Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
January 30, 2024 · 12 min read

Process mapping 101: How to map out your workflows

Process mapping 101: How to map out your workflows: Illustration in blues and black showing the title, and some flow chart symbols

Project management is all about efficiency. Yet, the unfortunate truth is that many organizations struggle with making the most of their teams’ skills and time — to the point where nearly 10% of every dollar spent is going to waste.

But while there are plenty of problems and project risks that can kill your team’s efficiency, one of the greatest threats to your productivity is not taking the time to create and master repeatable processes.

Whether it’s allocating resources, managing risks, or creating project reports, research suggests employees could save up to 240 hours per year by mapping out and automating their project workflows.

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In this guide, we’ll explain what process mapping is and how it works, the different types of process maps to use, and how you can automate your daily work using workflow management software.

What is process mapping? Why is it so important?

Process mapping is a technique used to visualize the steps required to complete a business process — such as hiring employees, kicking off projects, running marketing campaigns, or making tough decisions.

Also known as a flowchart, workflow diagram, or business flow diagram, a process map highlights all of the tasks, decisions points, handoffs, inputs, and outputs of a workflow to help create alignment, boost understanding, and identify areas of improvement.

Illustration in blues and black showing an example of a process map with symbols and in a flow chart

An average business comprises hundreds, or even thousands, of individual processes. By mapping out those processes, you create a clear understanding of who is involved, what they need to do, and what decisions to make to be successful — no matter what the goal.

Here are just some of the main benefits of process mapping:

The bottom line: Every business, project, or program is really just a combination of processes. The better you are at mapping out workflows and standardizing how you work, the more efficient and productive you and your team will become.

One of the greatest threats to your productivity is not taking the time to create and master repeatable processes.

How to create a process map using workflow management software

Like all good workflows, the best way to build a process map is to follow consistent steps. Here’s our 9-step guide to process mapping, including an example of a real-world process mapping project to truly bring it to life.

1. Pick the process you want to map

Process mapping begins by identifying a process or workflow you want to review and visualize with a map. Businesses have hundreds, if not thousands, of processes, so make sure you’re clear on the specific processes to focus on to avoid any scope creep.

Some tips to help:

What this looks like in real life:

Alice is working as a Project Manager within the HR team at VitCorp. Alice’s project aims to make the department more efficient by optimizing processes and reducing wasted time on non-value-adding activities.

Alice holds a workshop with HR managers to identify processes that could be improved. The group decides that the recruitment process is the most problematic and will be reviewed first.

2. Bring together the right experts

With your process defined, it’s time to start assembling the team of experts to help you create the process map. To nail a process mapping workshop, you need a mix of facilitators, subject matter experts (SMEs), and change-makers to balance capturing the correct information and identifying improvements for the future.

Some tips to help:

Illustration in blues and black showing

What this looks like in real life:

Alice prepares for the first process mapping workshop by identifying the necessary stakeholders. Alice invites the Recruitment Team Lead and one Recruitment Executive as they know the current processes and day-to-day pain points. She also invites a Change Manager to offer insight into other areas of the business, as well as an external Recruitment Consultant to provide an outside perspective.

3. Set clear boundaries for the process

With businesses having so many interconnected processes, process mapping exercises can quickly get out of hand if they aren’t well controlled. Before kicking off a workflow mapping project, make sure everyone is aligned on what is being reviewed and what isn’t.

Some tips to help:

Be ruthless with what is and isn’t in your process’ scope. Most projects focus on what’s in scope and forget to define what’s out of scope. This is a mistake and is the most significant cause of scope creep. Instead, clearly define what you won’t do to set everyone’s expectations.

What this looks like in real life:

With the team assembled, Alice works to define the scope of the process and sets boundaries around the workflow. Given that the first workflow for review is recruitment, the team agrees that this covers from the point a manager requests a new vacancy through to a candidate accepting a job offer. The subsequent onboarding process is not included and is deemed out of scope.

4. Identify the process’ steps, decisions, inputs, and outputs

With the parameters set, it’s time to begin mapping out the workflow. To do this, you must get into the details of the tasks, actions, decisions, inputs, and outputs that make up the process to ensure every detail is captured.

Some tips to help:

To make sure you capture everything that’s needed, answer these questions:

What this looks like in real life:

The recruitment team works through the current recruitment processes, identifying all of the tasks and actions that employees and candidates need to do. Once complete, they list the decisions to be taken at various stages. Then, to finish, they consider the inputs into the process and the final outcome the recruitment process creates.

5. Organize activities into the order in which they’re done today

Processes only deliver maximum value if all of the necessary tasks are completed in the right order and by the right people. With all of the important elements and moments of the workflow identified, it’s time to connect it in the most logical order, ensuring the right activities are assigned to the right people and happen in the most efficient order.

Illustration in blues and black showing

Some tips to help:

What this looks like in real life:

The team orders the activities into the correct sequence, assigning each of them to the correct people.

On review, they have a range of activities, including the recruitment team creating job adverts, candidates completing applications and competency tests, and hiring managers conducting interviews and making hiring decisions. Once they complete this step, they have a process map that shows how the recruitment team works today.

6. Map out your steps using a standardized workflow format

While process mapping may be something new in your organization, the good news is there’s a whole wealth of knowledge and experience out there — including a standardized set of maps and mapping symbols you can use.

Some tips to help:

Familiarize yourself with the standard process and workflow mapping symbols and incorporate them into your process maps. The most common symbols used in a process map include:

Illustration in blues and black showing the most common process mapping symbols.

What this looks like in real life:

Alice and the team take their as-is recruitment process and convert it to reflect the standard symbols of process maps. This not only helps them standardize the approach, but makes it easier for the external recruitment consultant to understand as they’ve used this format before.

7. Identify risks, issues, and waste

Now that your process map is in the right format, we can identify and remove inefficiencies. Specifically, you’ll want to look for any potential risks, issues, and waste within the process that you can remove to increase the overall effectiveness of the workflow.

Some tips to help:

When looking for ways to improve workflow, look for these common areas of concern:

What this looks like in real life:

Alice and the team review the recruitment process to look for inefficiencies. They identify three key areas of concern:

  1. All hiring decisions have to be approved by the Recruitment Team Lead.
  2. Job adverts are created manually by the hiring manager in a Word document and then re-keyed into the recruitment platform.
  3. The Recruitment Executives manually write candidate rejection emails.

If all three of these issues are addressed, the recruitment time could be reduced by up to 30%.

8. Update process maps with your proposed changes

Once you’ve identified improvements, it’s time to re-map the process in its improved state.

This is called your ‘to-be’ process map, as it shows what the process could look like in the future. From there, it’s a case of implementing the changes into practice, which could end up leading to its own project entirely.

Some tips to help:

What this looks like in real life:

Alice updates the process map to show a ‘to-be’ workflow view. The project team makes two immediate changes: giving authority to Recruitment Executives to approve hiring decisions and providing Hiring Managers with access to the recruitment platform so they can directly input their adverts.

However, automating candidate rejection emails will require some custom software development, so Alice creates a business case to deliver that under a new project.

9. Move the workflow to your project management tool

While a process map is a great tool to visualize the steps of a workflow, it isn’t always practical to refer to a map throughout a project’s lifecycle. Plus, using a process map alone makes it harder to track progress or automate the steps of the process.

Instead, you can use a project management tool like Planio to create custom workflows for processes — and automatically apply them to your tasks and issues, taking the administrative work out of repeatable tasks.

How to use Planio to map out workflows and processes:

Planio allows you to create custom workflows for one-off projects and recurring tasks. Not only does this help you to automate common tasks, but it can also ensure that work is being assigned to the right people, trigger automatic messages and updates, or generate project status reports.

To start, create a custom tracker — this is a type of issue, that you can define and customize yourself to use for your workflow or process. For example, you could create a tracker for hiring processes, project kickoffs, sprint reviews, bug bashing, or capturing customer feedback.

To create a tracker, click on your Avatar → Administration → Trackers and then select New tracker. Name your tracker accordingly — for example, Recruitment.

Screenshot of Planio showing

Now, it’s time to set the standard information and status for any issue you create under this tracker. This includes the:

Next, you’ll want to create custom issue statuses based on your process. To do that, you’ll need to click on your Avatar → Administration → Issues Statuses and then click on New Status.

Planio screenshot showing the creation of a new status in the administration area

For example, beyond the standard Open, In Progress, Waiting for Review, and Closed statuses, we might want to create hiring-specific statuses, such as Contacted, Booked Interview, Declined Interview, Offer Submitted, Offer Rejected, etc.

For statuses like Declined Interview or Offer Rejected, you can check Issue closed to automatically end the process when those statuses are reached.

Now, it’s time to decide who does what as part of this process (i.e., roles and responsibilities). Once again, head to your Avatar → Administration → Roles and permissions and then add a New role. For this section, you’ll want to refer to the people who are part of your process map — such as the Recruitment Executives and Hiring Managers.

Screenshot showing how to set up a new role for the hiring manager

For each role, you can decide what they can see, what actions they can take, and who can see them.

Finally, it’s time to put it all together. Click on your Avatar → Administration → Workflow and select a role and tracker to define.

For example, we can select our Hiring manager role and the Recruitment tracker and then define the status transitions that people with this role can do. For example, you can make it so that the Hiring manager can update the process up until the Offer submitted step — in which case it will be handed over to the Recruitment executive.

Planio Screenshot showing the workflow for a hiring manager when using the tracker

And that’s it!

Once you define the key steps that each role can make, you can translate your process map into an automated and repeatable workflow — alongside all of your other tasks, issues, plans, and documents in Planio.

Planio Screenshot showing the workflow for a hiring manager when using the tracker

What this looks like in real life:

Once Alice finishes the recruitment process, she identifies six more HR processes that need improvement. She uses Planio to automate the tasks she’ll need to complete, including reaching out to team members, arranging workshops, sharing process maps with stakeholders, and reporting on her progress.

4 types of process maps and how to use them

Like many things in project management, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to process mapping. In fact, you can use a range of different process mapping formats, depending on your project, sector, or organization.

Illustration in blues and black showing the titles of 4 types of process maps, also listed below

Let’s look at four of the most popular, including what they are and when to use them.

1. Basic flowcharts

Basic flowcharts are the simplest form of process map, using symbols and lines to represent activity and how it flows. These process maps are best used to help teams get clarity on simple processes or when documenting existing ways of working.

When to use basic flowcharts:

2. Swimlane maps

Swimlane maps build on basic workflows but clearly show the handoffs between different stakeholders, with each person having their own ‘swimlane’ of activity. Swimlane maps are best used to help show interdependencies between different teams or when working on processes with internal and external stakeholders.

When to use swimlane maps:

3. Value stream map

Value stream maps are commonly used for processes that directly contribute to creating products for customers, with an extra focus on the inputs and outputs required. Value stream maps are best used to show all of the component parts and core activities that create a product or to inform a clear cost/price analysis for products.

When to use value stream maps:

4. SIPOC maps

SIPOC stands for systems, inputs, processes, outputs, and customers and provides a more detailed view of complex processes. SIPOC maps are best used if you need to get clarity on a complex process or for getting into details and finding multiple areas of improvement.

When to use SIPOC maps:

Process inefficiency is a big problem, costing the average employee 240 work hours a year.

Ready to start mapping your processes? Here’s where to start

Process inefficiency is a big problem, costing the average employee 240 work hours a year.

But, if you bring your workflows to life through process mapping and using project management software like Planio, you can begin identifying areas for improvement, helping you to gain value by reducing waste, removing bottlenecks, and automating repetitive tasks.

To get started, review some of the common project management process that could benefit from a more efficient process, such as:

Project management tools like Planio not only help you manage these reviews but, thanks to automated workflows, speed up those tasks in the future, giving everyone in the team more time to do the work that really matters!

Try Planio for yourself — free for 30 days (no credit card required!)