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Business Process Analysis

Using Detail Process Maps and the Questioning Method1

By Ben B Graham
The Ben Graham Corporation
© Copyright 2007-2015, The Ben Graham Corporation. All rights reserved.

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Business Process Improvement, Six Sigma, Reengineering, ISO Certification, Sarbanes-Oxley all specify an organizational focus on business processes, however, none provide a specific method for understanding the processes. This leaves many people attempting to figure it out as they go. Without a solid methodology to support process understanding and improvement, many efforts fail, drag on, or (at best) require more effort than was initially anticipated. Detail process charts can provide a level of understanding that is essential for effective analysis. Combined with a structured analysis approach,

The Questioning Method

, they have been used by world-class organizations to achieve excellent results for over half a century.

Real bottom-line value is derived from process maps when they are used to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the processes they represent. Often the motivation that leads to conducting an improvement project is to correct a problem such as: the process has generated costly errors, the process takes too long, the process has failed an audit, the process is not in compliance with new legislation, the process has broken down, etc.

Unfortunately, the urgency that leads us to initiate improvement projects, can also encourage shortsighted decisions. A belief that detailed flowcharting will take too long, some projects begin without a flowchart, or with a map that is prepared at such a high level that it reflects only what most people already know. (The time required to prepare a detailed process chart is generally misunderstood, and usually overestimated. Most processes can be easily mapped in detail in a day or two.) Without the thorough and comprehensive view provided by a detailed process chart, the improvement effort results in changes that correct or lessen the initial problem while often causing undesirable side effects. The more complex the process, the more likely the fix will cause new problems. Where managers are alert to the risk of negative side effects, they sometimes opt to leave the current process in place untouched and add a completely separate process to address the current problem, further complicating the workflow.

Fortunately, the ease with which well-drawn process maps enable people to see what is causing problems and how to correct them makes it is faster to do it right than to cut corners.

The Improvement Team

Assemble a team of people who are involved in the process. Improvements come from the people closest to the work, the ones who live it and breathe it day in and day out - the people who do the work. When the operating people are given the opportunity to participate in an improvement process, their ingenuity is transformed from simply doing the work to improving the way they do it. Benefits of this approach include reduced resistance,improved morale and better solutions!

Understand the Current Process

As soon as the process maps are completed and verified, you can put them to work. Even if you can't get your project team together for a while, you can post the flowcharts in a conspicuous place and ask everyone involved in the process to look it over when they have a chance and mark it up with ideas and questions, and highlight problem areas.

When you get the team together for the first meeting, familiarize them with the map by stepping quickly through the process. Then, invite teams members to walk through parts of the process to demonstrate their understanding. The team members will now have a better understanding of the whole process – possibly a more complete understanding than any one person has previously had. Team members can see how they fit into a bigger picture and how their work affects other people in the process. Now, it’s time to use the process map as a focal point and a tool to systematically step through the process and challenge every step.

Challenge the Current Method Using the Questioning Method

“I have six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew); their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.” -- Rudyard Kipling

In defining a process, our objective is to capture reality; to paint a realistic picture of what the process does. We ask what is happening at every step along the way. We also capture where the work is done, who does the work and when the work is done. We don't ask why, because it doesn't matter…yet.

With a good process story in front of a team of people who represent the process (and really understand their piece of it), it is time to ask why. Now we ask the same questions that we asked to define the process…but, this time we ask why to every answer.

During analysis, every question becomes two questions. At each step, we ask first “What is happening? And to the answer of that question we ask, “Why?” Why are we doing this? Is it necessary? Can it be eliminated? If there isn't a good reason for doing that step, recommend that it be eliminated. This is the question that produces the most cost effective changes and should always be asked first. There is no sense in asking more detailed questions about a work step that should not be done at all. When steps of work are eliminated there is little or no implementation cost and the benefit equals the full cost of the performing that step. Many work steps that once served a valuable purpose (possibly years ago) can be eliminated when that purpose no longer exists.

If there is a good reason for performing the step then ask; “Where is it done and why is it done there?” - “When is it done and why is it done at that time?” – “Who does it and why does that person do it?” These questions lead to changes in location, timing, and the person doing the work without changing the task itself and therefore they are also highly cost effective. Equipment is relocated closer to the people who use it. Schedules are revised to fit with previous and following portions of the process to produce smoother flow. Tasks are shifted to people better able to perform them. Tasks are combined, eliminating the transports and delays between them that occurred as the work flowed between locations and/or people.

Only after these questions have been asked and answered should the final question be addressed; “How is it done and why is it done that way?” While this question can lead to excellent benefits, it also incurs the greatest costs because changing how a task is done generally requires introducing new technology with new equipment, programming and significant amounts of training. Of course, new technology is important. It is very important, and it should be pursued. But, if the organization wants to maximize profits, it will hold off on changing how the steps are performed until after the previous questions have been properly dealt with. (Unfortunately, new technology is so enticing that organizations often leap into it before asking the earlier questions. They miss easy to install, high payoff opportunities and sometimes wind up having spent a lot of money to automate activities that shouldn't be done at all.)

Using these questions with a detail process map provides team members with fresh eyes to see their work from a new vantage point. They are used to doing the work. They are not used to seeing it as symbols and lines, and as a part of a process. From this new perspective, opportunities for improvement become apparent, and since the people doing the study are thoroughly familiar with the work, their improvements are almost always realistic, practical and doable.

As team members work their way through the “As-is” map they come up with numerous changes that are easily displayed in a revised map. When they have done this two or three times, they arrive at a map that represents the process as they would like it to be - a “To-be” map. Now they have two maps, the “As-is” and the “To-be”, both drawn step-by-step using precisely the same mapping terminology, which paves the way for methodical handling of approval and implementation activities.

Ben B Graham is President of The Ben Graham Corporation and author of the books 'The Process Improvement Project Guide' and ‘Detail Process Charting: Speaking the Language of Process’. His company pioneered the field of business process improvement, and has provided process improvement consulting, coaching and training services to organizations across North America since 1953. Ben has worked with many organizations to build libraries of business process maps and develop effective, process-focused, continuous improvement programs. His organization publishes Graham Process Mapping Software, which is designed specifically for preparing detail process maps. More information about the software is available at

1 Excerpted from Ben B Graham, Detail Process Charting: Speaking the Language of Process (John Wiley & Sons, 2004)

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