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How to Master In-The-Moment Process Mapping: 8 Tips


Whether you’re trying to boost customer satisfaction, build a new executive dashboard, or modernize antiquated processes, you’re probably mapping your business processes. After all, process mapping — knowing what’s happening in your business right now — is a starting point for most innovation.

But could your business process improvement efforts use a boost themselves?

process mapping workshop innovationsummit2023

Liv Belechak, Lead Experience Strategist at HIKE2, presented some tips for doing just that during her presentation at the 2023 Innovation Summit, Mastering In-the-Moment Process Mapping.

Liv studied graphic design and began working in UI before moving into UX. She’s now a UX strategist, researcher, and designer.

And she’s an enthusiastic proponent of in-the-moment process mapping. If you’ve never tried it, you’re in for a treat.

In Liv’s session, she went through an overview of in-the-moment (a.k.a., lightning) mapping, talked about using keywords and phrases to assist quick map creation, gave examples to help you get started with in-the-moment mapping, and mentioned several tips to broaden your view of what’s possible — all while helping you to be more effective and have more fun with process mapping.

Ready to dive in?

Process Mapping: What’s the Big Deal?

Process maps are visual tools that help explain a series of steps or activities. They should be easy to understand, even — or especially — for outsiders who aren’t experts in the process.

Also known as process flow charts or process diagrams, good process maps help us understand why processes are needed and what they do for your team, department, or organization.

They also help you identify pain points, optimize processes, and communicate procedures to others. Liv likes to say that process maps make the invisible visible.

“In UX design, we always have to start by first understanding what’s going on in the current state. You can’t improve a process until you understand how it’s working today.”

Any process can be mapped, even simply walking from one room to another. We don’t usually think about mapping activities we do every day, but we could.

Although the symbols can get confusing, process maps don’t have to have any standard look. Liv uses circles to indicate start and end points and boxes for steps. Decision points are diamonds. Arrows show progression.

Decisions could indicate a yes or no choice, or one among several options (A, B, or C, for example.)

Simple maps will have a beginning, an end, and a fairly linear process. There may be some decision points along the way but not many. Simple process maps are clear and straightforward.

process mapping simple

Complex maps will also have one starting point and one end point, but will be complicated with many decisions and/or many people involved. You may have multiple swim lanes with several things happening simultaneously, each lane representing a different person within the process.

process mapping complex

Use cases for process mapping

There are many possible use cases for process mapping. A few of the more common ones include:

  • Documenting processes for internal reference, to keep them on file.
  • Documenting processes for certifications, to meet regulatory requirements, or for quality control.
  • Recording a current state so the process can be optimized in the future.
  • Creating training documents for new employees.

Why In-the-Moment Process Mapping?

A typical process mapping session usually involves a business analyst meeting with and interviewing process owners and stakeholders and walking them through the steps they take.

Someone may take notes or record the session. After asking some questions, the analyst will go away, translate their notes, convert their understanding of the process into a graphical representation or flowchart, and then send the completed draft back to the process owner and stakeholders for approval.

Most maps go through several rounds of feedback and revision until everyone’s happy that the chart is an accurate representation of what’s really happening.

The biggest downsides of this typical approach are the potential for misunderstanding and the time required to get a final, approved version.

Enter lightning mapping.

Lightning mapping, or mapping right in the meeting, helps you build understanding and consensus more quickly, cutting the usual cycle time considerably.

When you collaborate and document processes in the moment, you can come to understanding and agreement while you’re still in the room, asking questions and getting them resolved quickly.

Learning to create process maps in the moment not only makes you a better analyst but also a better communicator.

Tips for Mastering In-the-Moment Mapping

The best way to get good at lightning mapping is simply to do it — a lot. But these tips will help you get up to speed more quickly.

1. Start by knowing your audience

Think about the purpose of your map. Who are you creating it for? How much detail do they need? This can be tricky.

Zoom out to determine the stakeholders in this process. How are they interacting with each other? What do they need to know?

If you’re creating a map to train new employees, for example, that map will look quite different from one you create to help coders build a new executive dashboard.

2. Look for specific keywords and phrases

Whenever people are explaining how they do their work, they use words that will give you clues signaling an important part of the process.

Process-related words describe steps in order.

  • first
  • next
  • following
  • next step
  • afterward
  • then
  • later
  • continuing on
  • transitioning

Decision-making words indicate they’re making a choice.

  • I do [this] or [this]
  • I do [this] versus [this]
  • weigh
  • ponder
  • contemplate
  • dilemma

Decision completed words indicate that a decision has been made and they’re moving forward.

  • I’m choosing [this]
  • I’ve decided to do [this]
  • I select [this]
  • I opt for [this]

3. Practice process mapping!

If you want to become a master of process mapping, you need to practice — a lot. Start with simple activities from your own life. Try not to get too caught up in your head about it, just get comfortable with a new way of thinking.

Look for opportunities anywhere. Try mapping your morning routine or a decision you make during a typical workday, for example.

Processes we encounter in our work lives are often much more complicated, but no one can master a new skill without doing it.

When you’re talking to users, ask clarifying follow-up questions as you’re creating the map. You can always email afterward, but it’s not as effective.

4. Find the right level of detail

How do you know if you have enough detail? And how much detail is too much?

Again, go back to your purpose for creating the map, understanding that there could be many layers.

Are you trying to get efficiencies? Are you trying to improve something? Are you looking for time savings? If you’re only documenting, what you have might be enough — or not. Always do a real check with lots of good test cases. If you have enough comprehensive test cases and see that your product fails at some point, then you’ll know you don’t have enough detail.

But once all your test cases are working and every detail seems to be accounted for, that’s when you can start knocking out inefficiencies.

5. Unearth and handle exceptions

Often, you’ll encounter a client that describes how a process works 80-90% of the time and wants to stop there. So what should you do about the other 10-20%?

Your client may not want to worry about the exceptions because they happen infrequently. But you still need to dig in, even if your client finds it annoying — and especially if you’re building code.

Then use your test cases as checks to make sure that all the branches are accounted for.

Remember that you can add comments and rules to your map to increase clarity.

6. Tackle complex processes

It can be helpful to have someone take notes for you when you’re diving into a complex process. You want to be engaged in conversation, listening and asking follow-up questions rather than distracted by having to capture notes.

People may fly through explanations, or it could be hard to understand what they’re saying on Zoom. Asking people to repeat things is fine, but don’t let them lose their train of thought. Watch for offhanded comments like, “Well, when I’m in my email and somebody sends me this, I’ll log it in my notebook and then head over into another system to deal with it.”

Stop them there. Ask them to repeat themselves. And then find out why they do it that way. Is there something happening in their email that’s not helping enough, making them write it down on a notepad and then move over to something else? Really dig in there.

In the real world, you may have another follow-up session. But if you record an interview session with the actual dialogue documented, it often makes things easier. You don’t have to ask more questions or have them repeat things as it’s documented right then and there.

7. Keep it simple

When you’re mapping in the moment, get comfortable doing it by hand. You can always formalize your map later, in Visio for example, when you send it out for approval. As you start to think of everything as a process, you’ll get faster at manual process mapping.

In addition, some higher-level stakeholders won’t be able to follow all the detail in a swim lane, for example. They’ll have to zoom out and validate the high-level process. So go ahead and add those details to the appendix.

Journey maps may resonate more with them because, at some point, you’re mapping their journey. They’ll be familiar with that, so you’ll be able to get their attention better at that level.

Finally, if you’re covering several different use cases, it may make sense to focus on the master map — take out all the other noise and just highlight one use case that a stakeholder may be familiar with.

8. Add notes and comments

When it comes to pain points, there are many different ways to pull those out without offending anyone or making it seem like they’re doing something wrong or being called out. You can highlight them with color, for example, or notes underneath or within the swim lane.

Become a master lightning mapper

Process mapping doesn’t have to be a long, frustrating experience. With a little practice, you can map processes quickly and more accurately and get to the good stuff — new and improved ways of doing business — before you know it.

Start watching for opportunities everywhere. Then grab your notebook and a pencil and start lightning mapping.

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