The Definitive Guide to Business Process Modeling
Last Updated on January 5, 2024 by Owen McGab Enaohwo
To say that we are living in an era of plenty would be a colossal understatement. But we seldom stop to reflect and appreciate how all the amenities we take for granted today make it to our hands. While it may seem that many of the technological breakthroughs that enable high-quality goods to be created and distributed only started around the middle of the 20th century, the science of business process has existed and been evolving far longer than commonly known.
Even though means, materials and efficiencies have no doubt increased manifold since, the underlying principle remains essentially the same. But business process modeling as a concept wouldn’t take shape until the early 20th century when gantt charts, flowcharts, functional flow block diagrams, etc started being used to document and affect business methodologies.
Whether it was Henry Ford’s Model T that halved the price of cars or Just-in-Time manufacturing that greatly reduced the time it takes to manufacture and distribute goods, every quality of life improvement can be traced to an innovative business process.
But even as business process models have helped power many industry trends, companies today are confronted with challenges that until recently were non-existent. Just look what Airbnb, Uber and Lyft have done to their respective industries. With newer methods of working such as BYOD, digital nomadism and remote working gaining popularity, companies are being forced to work in asymmetrical ways that both challenge older business process models and present interesting new advantages.
Since remote working is expected to at least equal fixed location working by 2025, companies have to adapt and update their business process models to function efficiently in this new dynamic. In the interest of self-preservation, companies are best to anticipate radical, sometimes devastating changes unless they want to be caught unprepared. But such challenges also demand that we answer some perplexing questions:
- How does a company opt for a business process model if there is no guarantee it will remain useful as markets or work practices change?
- If a company does come up with a set of business process models, can they be updated on the fly?
- Are the company’s current processes really inefficient to the point they have to be replaced?
- Is new technology presenting newer models that can be leveraged to provide a competitive advantage?
In the following sections, we will attempt to answer each one of these questions (among others) to help you find and implement the best business process for your business’s unique way of working and challenges. Let’s begin.
The Definitive Guide to Business Process Modeling – Content Index
Chapter 1: Defining a Business Process Model
Chapter 2: Four Business Process Modeling Techniques
Chapter 6: Tools for Business Process Modeling
Defining a Business Process Model
Despite the best of intentions, businesses rarely operate at their highest efficiency. Important things get overlooked: office politics, power games, people getting sick and lost opportunities all play an unfortunate, albeit inevitable, role in a company’s life. A business process model is therefore a tool that can be used to graphically present how a company works and identify opportunities to improve processes.
The term first appeared in 1967 in S. William’s paper titled Business Process Modeling Improves Administrative Control which explored physical control systems for understanding business processes. The strategy uses graphing methods such as flowcharts, Gantt charts, data-flow diagrams, Petri nets, etc., to illustrate all the different business functions and how they interact with one another. The following is a simple illustration of a BPM.
Two types of business process models are drawn: as-is models that represent how a company works presently, and to-be models that denote how a company should look in the future.
As-is Business Models: An as-is model defines and lists out all the functions of a business as they exist today, complete with their strengths and weaknesses. These consist of all the roles, responsibilities, steps, exceptions, etc. While as-is business models aren’t necessary, creating one can be extremely beneficial to tracking the company’s performance over time. Certain situations also require as-is business models to be obtained before moving forward. For instance:
- The company is facing issues such as customer service inquiries not getting processed in time.
- Orders are taking an inordinate amount of time to get processed, far more than the industry standard.
- There is palpable confusion regarding responsibilities and users often overstep their boundaries.
- The management has discovered methods to improve efficiency in certain processes or automate them entirely.
These are some of the more common reasons, and many more such scenarios can be added here. Documenting business processes is a good practice in itself as it can uncover many issues that may plague a company, often unknowingly.
To-be Business Models: These models define the state that an organization wishes to be in. Oftentimes, a to-be model is an as-is model with procedural improvements. However, if a company wishes to rewrite how it works entirely, then a completely new model can be created.
For instance, if a company grows, then it might have to add a new department or a warehouse that will come with its own set of processes. The company will then need to document all the new functions and processes into its existing business process model and assess how each of them affects the rest of its functions.
Over the years, many different business process modeling techniques have come up, each with its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular ones and what advantages they have to offer.
Four Business Process Modeling Techniques
Even a cursory online search will reveal a plethora of modeling tools you can use to get a good idea of what your company’s processes look like. The problem, however, is that many of these tools are either untested or simply ideas without any sound real-world applications. While you are encouraged to find as many actionable insights online as possible, let’s take a look at four of the most well-known business process modeling tools.
Business Process Model and Notations (BPMN)
By far the most common business process modeling technique, BPMN uses flowchart based graphical notations and is similar to activity diagrams found in the Unified Modeling Language.
BPMN is popular because the notations used within it are intuitive and simple for business users, yet provide enough technical semantics for some of the more complicated processes.
The notations are standardized so they can be understood by all stakeholders.
The model was developed by Business Process Management Initiative (BPMI) which merged with the Object Management Group in 2005 and is ISO 19510 compliant.
As part of its standardization, BPMN uses five categories for denoting business functions. They are:
- Connecting Objects: Connects different tasks via lines. Solid lines represent task transfers; dotted ones are for messaging.
- Flow Objects: Represents events with circles; activities with rectangular boxes; gateways and control points come in diamond shape.
- Swimlanes: Details how different responsibilities are to be shared within a process. Here, a sub-task is denoted as a “pool” and lanes represent people or departments.
- Artefacts: Used to show extra information that isn’t part of the process but can help illustrate it better.
- Data Objects: Are used to denote four data types. A page icon is used for singular data objects; page icon with arrow is for data input and outputs; and a container is used for data stores.
BPMN is an evolving system that is being added to all the time. For the most updated version of BPMN, check out bpmn.org/.
Subject-Oriented Business Process Management (S-BPM)
A communication based tool, S-BPM is derived from CCS-Calculus by Robin Milner which was designed to provide a mathematical framework to understand communication systems. S-BPM uses a simple five-symbol system to model any process. The underlying premise of S-BPM is that every system is built up of subjects which can be a locus of activity, a process or a computational unit. Notations here can be mapped as follows:
- Subject (who): the subject
- Object (with what): data
- Predicate (what): action
A subject executes an action on an object. The notation is best illustrated with a flowchart of a quiz, where an asker asks a question to a responder, who then provides an answer which is then responded to with feedback (if it’s needed).
Everyone knows of the humble old flowchart and its many uses. Most of the other business process models are essentially just a different iteration of flowcharts with a few features added for greater flexibility. While flowcharts have been superseded, they still remain relevant due to their simplicity.
Flowcharts are used for documenting sequential actions, simple processes and functions. A standard flowchart can be made with just two symbols: a rectangular box to denote an action, and a diamond-shaped box to highlight decisions. Even so, over the years many symbols have been added including oval rectangles for start/end functions, parallelograms for input/output, circles for connectors, triangle for inventory, rectangle with rounded corners for alternate processes, and so on.
Even though more advanced tools are certainly available today, the simplicity of flowcharts make them an ideal starting point for companies looking to get into business process modeling. Their intuitive nature makes them easy to understand with little or no training, which is why they are still being used in business and technological applications even to this day.
Activity Diagrams (UML)
Unified Modeling Language was created in 1994 by Grady Brooch, Ivar Jacobson and James Rumbaugh primarily for documenting software systems. Despite being complicated due to the sheer amount of information and techniques added to it since its inception, UML has use cases beyond software and has been successfully applied to business functions as well.
Activity diagrams that are a part of behavioral diagrams in UML offer a very efficient way to record business processes as they are designed to document flow of actions. Even in UML, activity diagrams are the second most popular tool after class diagrams. Activity diagrams can be created using five basic components:
- Start node: uses a black circle to symbolize the beginning of an activity
- Action: uses a box (sometimes with rounded edges) to denote an action taken by an actor
- Decision node: represented by a diamond, has one input and two or more outputs
- Control flows: uses arrows, join and fork symbols to connect the different steps
- End node: Uses a black within a white circle symbol to denote the end of a process
Other symbols used include the hourglass symbol to highlight the amount of time between processes, arrow box to represent outgoing events, an arrow fletch symbol for incoming events, and a document symbol for annotations.
How to Select a Business Process Model for Your Company
Your company’s business process is a subset of its entire business process management lifecycle and as such needs to fit into your strategy. As Gartner says, “Processes span organizational boundaries, linking together people, information flows, systems and other assets to create and deliver value to customers and constituents.” A typical BPM lifecycle looks like:
As the model itself will be a small part of your productivity equation, it’s best to consider all the other variables that will play here. As such, you must:
Generate organization wide buy-in: Your business process model needs to document every step of your value chain. Most of these steps will be known best to the people who perform them every day, i.e., your team members. Asking everyone to share how they do what they do and what they might want to improve will be not only a great way to communicate the need for documenting your business process model, but involve everyone too which will help implementing any new model(s) all the more easier.
Map your as-is processes: Once you have some buzz built around your BPM initiative, it’s time to create a database of all the existing processes you are currently using. Consider sending a form to all your team members with a series of questions that helps them define their roles, responsibilities, processes they follow and any issues that they might be facing.
Relate the processes to your business strategy: Many processes are thought of and implemented in the spur of the moment as and when the need arises. Since there is no guarantee that these processes actually help achieve the company’s goals efficiently, they should be mapped against the latter.
Define your to-be processes: By now you should have a good idea on what your overall process chain looks like, which processes add the most value to your organization, which can be replaced and which are simply dead weight. Your ideal to-be BPM should therefore include the processes that your company has mastered, upgrade legacy processes that are falling behind, and replace those that are obsolete. You can also add processes that new technologies are enabling at this stage.
Implement Continuous Process Improvement (CPI): If you haven’t already, that is. The idea behind CPI can be traced back to the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen which highlights the importance of continually improving yourself, your service/product and your organization’s culture. The primary focus of CPI is to continuously look out for and remove sub-optimal processes from the value chain. This can be accomplished via constantly reflecting on the processes, the value they add to your organization, and how they can be used as a foundation to build something even better. Improvements can be added in an iterative manner or in one fell swoop as needed.
While the steps mentioned above will help you with the cultural aspect of organizational change, selecting the right business process modeling tool will need a different approach. Wenhong Luo and Y. Alex Tung in their paper titled A Framework for Selecting Business Process Modeling Methods give an excellent strategy on how to go about finding the right process modeling tool for your organization. They highlight five steps that can help you do so:
Identification of modeling objectives: List out the reason why modeling business processes is required. Are you trying to get a better idea of how your business runs? Do you want to improve certain processes/sub-processes only? Do you feel that your legacy processes are facing obsoletion? Have you discovered inefficiency in your value chain? Several reasons can also coexist throughout the process reengineering effort as well.
Identification of required perspectives and desired characteristics: Once the modeling objectives have been ascertained, you can determine from which perspective a model will be crafted. Luo and Tung suggest that models can either be from the object perspective, which emphasizes the objects being manipulated, i.e. data, documents or physical items, or from the activity perspective which highlights the activities being performed and the relationship between each activity.
So if the objective of your modeling initiative is to help employees understand their roles better, then your models should be from the activity perspective. The model should ideally be simple to understand as non-technical people will be required to study and implement it. On the other hand, if your model is to examine process performance, then it should be drawn from the object perspective.
Identification of alternative BPM methods: In this step, all the viable BPM tools, complete with their respective strengths and weaknesses, are listed. From the example above, let’s assume your objective is to enhance employee performance. You therefore consider BPMN, activity diagrams and flowcharts as potentially ideal modeling tools. Both offer great activity perspective potential and have a plethora of features to help you achieve your goal.
Evaluation of modeling methods: Your selected models are now weighed against their respective strengths. Upon deeper analysis, you discover that activities that BPMN can highlight with a single symbol sometimes require several symbols (and steps) in AD. The conclusion shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, as AD being a derivative of UML is, in fact, object based at its heart since it was created to model software systems.
That being said, BPMN is far more complex than needed and you realize that many of its core features such as swimlanes won’t even be needed. You only need enough visualization to help employees picture the entire process better. Flowcharts, on the other hand, are perfectly adequate as they are simple, and your staff is also well familiar with it, making implementation and buy-in easy.
Selection of the appropriate method: It is entirely possible that more than one tool will be needed. However, in our given example, flowcharts are the clear winner.
The decision making process that most companies will face will no doubt be far more complex, and recreating a detailed account of what it might look like is beyond the scope of this article. The research paper goes into more depth on how to decide which business process modeling tool to select, so be sure to give it a read.
There is hardly a business process out there that cannot be documented with one of the four modeling tools mentioned above. That being said, here are a few honorable mentions you can look into.
- Cognition enhanced Natural Language Information Analysis Method: CogNIAM attempts to integrate different classes of data, rules, processes, and semantics, and is also known as the “Knowledge Triangle.”
- Event Driven Process Chain: A simple ordered graph of events and functions, EDPC can be thought of as the flowchart technique on steroids.
- Formalized Administrative Notations: Useful for helping managers identify and describe responsibilities and operations.
How You’re Probably Underestimating the Benefits of Business Process Modeling
Documenting business processes is incredibly easy to underestimate. So often, we end up getting carried away by daily goals, deadlines, and handling customer issues to the point where we forget about how the underlying processes can be enhanced.
Even if documenting and modeling business processes may seem like a fairly mundane chore, neglecting it can have catastrophic consequences for a business. According to market research firm IDC, companies can lose 30% every year due to inefficiencies.
Companies are often guilty of continuing with the same processes simply because they have become too accustomed to them as well. Such practices result in inefficiencies getting deeply entrenched into the organization’s culture and can hurt its performance in the market. The opposite is true as well. General Electric reported that a one percent increase in oil production led to an additional 80 billion barrels of oil per year.
James Proctor, director of professional services at the Inteq Group, in his white paper on Misconceptions of Censuring Current State Mapping, suggests four reasons companies give when ignoring current state mapping and analysis:
We already have a process, it works, so there’s no need to evaluate and improve: Beyond the processes that are explained in onboarding tours, rule books and management sessions, a company’s staff also maintains procedural knowledge gained by experience over time. This deep business knowledge is almost always maintained in the minds of the people and rarely documented, even though it has a very high say in how a company produces its output. The consequence here is twofold:
- The knowledge is lost when an employee leaves the company. Or,
- The processes remain inefficient as they are never discussed openly.
One of the advantages of mapping current processes is that they can help a company mine its intuitive, subjective knowledge. It can also help answer the processes what and how, thereby enabling the company to build on top of it.
We know our processes don’t work, so let’s move to the latest, greatest thing: Also known as “shiny object syndrome,” this line of reasoning is again given to jump to a new solution without trying to understand what the underlying problem is. Oftentimes, there will be salvageable knowledge that can serve an organization, or the processes itself will need some fixing. Organizations also ignore the human element in their processes where vested interests and poor allocation of resources can come together to wreak havoc on the output. As most companies will follow industry specific processes, they can misdiagnose problems.
Mapping business processes can help companies understand where they are going wrong, what they can do to fix it, and how to go about affecting their solutions. Consequently, they may uncover solutions that do not require a complete overhaul, making new process implementation both easier and more affordable.
We are outsourcing our business process to a third party, so we don’t need to look into our processes ourselves: Many times, companies will look to specialized vendors to help them come up with better business processes—no doubt a great way to fast forward to a new desired step. But simply relying on another company’s solution can also result in lost knowledge and overlooked opportunities to increased efficiency.
A desired future state can only be attained once the current state has been understood. In fact, even after implementing a radically different method, 60% to 80% of a business’s existing concepts continue to apply. Reason being, while the processes themselves may be altered slightly, their fundamental premise (i.e., business logic) will remain the same. Moving to a third-party solution will require an astute understanding of a company’s current processes and how they can coexist with the vendor’s solution, making business process mapping all the more necessary.
We have industry best practices already at work, so we don’t need to innovate: While existing workflow templates are no doubt a great, well-tested source to draw your organizational design from, they are best not taken at face value. Most such instructions draw from their respective sources experience, business challenges, and subjective views on how to go about solving certain problems. These insights may or may not apply to your company’s particular operation. You may find utility in some parts of the template and rely on your existing models for other functions.
The best organizations use templates to create their own business processes that are tailored to their strengths while helping them overcome their weaknesses. A business model becomes more than a tool to complete a process as quickly as possible and can be used to differentiate a business from its competitors.
The bottom line here is that there is never a good reason not to document your processes and procedures. Even if a business process model doesn’t seem necessary now, there are plenty of scenarios that may prove to be invaluable.
Five Questions to Ask Before Creating Your Business Process Model
Even though the importance of having a business process model in place is well established, there needs to be a well-defined use case starting out. The following five business analysis questions are a great way to create a framework for mapping business processes:
What are you currently doing?
Essentially you list out all the processes, activities and sequences that are currently being carried out by the company to create its product/service. Consider listing each activity and process in detail, who is responsible for it, and any issues you may be facing in executing it.
What are you currently doing that is not needed?
In other words, of all the activities and processes listed, which can you do without and/or can be replaced? Many organizations have business processes and policies that either have little or no value.
More often than not, these will be legacy ware that has been in practice for a long time and can be replaced with more modern tools. On other occasions, procedures and policies may have been put in place to comply with legislations that have since been removed, making said policies obsolete.
What are you currently doing that can be improved?
When obsolete processes are discovered, the first impulse is usually to replace them quickly. However, analysis can reveal that certain business policies, processes, and procedures can be improved with minor modifications. Improvement is always best prioritized over replacement as it can lead to substantial improvement in performance at lower costs.
What are you not doing that you should be doing?
Many times, stakeholders become aware that a procedure, policy or process is proving to be a bottleneck. They may also be aware of certain actions or tools that can help to iron out the kinks and drive up productivity but are unable to implement them either due to financial or time constraints. Listing out such problems along with available known solutions will be a good start toward getting more people involved and thereby putting them into practice.
What are you not doing that you don’t know you should be doing?
Not all requirements can be known ahead of time, and the same can be said for potential solutions. This question is to coax stakeholders into looking out of their immediate vicinity to find solutions that may exist they are currently unaware of. Asking third party specialists and analysts, researching online, and keeping up-to-date with industry news, are all great ways to get some new ideas flowing in house.
Business Process Modeling Software
Obviously, creating modeling for your business processes is an involved and tedious task that is going to take some time. And if you are planning on using spreadsheets, emails, document files and PDFs to document your processes, then it will take longer than it really has to. A number of cloud-based business process tools exist today that are designed from the ground up to help companies create, distribute, and track their processes, all from one place. Not only do these tools greatly speed up documentation, but also act as a central repository for all the company’s knowledge, making process implementation all the more efficient.
Here are five such tools:
Features: Document processes, procedures and policies, steps can be added to each as checklists and can include videos and/or pictures, enables training on the job
Price: Starting at $99/Month for team of twenty with $5/additional member
Free trial: 14 days
The software above is designed for process mapping and documentation. But none of them really delve into the basic components of BPM. In fact, most business process modeling tools only deal with the process part of the equation while ignoring its two siblings: policies and procedures. And yes, all three are very different in definition and application. An organization’s business schematics needs the proper implementation of all three in order to be implemented successfully. The difference between them is:
- Policies: A list of rules and guidelines that need to be followed to accomplish a goal.
- Procedures: The outline on how to carry out a task.
- Processes: The exact step-by-step instructions on how to complete a task.
Essentially, processes make up a procedure, and procedures make up a policy. All three components work best when they use the preceding tool as context. This is where SweetProcess shines. The platform allows users to systematically create their policies, procedures, and processes, and assign them to teams and/or users.
SweetProcess also allows companies to capture information in real time and integrate it into their overall business model effortlessly. People can be trained on new procedures on the spot and all their feedback can be recorded on the job card for future reference.
Users can implement a document-as-you-go process model where their business process model can be revised and adapted based on new information, technique, or technology. In other words, companies need not assign a huge part of their time and manpower to revising their business process—it can be done on the fly as and when needed.
Features: Highly intuitive and personalizable dashboards, output document builder, easy to track KPIs
Price: $1,500/month for standard package
Free trial: 30 days
Some of the biggest challenges that a company faces when coming up with new processes appear mundane on the surface. For instance, maintaining paper records and backups, signing soft copies digitally and coming up with a unified design that everyone in the company can work with can give managers more than a headache. ProcessMaker takes care of these issues (among many others) by providing a simple interface to both create and distribute process-related documents.
ProcessMaker is a drag and drop BPMN-based process-making tool that allows users to create their own process models without needing to know any programming knowledge. Entire processes can be created offline and synced with the company’s database when the user goes online. BPMN elements such as Gateways can be designed on customized conditions and form-fields can be created print-ready with definable variables.
By far the most interesting feature that ProcessMaker comes with is their awesome dashboards. The Process Efficiency Index (PEI) is an intelligent system that learns from your processes over time and establishes better performance levels using resource costs and comparative rankings, among other factors. The Employee Efficiency Index (EEI) carries out a similar analysis of every user, and suggests ways they can improve their performance.
Features: Unique five-step app wizard, attaching Google Docs, prebuilt reports, hands-off workflows
Price: Starts at $149/month for 30 users
Free trial: 30 days
With over 10,000 customers in 121 countries, Kissflow is easily one of the most popular BPM tools out there. If there’s one constant theme in all the reviews that it has garnered, it is that the software offers unprecedented ease in helping users create and use workflows.
True to its name, nothing in Kissflow requires elaborate coding knowledge. All forms and process workflows can be created with drag and drop items. The software is built from the ground up to be scalable and can easily add users, data objects, and complexity with ease. It also offers out-of-the-box integration with Zapier so documents can be moved to and from any of the 1,500 web apps online.
Kissflow has some very well thought-out access controls and lets process creators define and implement accesses at each step of a process based on a users rights and responsibilities. The app can send out updates to all the users within a process based on predefined conditions automatically. Tasks can be escalated to certain teams and individuals if predefined conditions are triggered.
With the app’s robust reporting features, your entire auditing process can easily be carried out online. Custom reports can be created right down to specific processes with the same drag and drop functionality that Kissflow is known for. Even so, the app allows you to create a paper trail for manual audits or backups if necessary.
Features: Smart reports, collaboration tools, multi-language tools, custom reports
Price: Starts at $5/user/month
Free trial: 15 days
Like Kissflow and ProcessMaker, Zoho creator is billed as a code-free process creation tool that users can jump into and start fiddling with. Unlike the previous two, however, Zoho is ideal not only for small, medium and large businesses, but freelancers as well, thanks to a very low starting price of $5 per month.
Zoho has one of the most inclusive workflow management features, including access control, a robust approval process control system, advanced workflow configuration, and business process automation that allows emails and predefined messages to be sent at each step of the way and many more.
Even though Zoho creator can easily be used by non-technical users easily, the platform has one of the best app creator features in the business. If your work requires building custom apps, then Zoho can not only provide you with a workflow management suite, but an app development platform as well. Combining both the features can drastically decrease development time.
Features: Proprietary Nintex connectors, heavy emphasis on mobility and automation, easy to create process-friendly forms
Price: Starts at $950/100 processes/month
Free trial: 30 days
While Zoho Creator and Zoho offer process documentation and modeling features as part of an elaborate cloud based productivity suite, Nintex is wholly dedicated to process management only. Consequently, it offers far more “process management” oriented features than most other competing products. Nintex allows users to plan, map, and share processes with a few simple clicks.
Furthermore, Nintex allows processes to be automated without any coding knowledge. The software can help users identify processes that can be automated. The processes can then be automated using Nintex’s Robotic Process Automation (RPA) bots. RPA is usually thought of as a daunting, expensive task, which is why Nintex allows users to choose the number of processes they want to automate, rather than the number of bots they implement. This stands in stark contrast to typical RPA pricing that is often very confusing and is implemented differently from one vendor to the other.
Business process reengineering is all the rage today because companies are coming face to face with the truth that change is becoming ever more pervasive. The slow, steady-as-we-go approach that has served organizations so well until the cloud took over is now decidedly obsolete and needs to be replaced with a forward thinking, faster model that adapts to newer market conditions and changes on the fly.
The most obvious question here is, do time tested processes become obsolete also, and whether companies really need to start from scratch? Obviously, we’d all want our hard-earned knowledge to stick around, and there’s always the danger of poorly understanding whether change really serves a purpose and carry any short/long term value.
Business process modeling done the old way would require far too intensive an effort to really understand the value of a new direction. Cloud-based tools such as the ones mentioned above become an utterly indispensable tool to speed up the process and keep up with the new reality that we work in.
Business process modeling means documenting every step that your company takes and there’s plenty that can be overlooked or missed. Download our free checklist on creating a business process model to stay on track!