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Breaking down process complexity

The quest for process excellence often starts with capturing business processes on paper. Unfortunately, that’s also where it ends sometimes. Too often, organizations end up with procedure charts and Visio diagrams that look like the web of an over-caffeinated spider. Those convoluted collections of lines and shapes that sprawl across numerous pages may contain everything you need to know about your business process, but they are just as likely to be incomprehensible to the people who really need to use them.

The problem stems from seeing processes as one-dimensional. Process mapping is often reduced to capturing everything about a process or set of procedures, and all that information is collected and displayed at the same level.

While it provides a comprehensive view of the requirements and responsibilities, that vital business information is obscured by the sheer complexity of such a diagram. There’s a better way to think about processes and to capture them.

Lifting processes off the page

Effective business processes need to be seen as two- or three-dimensional documents in order to capture the complexity of what your teams do, without burying the essential flow of the processes in a clutter of detail. That starts at the point of capture.

Great results are achieved by defining the process flow upfront. The best way to collect and assemble process information is to start with non-technical tools like a pen and paper, a whiteboard, or Post-it Notes on a wall. The vertical space helps challenge people’s thinking about the shape a process should take and disarms preconceived notions about process structure. The Post-it Note approach also makes it easy to rearrange elements and shift the structure into various configurations.

This step usually results in a ‘brain-dump’ of information, as people contribute everything they know about what goes into the procedures. This typically includes details of what steps need to get done in the process. Once that information is on the board, the 3-D thinking can begin.

Building process depth

With the process information collected and displayed, it quickly becomes apparent why detailed Visio charts and complex diagrams aren’t utilized by business teams. That much information displayed all at once is overwhelming.

It’s in the arranging of those various actions that have been captured that a process can begin to be clarified, and that happens by building it with depth. Arranged on a wall or board, process actions can have both a horizontal and vertical flow.

The horizontal arrangement should represent the different phases of the process, and how they link together. These are the significant steps or activities that occur in order, and make up the general flow of the process.

The vertical arrangement is the detail of those activities. It defines the actions that need to be completed within each activity and puts them into a framework that can easily be followed with the relevant information for execution.

These ‘vertical’ sections of the process can then be ordered into the sequence of tasks or actions that make up the activity. They become a ‘stack’ of tasks that sit beneath the summary activity heading.

Divide and conquer

With the process elements laid out in horizontal and vertical arrays, there is a third dimension to consider: the length of the process.

Typically, a process should contain no more than 10 activities – the vertical ‘stacks’ of actions. Any more than that, and it becomes unwieldy. The problem is often how to divide up long, complex procedures. It helps to consider three key elements:

  • Approval gates

Anywhere a process pauses for approval or some kind of validation is a good place to consider making a break. If the process requires some kind of compliance to continue, that can create a natural cutoff. Rather than have a process stalled in the middle while something is being reviewed, the process ends and the approval or validation becomes the initiator of another following process.

  • Input/output boundaries

Processes typically begin with a trigger. It could be a timed event – a weekly, monthly or seasonal schedule that launches the activity, or it could be driven by certain circumstances or scenarios. These are the ‘inputs’ that initiate the process actions. Similarly, when the process produces an artifact – a completed form, a product, a communication, or event – they become an output. While that element may then feed into another activity, it can represent an end to the current sequence of activities and a natural place to split the process into two.

  • Role divisions

Good process maps include a ‘swimlane’ approach that tracks who is responsible for the activities at each step. While that may be an individual or an entire team, there are usually clear indications of responsibility. When a process clearly shifts from one related set of users to another, it could be an indication that there are in fact two processes, divided between the two groups. For instance, if a product development process moves from production activities to actions for the marketing department for a sequence of actions, it may be that there is both a development and a marketing process hidden within the larger flow.

Help is at hand

It is possible to break down process complexity. Capture process information in creative and engaging ways to bring process users and business teams onboard. Break processes down into layers of detail, easy to follow but containing everything your teams need to execute them effectively and make sure each process stands alone.

Split lengthy strings of activity into smart and efficient sub-processes to make them easy to find and use for everyone in your organization. Procedures that have multiple layers no longer need to be viewed as a barrier to process excellence for your business.



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