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The many layers of process design

Updated: May 7, 2021


What exactly is a process?


When we talk about processes, and I tend to talk about processes a lot, we imagine flowcharts with lot of boxes, arrows, decision nodes, and so on. Officially, a process is defined as “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end,” according to the Oxford dictionary.


In a very generic way, a flowchart is what most people think process mapping and documentation is all about. Something simple, like this:





We start at A and go through all the steps until the process terminates. Done, right? So, when we start talking about process optimization and improvement, this is the drawing, the process diagram, that gets all the attention. However, it is important to understand that this is but one layer in the process hierarchy.


At each one of the steps in the previous flowchart, a user may need to refer to another element – either a process, or a document, or a person - to complete that step. This other source should then be considered as part of this flow chart. In some cases, a process step could actually contain multiple actions in the form of a sub-process routine.


Looking at the broader perspective, this overall process might also nest within a larger process map for a department, such as Human Resources, which then subsequently nests into the larger organizations enterprise map.


Let us take a look at all the layers of a process hierarchy and examine the functions of each layer.



Process pyramid, understanding process hierarchy from process maps to work instructions
The process pyramid; a hierarchy of process models


Enterprise Map

At the very top of the hierarchy, the enterprise map should have a shape element for every activity that the company performs. This naturally includes core functions such as operations and sales, as well as support activities such as HR, accounting, and IT.


At this level, there should be an executive head of each department named in the enterprise map who is ultimately responsible for that division. If you have the same person’s name on two elements, consider whether the two departments ought to be combined into one.


Example: HR, Finance, Sales, Operations, Engineering


Process Map

For each department named in the enterprise map, they should have their own process map where the main activities of the department are listed. For example, HR would have employee on- and off-boarding, yearly reviews, and employee satisfaction. Even if these processes interact with other departments, as many do, what we are capturing here is the department that is ultimately responsible for the execution of the process.


Within the department, it is a good idea to have a process-focal for each named process. This is the person who is responsible for maintaining the process documentation.


Example: Employee on-boarding, lead follow-up, order fulfillment, design approval.


Value Chain

More complex process can be broken down into a logical process model of the core activities, for a quick overview of the main steps that need to be achieved to execute a process. Think of these as gates – the process only moves on to the next step once the previous one is fully complete; there should be no going back (otherwise the process was not designed very well).


Example, new design approval;

New design complete > Configuration review complete > Manufacturing review complete > Finance approval complete > Logistics review complete > Management approval complete.


Process Model

This is the main process flow-chart, what most people think about when we talk about processes. This is where we outline the detailed steps, roles, decisions, inputs and so on, that are required to execute the process. Some of these steps might be mapped to enterprise systems such as the ERP or CRM software, some of them might have user-inputs through forms or approval tasks, and some might be completely offline tasks. Often, this might also be called a workflow.


In all cases, this is the primary documentation layer of a process and in terms of governance and compliance, this is the process document that should be followed.


Example: Design approval workflow.


Process Step

In some cases, we might want to detail specific steps in a sub-process. These might be repeated routines that we can capture and reuse multiple times in the process model or across multiple process models.


Example: Complete hardware testing process.


Work Instruction

While process flow-charts are visual flows of a process, the work-instruction is where detailed textual information might be stored. This could refer to an operator manual on the manufacturing floor or a checklist that needs to be completed before signing off on a bank transfer. These documents are also version-controlled and managed and must be linked back up the chain to the processes that use them.


Example: Wire harness assembly instructions.



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Once you have your process well documented in a hierarchical system, you will notice two immediate benefits. First, you will have a better grasp of your process landscape, and you can immediately see when you have conflicting ownership of processes; and second, you will be able to better prioritize processes for digital transformation based on the impact they have on the organization.


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