Which Process Map is Right for You

Updated on April 15, 2016

AND the short answer is . . . . it depends. Process Maps are used to document processes and procedures that define how work is done within an entity. Mapping allows business leaders to take a look at what is happening now to determine where changes can prevent redundancy, save money, and improve workflow. A map is basically a picture of how things happen. While mapping your processes takes time and effort the reward in quality improvements almost always leads to a positive return on investment (ROI).

Simple (Low Level)

Most basic business processes can be demonstrated with very simple maps. These maps are used to show day to day procedures that keep a business operating. Very few symbols are necessary so anyone can do them. Arrows tend to flow in one direction. Processes are shown by a square process flow symbol. Decisions points are clearly indicated by diamonds in these flows. Maps can be strung together with connectors so that readers can see how one set of processes flow into another. When a business is well documented, each process flow should connect to one or more process flows because no business action should stand alone.

Top Down

Top Down maps use only one symbol to document a process and the steps that support it. Decisions points are not included. Processes best documented with this flow are very simple and move only in one direction. The power of these flows is the ability to connect the corresponding steps to each process. Readers can use these flows to identify ways to create efficiencies in standard work processes by reviewing steps for duplicated efforts and unnecessary steps.

Cross functional (Swim Lanes)

Cross functional maps are called Swim Lanes because of the horizontal lines used to separate functional areas that resemble the swim lanes in a pool. These maps are often used to show processes representing work, decisions, and data as each process transitions from one functional area to another. These maps may be simple or detailed. Swim Lane process flows are often used to help uncover bottle necks and road blocks. Using these maps, it is easier to demonstrate ways in which a better flow of information and data can help a business operate more efficiently and effectively. These maps are very popular for ISO certification.


Like Simple process maps, the detailed process map uses symbols to demonstrate more complicated processes in greater detail. These maps use multiple symbols to visually separate processes, sub processes, documentation, data, and so on. Once again maps can be strung together with connectors to show how each process flows into another. Legends are often used to help the reader better follow the map. Use these flows to document more intricate manufacturing, distribution, engineering, technical, and business processes. These maps are excellent for ISO 9000 certifications.

Work Flow w/ Pictures

Work flow diagrams forego standard map symbols for friendlier images. They are often used to demonstrate processes for an audience who is unfamiliar with process flow techniques. Symbols must be used consistently. Maintaining a legend helps. These maps are frequently used in training sessions.

Rendered Process Flows

Rendered maps go a step further than work flow diagrams to make a map friendly by adding colors and separating information into bordered areas. Multiple process flows are often documented on the same map. These maps can be quite complicated. Each flow is documented in a different color to help make it easier for the reader to follow each flow. Legends help readers determine the meaning of symbols. They are most often used to map the flow of data as it supports business processes within an organization.

System Level

System Level maps show the highest level of business processes in an organization. These maps are used to demonstrate business cycles. Cycles such as cash flow, order to fulfillment, production, system development etc. can be viewed using this type of map. Multiple symbols and arrows show the activity flow, order of processes, along with the high level sequence and interactions between business areas. Other process maps often roll up to high level maps. Management teams use these maps to better understand the organization and interaction of a division or an entire company. System maps are also often required to get ISO 9001 certification.


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