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Universal Process Notation: A Powerful Tool to Take Your Organization from Good to Great


ian gotts upn presentation innovationsummit22

You might think Business Process Mapping (BPM) is an unexciting but necessary part of business transformation.

But Ian Gotts, Founder and CEO of wants us to start thinking differently. 

In his presentation at the 2022 Innovation Summit, The Hidden Power of UPN Process Diagrams, Ian admits that years ago, it was definitely true. Mapping a complex process might have meant covering conference room walls with flip charts and sticky notes, painstakingly mapping out ERP systems using AutoCAD.

These days, you’re likely building flow charts, using video walkthroughs, and attaching documentation inside modern tools. You probably use BPM for everything from process improvement to training materials.

But if your essential approach hasn’t changed much in the last 15-20 years, you may be missing out on a simple yet powerful (and dare we say fun?) alternative.

Introducing Universal Process Notation

Universal Process Notation, or UPN, is a process mapping standard that is a significant improvement on what you may have been doing for decades.

It’s been used by thousands of companies over the last 20 years — including Salesforce, who have made it their standard approach.

But despite its track record, UPN is still a bit of a hidden secret.

It shouldn’t be. UPN not only works extremely well, but it also has several huge advantages over traditional BPM:

  • It’s engaging and interactive, bringing people together in live workshops.
  • It allows anyone, even those unfamiliar with the process, to quickly grasp what’s happening.
  • It saves time, getting everyone on the same page quickly and eliminating multiple iterations and reviews.
  • It produces living documentation that can be updated as needed and used in many ways.

The days of interviewing process owners, heading back to your desk to create maps, meeting again to verify you’ve got everything right, and repeating until you’ve achieved agreement are over.

Common Problems with Traditional BPM

You’ve probably seen (and even created) business process maps that look like this:

upn presentation business process map example

These maps can get complicated, especially with the up to 300 different shapes you could potentially use.

They can also get huge, spanning all the walls of large conference rooms.

But what do we do when we’re not meeting in big conference rooms anymore?

And, as one of Ian’s Customer Success Managers once asked, “If a picture paints a thousand words, why do we need a thousand words to explain these diagrams?”

If you were to take a map like this to a senior manager for sign-off, it would be a tough sell. Even once it’s approved, it would probably be archived until you wanted to revisit the process months or years later.

But process documentation has value. We should be able to use it on a daily basis — not just for process improvement but for training, acceptance testing, and much more.

After all, we’re constantly re-implementing software, whether that’s Salesforce or something else. Ideally, this content should be a living asset.

We also need useful user stories that can be understood immediately.

Finally, we need good process maps to make sure we’re using the right metrics.

Still, Ian notes, “I get that this isn’t for all organizations. If your senior executives don’t really care about process, you’ll find it difficult to drive some of this through the organization at the lower levels… But if you’re working in food, pharma, oil and gas, construction, or similar organizations, they love this stuff. They’re really good at it, they care about it and they make it work.”

Measuring the Right Things with UPN

You can’t determine what you should be measuring unless you understand a process thoroughly.

For example, a mobile phone company in the UK didn’t want support calls to last more than two minutes.

What behavior did that drive? Support reps would hang up the phone and ask people to call back — not exactly an ideal outcome.

One way to start thinking about correct metrics based on processes is an idea called leading versus lagging metrics.

We can’t do anything about lagging metrics.

These include questions like, how many people visited Disney World yesterday? How many people left the company last month?

Leading metrics, on the other hand, are things we can do something about: how many people are on this ride or in this restaurant right now? How many people have just come through the gate?

How many are calling in sick, asking to see a copy of their contract, or not completing surveys because they’ve checked out?

And most importantly, how can we still influence their behavior?

Good process maps help make sure you have a good understanding of end-to-end processes, so senior management can start thinking about the metrics that make the most sense.

The data may be hard to get — but if you understand the process you can at least move closer to what you need.

Process documentation is also extremely important in highly regulated industries like food, farming, oil and gas, and financial services.

Auditors are sticklers for process. The FDA will fine at least one company $1 billion each year. They once fined the American Red Cross $300M for poor process management of blood transfusions. Regulatory organizations have teeth.

So what makes a good process map?

Let’s start with what not to do.

Poor Examples of BPM

Poor process mapping, as in these examples, leaves us with too many questions.

upn presentation poor examples

Notice that the boxes aren’t activities — “workshop,” “education,” and “growth” aren’t verbs.

There are also no clear handoffs or results — for example, when are we finished getting buy-in? When we have consensus to move ahead, or when we have senior management approval?

Remember that the confused mind says no.

So how do we eliminate confusion and get to yes?

The Four Principles of Universal Process Notation

Here’s an example of a UPN map. While it appears simple, you can build rich diagrams of complex processes that still can be easily understood.

To use the process, you need to understand four simple principles.

ian gotts upn process map

1. Processes start with a verb.

Everything in the top section of each box must be an activity, or “what” is done. Make these activities clear, so anyone reading your map, from a new hire to a senior manager, can quickly grasp it.

Examples include: Get buy-in, engage, update, review, validate lead. (Don’t use “manage,” it’s too vague.)

Once you’ve defined your activities, you need to know when each activity ends.

2. Boxes must have lines and lines must have text.

The lines between the boxes need words describing the output of each activity. What’s the specific result or hand-off?

For example, what’s a closed lead? Is it a signed contract, a P.O. received, a product delivered, or an indication that the salesperson thinks they can close the deal? There’s no right or wrong, as long as you’re clear.

You’ll probably spend most of your time in live workshops deciding on the words on the lines, rather than the activities in the boxes.

3. Resources go below activities in the bars.

Instead of swimlanes, UPN includes the concept of resource in each box, including who does the activity and what tool or system they use. This makes everything much easier to see on a screen.

The diagrams flow nicely left to right, rather than being strangely positioned so they fit into swimlanes.

4. Processes are built in a hierarchy.

UPN only uses 8-10 boxes on any screen to keep each diagram readable.

But every activity can be drilled down to the next level of detail — allowing for hierarchical mapping.

For example, if you want to know how to engage a contact, you can drill down on that activity and see the next level of detail on that process. This allows for loads of flexibility and also accommodates complexity without making the maps visually overwhelming.

upn presentation core principles of upn

Using Box Corners in UPN Mapping

The numbered left corner of any activity box indicates you can drill down to supporting processes.

If your activity is generating a lead to a qualified opportunity, you can click on the left corner to find out exactly what that entails.

In the right corner, you’ll notice a paper clip for attachments.

These can be work instructions, links to web pages or videos, meeting notes, or whatever supporting documentation you like.

The Advantages of Universal Process Notation

Running live workshops takes a little practice, but without interviews, reviews, and revisions, you’ll find the process goes relatively quickly and smoothly. Everyone comes to agreement right in the workshop.

Start by defining your inputs, activities, and outputs.

The result is an engaging process that:

  • Helps people to stick to process improvements and commit to continuous updating.
  • Creates maps that are easily read and understood by anyone, at any level in the organization.
  • Finds redundancies and other opportunities for improvement.
  • Drives innovation with end-to-end process thinking and breaking down silos.

Let UPN Power Your Journey from Good to Great

In the past, customers or senior managers could dictate what they wanted, which led to a lot of duplication of bad processes.

With UPN, you can be more deliberate and intentional.

You’ll find better engagement with users, developers, and senior management. You’ll also be able to better get ahead of changes instead of being caught flat-footed.

As Ian says, “I did a workshop at a large French construction firm, with four billion in revenue. They flew their SVPs in from around Canada to do this high-level process mapping, and one of the participants said, ‘I’ve been with this company for 30 years and this is the most valuable day I’ve spent since I’ve been here because I finally understand what the end-to-end process looks like.’”

He continues, “Before we build the thing right, we need to build the right thing — and UPN is a powerful tool to help organizations do exactly that.”

If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of UPN, watch Ian Gott’s presentation, The Hidden Power of UPN Diagrams from the 2022 Innovation Summit.

To learn how to use UPN, visit:

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