasks sequentially.’

For Input Order, we have the Customer Order and the Sales Rep.

For the Confirm Important Data, we use the Customer Database.

For Take Credit Card Order, we don’t list anything but that information comes from the Customer. We don’t have to list that again. You can if you want to be perfectly clear but it may just clutter the map.

For Submit Order to Shipping, we don’t need anything. That’s just using the computer system.

Lastly, for Call Customer with ETA, we don’t have anything. But what do we need? We need the ETA itself. Where does that come from?

Mary: ‘That comes from the Shipping department after they get the order from us.’

Jim: ‘Ok, then there are two things at play here. One, we need to put that input on our map. That is not something a new sales rep would know. And two, in order for the shipping department to give us an ETA, they need something from us ‘“ the order.’

Mary: ‘So, if the shipping department were to build their own map, one of their inputs would be our customer order. Is that right?

Jim: ‘Yeah, you’re getting it. Now follow that thought through. What is then their output?’

Mary: ‘They supply us with an ETA.’

Jim: ‘That’s right. Ok, we’re so close. Let’s finish our map. Let’s add those two items to our map. But let me add this one thought. I think we can get rid of the Sales Rep input. It’s pretty clear even to a new employee that a sales rep takes the call. My suggestion is to take that off the map as it just clutters up the map. My rule of thumb is to get rid of the obvious. But it has to be obvious to all. When we were brainstorming, we included everything. But now, we are tossing out the obvious things or things that don’t apply.

Ok, so let’s look at our map now. We now have two outputs to our process. Processes can have multiple outputs. Sometimes, they can be used as checkpoints to make sure we’re on schedule and we’re doing the things necessary to complete the entire process. In this case, we have to send the order to shipping so we can complete our process. If we don’t, then we’ll never get the ETA back to call the customer with.

[edit] Ordering Process

Jim: ‘Look what we’ve done. We’ve completed your map. It’s actually simpler than what you initially thought. More importantly, where’s the waiter with my drink?’

Mary: ‘Wow, that was pretty easy. Can you come to my office and help me with my other processes?

Jim: ‘You don’t need me. You and your team are the experts on your process. You just need to sit down and ask yourself all the basic questions and then write them down. The key is not to get bogged down in trying to be perfect. We may have missed some steps in the dinner example and your ordering process. But you’ve created a starting point. What you should do is show your group this map, explain what the map is, and see if they agree with all the steps. They may do some tasks that you’ve forgotten about yourself. If so, just adjust the map.

And lastly, I want to make this especially clear. For what you’re doing right now, these simple steps we just went through are a great start. Progress is better than perfection at this point in the process. Feel free to edit these maps as you see fit. Maybe a month, or two months or a year later, you’ll realize something has changed. Maybe you change your customer database, which could affect what info you get from the customer. ‘

With that, Mary goes into work the next day with her ordering process map in hand. She shows her group the map and explains what everything means. And then she asks the obvious question ‘“ ‘does everyone do these exact steps and in this sequence when processing an order?’

A few people say no. Some of these people are newer to the company but some have been at the company for several years.

‘Well, what do you do?’ Mary asks. One of the newer employees, Chuck says, ‘I never called the customer with the ETA. I simply input that information into the database. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me I was supposed to call the customer. How important is that?’

Mary responds, ‘it’s very important. We’ve found out that our customers feel warm and fuzzy knowing when their product will arrive. Nobody likes the unknown. Even if our date is off, at least they have a general idea that it will be there around a certain date.’

Chuck nods in agreement. ‘Ok, I get it. That makes a lot of sense. I figured that if they got it on time, the customer would be happy with that. I didn’t realize the customer would be even happier knowing when they would receive our product. I guess it’s like waiting for the cable guy to show up. Even if they give you a four hour window, it’s better than having an eight hour window.’

Within one month, simply by having it clearly understood that a follow-up call should be made after the order was placed, their customer satisfaction results got a lot better. They made no other changes to the process!

Mary’s boss asked her what happened. Mary told her boss that she implemented a process map. He asked to see it. Upon seeing it, he noted that it wasn’t a real process map because the symbols were not right. But then he added that the effectiveness of the map was not diminished and that the proof was in the pudding. Customer satisfaction was up.

[edit] Summary

By implementing a process map, Mary and her group gained valuable knowledge. That knowledge allowed them to service their customers better. But it did a lot more than that. It created a system that everyone could understand and follow. New employees could be brought up to speed very quickly on how to process an order. Nobody had to guess at what needed to be done. Everyone was doing the tasks that would create an efficient workplace, which in turn would provide excellent results.

The goal of this document is to guide you through documenting a process. There are many books that have great detail on how to create a map. We want to stress that the goal is not to be perfect in this early stage. We want progress, not perfection.

You may be lucky in that while you are documenting your process, you spot a problem area that you can easily fix. If that happens, by all means, go ahead and make the fix. But that is a benefit that we are not expecting at this stage. We are not creating these initial maps to find ways to improve the process. We are simply creating these maps to begin the process of creating a system that can be improved over time and followed by all employees. We cannot improve something without first understanding that which needs to be improved.

In the ordering example, the focus was to get a solid understanding of what happens throughout the ordering process. There was no discussion of metrics, (i.e. how quickly an order gets placed or how many times an incorrect order was shipped). Those things are important and the next step in improving the process.

Key points while mapping:

  • Don’t worry about being perfect. You will edit it and continue to improve it over time.
  • Don’t initially spend too much time worrying about the right level of detail. Some items will naturally fall out because they are so obvious and omissions may also become clear as you document the map.
  • Remember that this is a starting point. You can’t improve your process without first creating a baseline.
  • Find tools that make this job easier for you. Use napkins. Use post-it notes. Use flow-charting software.

[edit] The Bigger Picture

For a smaller yet growing company, documenting processes is extremely important. Why? I’m glad you asked.

Every good business relies on a system. There are too many variables in running a business. You have employees. These employees do something; at least I hope they do. These employees provide a service or product to a customer, both internal and external. A well defined and continuously improving system based on customer expectations allows the company to run smoothly and provide value that is worth something to a customer.

Let’s start with documentation. If your internal processes aren’t documented in an operations manual, you are open to failure. That means that your business relies on the people that execute the process. What if someone quits? Or gets sick? Or needs to be fired? All that knowledge they have goes out the door with them. But you can’t use that as an excuse. Customers are waiting. It could take a lot of time to get your process running smoothly again or others suffer for it. But if your processes are documented, someone can step in and fulfill that job.

Along those lines, not every company can hire A+ players for every position. It’s just not feasible to expect that to happen. Let your system be the driving force ‘“ then the people can do work that consistently produces products that delight the customer. Find people that can perform the duties required of them in the process documentation. That’s not to say that you should not look to hire skilled individuals. Higher skilled individuals can use their skills to help the company move forward, by improving these processes and systems.

Systems also promote order. If you compared two different companies and one looked to be in chaos while the other one looked orderly, which one would you go to? Order says to customers that you’ve got things under control. You know what to do. Even if a wrench gets thrown at you, you look like you could handle it.

Another thing that systems promote is consistency. And who doesn’t love consistency (unless things are consistently bad)? Customers love consistency. When cola drinkers buy a bottle of cola, they expect it to taste the same as the last bottle they bought. When people find a shirt they like, whether it is the fit or the material, they want to know they can buy that same shirt in a different color and have it feel exactly the same. A good system that two different abide by will create consistent results.

Let me add a personal note about systems. Through many years of working many different jobs, I’ve realized one major thing – I don’t remember as much as I used to. Of course, maybe I’m just getting old. But my brain can only remember so much. Therefore, by writing things down, I get to remember less. There is no pressure to remember everything. If I document a process and a year later I have to perform that task, all I have to remember is where to find that document. And if it’s in my own words, I’ll pick it up a lot quicker than going back to some book to re-learn it. Pressure-less and efficient. I think your boss will like those results.

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