Proper documentation of processes, including clear and concise flows is meant to provide a common understanding of the way business is executed. Secondly, this also enables embedding process improvements in an efficient way. Numerous ways of visualisation will get a message across, as many consultants are familiar with UML based process diagrams which are regularly used.
However, we quite often see that the way processes are visualised differs from person to person: the terms and objects used, as well as the flow design appear to depend on the preference of the creator. Hence, sometimes process charts raise more questions rather than these provide answers. With this blog I intend to provide insight into a process modelling standard and finish off with a few helpful tips for your next process flow.
Business Process Model & Notation
Business Process Model & Notation is an ISO standard, submitted by the Object Management Group, providing a common way to visualise business processes. This standard, called BPMN resembles and reuses parts of the UML standard. Which, as such is not surprising, as UML is also an OMG supported standard. Though, the main purpose of BPMN is to ensure businesses to:
document processes in an understandable, graphical notation
communicate procedures in a standard manner.
BPMN specifies 4 types of diagrams, which are used for different purposes. This blog features the process diagram and collaboration diagram as these are most commonly used. The process diagram shows processes from start to end. One diagram could contain multiple processes involving more than one party. In case a process relies on different parties, or participants, the collaboration diagram features show the integration points.
First, we take a look at the basic objects used in BPMN.:
Events can be used for multiple purposes. A process is initiated with a start event. A process also terminates with an end event. In case a process has a waiting step, e.g. a timer or in inbound message from another participant, this is represented by an intermediate event. The type of event is also pictured, so the diagram becomes self-explanatory.
Activities also present the processor as an icon in the top. It could be an automatic activity, or a manual task, or one of the other activities as presented in the standard. This presentation immediately makes it clear how the activity is performed. The activity could also point to a sub-process or re-used process.
The gateway is one of the more complex objects in the BPMN specification, as there are 7 types of gateways which can be used. The standard exclusive gateway is the most common type and is regularly used in other types of process flows. A simple yes/no directs the reader to either end of the gateway. However, BPMN also specifies gateways in which more than one exit can be reached and gateways which depend on events to be triggered.
The goal is to define processes in which a so-called token is used to progress through a flow. A token is instantiated at the start event, it traverses through the process flow, sometimes splitting in gateways or merging when parallel flows combine again and terminates at the end of the process. In case it is possible for a token to not reach and end event, the BPMN diagram is not correct.
Pools and Swimlanes
Next to the flow objects, there are container objects, grouping process flows within a company and department. A company or participant is displayed as a pool, within which one or multiple swim lanes represent departments. These pools illustrate that a process never traverses into another company, but rather communicates to a process on their end. If a process has interactions with another company, the process flow for your company only communicates with them and is itself influenced by incoming messages.
Below you’ll find a simplified webshop order process. This process has only 2 participants, a customer and a webshop. To not overcomplicate it for now, the activities have not been assigned to an actor. You’ll see different gateways in use, marked with the X and +, where the first is the exclusive gateway, only allowing one direction, and the latter the inclusive. This means, when traversing the flow with a token, the token splits at the inclusive gateway, so both customer information and the stock is checked simultaneously. In the other gateway, the token only exits in 1 direction at a time. Note that the processes in both pools always flow from a start event to an end event.
The Order Processing activity points to a sub-process, which normally would be specified in a separate diagram.
As you can see in the example above, a lot of information can be captured using BPMN. Probably most part of this diagram is already understood without actual knowledge of the BPMN standard. Modelling tools like Microsoft Visio and Lucidchart support BPMN with the icon set, needed to easily build your diagrams. The details of BPMN are too broad to completely cover in this blog, so there is more exploring for you to do. To start off, take a look at the BPMN website at: BPMN Specification – Business Process Model and Notation. You can also contact us to help improving your business process models and identify opportunities for improvement.
Tips for when you create your first BPMN diagrams:
Finally, I’d like to give you a few helpful hints for your first try with BPMN.:
Keep in mind that every process has a start and an end. A token can be used to traverse your diagram and validate completeness in start and end events.
Processes cannot cross into other pools (participants). Messages are used to trigger the progress of a process for another participant.
Tasks in processes are most easily understood if they are constructed as a Verb + Noun. (eg. Approve Order, Transfer Money, Send Email, etc)
Enjoy putting your new gained knowledge on process modelling to use!