Business Process Mapping

Business process mapping is a way to visualize what a business does by taking into account roles, responsibilities and standards. Business process modeling (BPM) takes this one step further by providing a visual way to understand, analyze, and improve upon a current method of working. There are a number of reasons why organizations map their processes.

  • ISO 9001 compliance. This set of standards is geared toward ensuring organizations meet the needs of customers while complying with government regulations pertaining to a product.
  • Compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. This is also known as the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act of 2002, Sarbox, or SOX. It's a federal law that requires visibility and proper disclosure of compliance issues for all publicly traded companies to insure that proper controls are in place. Process documentation is a key component of compliance with the act.
  • Onboarding new employees. Having a set of documented processes for new employees to follow can shorten training time, put less strain on other staff members, and help to ensure consistency and continuity of output.
  • Communicating processes to others. At times it is necessary to be able to show a process to others. The visual structure of a business process map makes it easier to understand the process without having to read (and try to comprehend) a long, narrative description.
  • Internal audits. Make sure work is done in line with the company's standards and policies.
  • Process improvement and re-engineering. Once a process is documented and understood, it can be analyzed to improve efficiency.

What's the Difference between Business Process Mapping and Business Process Modeling?

Sometimes business process mapping and business process modeling are used interchangeably to refer to simply documenting of how a business operates, how inputs and outputs flow through a system. In reality business process mapping is the tool focused on documentation. It shows how work is done, not necessarily how it should be done. Business process modeling is more about in-depth analysis and optimizing inefficiencies and bottlenecks.

Business Process Mapping Symbols

Here are some of the symbols used during business process mapping.

Business Process Modeling Symbols

Steps Involved in Business Process Mapping

  1. Identify the process you want to document
  2. Gather information from process participants via interviews or observations
  3. Identify the start and end points of your process
  4. Break the process into distinct tasks and decision points

If you want to perform a detailed analysis, you may want to continue by creating a business process model.

Basic Components of Business Process Modeling

  1. Process. The overall workflow from a starting point to its successful completion.
  2. Tasks or Activities. Something performed by a person or a system.
  3. Flows. This is indicated on the process map by connecting lines and arrows.
  4. Events. These are triggers that cause a process to begin, end, or may redirect a process to a different path.
  5. Gateways. Decisions that can change the path of the process depending on conditions or events.
  6. Participants. Specifically naming the people or systems that perform the tasks or activities.

Business Process Modeling Notation

A business process model follows a structure that is similar to a flowchart. The difference is that it follows a standardized set of symbols developed by the Business Process Management Initiative (BPMI) known as Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN). These elements are included in the SmartDraw business process modeling symbols library.

BPMN Example


An event is an occurrence that triggers or creates a task or activity. Usually all business process maps and models will have a start event and an end event, but they can also have intermediate events that redirect the flow to a different path.

BPMN Events

There are many different types of intermediate events. Below is a table that showcases the wide range available in BPMN notation.

BPMN Event Types

Message events are calls, emails, letters, or any communication that initiates a task.

Timer events are useful for inserting breaks that may interrupt the flow. These breaks allow you to display tasks that repeat at some frequency like hourly, daily or weekly. You can show how long a task may take or show a specific date (or time) a task is to start.

Conditional events will interrupt the flow until a condition is met.

Signal events are not addressed to any particular participant but are visible globally. For example, a signal event would be a customer seeing an ad on social media before calling to place an order.

Error events are used in analysis. They're not naturally part of any process. The notation may help discuss any potential problems in your process.

Cancel events are only appropriate for transactional activities.

Link events, like error events, don't describe a part of the process but are helpful while diagramming complex systems. Instead of connecting activities with lines, they can be used to link to activities if you want to have a physical distance between them.


Activities are tasks that must be executed during the process. They can be performed by an individual or the system. An activity is depicted with a rectangle with rounded corners. Activities can have sub-processes, loops, multiple instances, and compensations.

A sub-process is a set of activities that can show a task in more detail. For example, the activity "deploy web page" may include the sub-tasks of checking it into a source control, merging code to the production servers, and copying from production to the live servers. A collapsed sub-process is depicted with a small plus sign on the activity symbol and the sub-process is visualized in a separate diagram.

A loop repeats until one or more conditions are met.

An activity with multiple instances means all subtasks must be completed before proceeding to the next task. These instances can be executed in sequence or in parallel. For example, you might model a process during which 3 stakeholders have to approve an outline before a video can move into production. Those three approvals would be an activity with multiple instances.

A compensation event appears in the process in response to something that needs undoing such as a cancellation or denied authorization.

A transaction activity is a special type of process used for payment.

A call activity is a reusable sub-process throughout the entire system.

BPMN Activities


Gateways depict a decision step, a point of convergence or divergence of flow in the process. They can be exclusive or inclusive, parallel, complex, or based on events or data.

BPMN Gateways

An X inside a gateway symbol indicates a decision between mutually exclusive choices. In programming terms, this is an "or" event. The flow will travel down only one path.

A parallel gateway, indicated with a plus sign inside a diamond, requires that the process continues to flow in both directions from the decision point. We basically want to have our cake and eat it too. This is an "and" event.

An inclusive gateway allows the flow to travel down more than one outgoing path.

Event based gateways are triggered by events rather than conditions, for example a message, elapsed time, a signal, and so on.


Flows connect the activities that are part of a business process. These connections are meant to indicate relationships.

A sequence flow is the most frequently used flow type shown as a straight line with an arrow. This type of flow indicates the sequence in which tasks are executed.

A message flow depicts the flow of messages from one participant to another. It is shown with a dashed line with a circle on one end and an arrow at the other. Make sure messages don't connect activities or events in the same pool. Never attach a gateway symbol to a message flow.

An association, represented with a dotted line (sans arrow), is used to show a relationship between an artifact like data and tasks on your diagram.

BPMN Flows


Artifacts are not part of the process, but may be relevant to it. These are usually annotations or data.

BPMN Artifacts

Using Swim Lanes to Define Participants in BPM

Lanes help define roles, functions, and responsibilities more clearly. Each lane represents a role and the tasks they're responsible for executing. Read more about swim lanes.

Business Process Management Life Cycle

The purpose of mapping and modeling any business is to improve and optimize. This often can't be done in a single step, but rather follows a cycle of observations, modeling, implementing changes, and monitoring.

The steps in a BPM life cycle are: model, implement, execute, monitor, and optimize.

BPMN Cycle