As PaySimple’s VP of Knowledge you might expect that I spend much of my time answering questions about our product, our company policies and procedures, and our business environment. However, you might not guess that one of the most common questions I’m asked is, “What if you get hit by a bus tomorrow?” No, it’s not because I have a habit of recklessly propelling myself into oncoming traffic (though I grew up in the NYC area, so I do have a natural inclination to take-on public transportation vehicles); it’s because I have a tendency to keep everything, from active and upcoming project lists, to passwords, to contacts, to processes and procedures, to renewal dates, to the location of the key for my office file drawer, in my head.
I have a pretty good mental filing system, and it rarely lets me down (and when it does, there is always a “forgot password” link or a Google search). But then, there is that pesky bus. If it hit me tomorrow, there would be a bunch of people scrambling to figure out not only how to do everything I currently do, but also to figure out the immediate priorities, the ongoing maintenance tasks, and the important future plans. (And my husband would never figure out where I hid the safe deposit box key!)
Do you have someone like me on your small business team? Or, does that sound like you? There are many small business owners who run an entire company out of their head—even if they have a dedicated, capable, and responsible team. Believe me, it’s a hard habit to break; but it is one worth augmenting if not ditching all together. The bus scenario notwithstanding, if you’re the only one who understands how key business processes are accomplished, then you’re the only one who can improve them. That’s not ideal— you can’t help but fall victim to your own cognitive biases, so when it comes to process optimization, two or three or four heads are definitely better than one.
Business Process Mapping for Small Business
That’s where business process mapping, and associated business process modeling, comes into play. First, it helps you get all your key processes documented so that everyone in your company can understand them, and can understand the role they play. Second, it clearly highlights where responsibilities fall in your company, and can expose overworked team members (likely yourself as the small business owner), and underutilized talent. And third, it helps to identify inefficiencies that can be remediated to help your small business operate optimally.
If you just rolled your eyes at the mention of “process mapping” and had visions of Lean Six Sigma consultants invading your mental space, or nightmares of vast Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) symbol libraries crashing down on your head, relax. This post provides an excellent history of business process modeling, the origins of which it traces to Adam Smith’s 1776 writings on improving manufacturing efficiency via division of labor. And, as shown in this infographic, business process management has evolved via ideas originating in the 18th century, began its modern incarnation in the 1980s, and is continuing to evolve into what is expected to be an $8.5 million market in 2019.
So yes, process mapping (or modeling or management) can be turned into a complex and seemingly never ending expensive consulting project that big companies implement to satisfy upper management whims. But at its core, process mapping makes sense to even the smallest business.
Forget the buzz words and the endless modeling techniques, and think of process mapping as identifying the most important things your business does, who does them, how they are done, and who they impact. In those terms, it is easy to see how it can benefit your business by:
- Highlighting places where work gets bogged down
- Identifying key customer decision points and pain points
- Locating barriers to productive change
- Detecting vendors that impede effective customer service
- Finding overworked and underworked team members
- Pinpointing non-critical functions that can be outsourced
- Uncovering areas where costs can be reduced
- Training new team members and cross-training existing ones
- Creating clear documentation of all business critical functions (in case of that bus mishap)
Business Process Mapping Basics
This short video from a business mapping consultant provides a great high-level overview. (The background music is a bit annoying, and there is no voiceover, so you may want to turn down the volume.)
This tutorial provides the very basics of process mapping and introduces you how companies implement it. This blog post provides helpful advice for small businesses looking to use basic process mapping. And this post provides definitions and examples of the many different types of business process modeling techniques including BPMN, Mind Maps, Role Interaction Maps, Workflow Notation, and many more.
And, this report provides some proof that process mapping is an effective business optimization tool. (It surveyed UK IT professionals, so it may not exactly translate to the business landscape as a whole, or even to the US IT business landscape.) It found that 34% of respondents thought that business process optimization can generate 15% more additional revenue (with 21% putting it at 30% more revenue), and that 33% of respondents thought that business process optimization could save over 30% in cost. And, according to The State of Business Process Management 2014 report, which surveyed US business managers, the most common reason for embarking upon business process management was to save money via reducing costs and increasing productivity and the most common tools utilized for process mapping were basic graphics tools like Microsoft Visio and PowerPoint.
Though, even a simple software application like PowerPoint isn’t necessary to start mapping your processes. All you really need is a pen, a piece of paper, and a little quiet time. A good place to start is with the processes you own completely, and with those you manage. As you start diagraming, make sure that you note key information that someone else would need in case you fall victim to that bus. For example, if you’re referencing a process component performed by a vendor, note contact information for the vendor and where login credentials can be found (if applicable). Or, if you are documenting accounts payable/receivable functions, you would want to list all of your bank accounts along with the types of funds that should be deposited in each. If you’re documenting an encryption key change process, you’ll want to note the location of the safe deposit box key for the box in which the encryption key is stored. (Note to self: Document location of safe deposit box key for husband.)
Unless you’re a one person show, you’ll want to bring your team in on the mapping project too. They may be surprised at everything you do (and they may even volunteer to take on some of it), and you may be surprised at the things they do on a day to day basis to keep your small business running efficiently. Once the initial maps are done, examine them closely for potential optimization, draw in changes where they appear to make sense (that’s the modeling part), then try out the new processes and evaluate effectiveness, then decide whether to keep the new process, revert to the old one, or try different variations (that’s the management part).
Free Business Process Mapping Tools
If you’re really into process mapping you can take it further than just the pen and paper. In addition to standard Microsoft Office programs like Word and PowerPoint (which include some basic flow-chart tools), and more robust tools like Microsoft Visio, there are a number of free tools available that are specifically designed for business process mapping. Many of these include template libraries that can be extremely useful for process mapping beginners; because they help you structure your thinking and remove the obstacle of starting from a blank page. Consider the following:
If you only try one free diagraming tool, this should be it. The free online version of Creately enables you to work on 5 diagrams at a time, and save and export them in PDF, and other graphic formats. (And you can export and delete each one when you’re done to free up space.) It provides an extensive template library that includes multiple types of business mapping diagrams, as well as other important business diagram types such as use case diagrams, UI mock-ups, SWAT analysis diagrams, infographics, and many more. When you start with a template, you can easily get the hang of the drag and drop shapes and connection tools. Take a tour of Creately features here, sign-up for your free account here, and watch the getting started tutorial video here.
- Lucidchart for Business
This online diagramming tool enables you to create a wide variety of diagrams, and incudes templates for business process mapping, mind mapping, and basic flow charts, among others. It is compatible with other programs such as Visio, so you can easily read and edit diagrams native to those programs, and others can view your diagrams in them. It integrates seamlessly with Google Drive for easy online collaboration, and you can export your diagrams as PDF so they can be read by anyone. Take a feature tour here, and open a free account with your email address here. (NOTE: you can also take a 7-day free trial of one of the full feature versions which will automatically convert to the free version after the trial period is over.)
SmartDraw bills itself as “the smartest way to draw anything,” which includes business process maps. It is available as a downloadable program, as well as a cloud-based online application (when you buy the desktop version, you get cloud access as well). This overview (with video) provides information on using SmartDraw for business process documentation, and this one describes all of the business process mapping templates and symbols available. You can get a free trial (30 days I think) for either the online or desktop version here, and watch the getting started tutorial video here.
If you’re more of a free-flow thinker than a structured one, mind mapping may be the way to go for your business process mapping. Rather than having defined starting and ending points as do traditional business maps, mind maps have a natural organizational structure that radiates from the center and use lines, symbols, words, color and images to diagram a concept or process. MindUp is a free online tool (no account needed) for creating mind maps. When you first access it, you start with a blank slate and begin mapping. You can save your work to your computer, publish it publically, or export as a .PDF or PNG file. Instructions are few (and not quite intuitive), but check out basic documentation here.
For more information on business process mapping, watch any of the video tutorials linked above. Not only do they provide help with learning how to use the diagramming tools, they also provide a great introduction to creating process map diagrams themselves. Additionally, once you’ve mapped your processes you’ll want to determine how to optimize and improve them. The Handbook for Basic Process Improvement from the Balanced Scorecard Institute, though almost 20 years old, is still a great place to start.