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Process mapping is, essentially, creating a flowchart.
I know Google just threw a lot of different terms at you but trust me on this. Process maps are flowcharts.
The purpose of a process map is to visualize how a process works, who’s involved, and any areas that could be improved.
You’ll most likely want a process map when you start building workflows for your process. The process map will make every step of the process clear – so nothing gets left out of the workflow – and ensure stakeholders understand how your systems, stakeholders, and processes relate to each other.
If you’ve ever tried to create a flowchart in Word, you’re probably thinking that new workflow isn’t going to be worth the work it takes to build it.
And I’d agree with you. Word is great for a lot of things. Believe me, it’s a vital tool I use every day at work – for writing. A process mapping tool it is not.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tools out there specifically designed to make process mapping easy – and they’re free.
With so many tools available, though, choosing the right one can be almost as daunting as creating that flowchart in Word.
But it doesn’t have to be. We tried out the most popular apps for process mapping and settled on these eleven:
Process Street transforms your team’s recurring processes into interactive, no-code workflows that are stored in a central location. As the modern process management platform for teams, Process Street allows you to create standalone documentation that lives and works side-by-side with your customized workflows.
Free online mindmap maker for brainstorming, project planning, development, action, and other creative tasks. Gitmind includes a theme and a template gallery to enable you to create everything from mind maps to Ishikawa diagrams.
Creately is a work management platform that runs on a smart visual canvas. Teams use it to brainstorm, plan, manage projects, and capture knowledge in a single space.
Diagrams.net (AKA draw.io) enables professionals to add toggle layers with customizable URLs and align texts within the shapes. Businesses can utilize the inbuilt layout shapes to automatically organize flow charts, mind maps, and tree diagrams. The platform also lets teams automatically generate and export diagrams to PDF files.
Lucidchart is the intelligent diagramming application within the Lucid visual collaboration suite. Since it’s cloud-based, you can work from anywhere, at any time, on any device or browser. Collaborate and align with teammates as you visualize complex ideas and bring those ideas to life.
Visual Paradigm features an intuitive BPMN 2.0 modeler that lets you create professional process maps quickly. Based on cloud technology, Visual Paradigm includes drag-and-drop diagram editors, over 100 types of diagrams, and over 1000 diagram templates.
Gliffy makes it easy to communicate and collaborate when creating process maps. Drag-and-drop your way to professional-looking flowcharts, UML diagrams, entity-relationship diagrams, and more in just a few clicks.
Cacoo is a diagram tool for creating flowcharts, mind maps, org charts, mockups, and more.
Features include real-time collaboration, powerful app integrations, large library of templates & shapes, and easy sharing options including embedding, links, and exports.
Textografo is a cloud-based diagramming tool that enables users to produce flowcharts, mind maps, organizational charts, and decision trees. Rather than using traditional shapes, Textografo uses text-to-diagram technology to quickly create and collaborate on diagrams.
TeamFlow is a process modeling platform that allows users to create, edit, and share process flows. Build processes from scratch, import from spreadsheets or choose from a library of templates. Each diagram also functions as a fully-featured graph data model.
EdrawMax is an all-in-one diagram software that makes it simple to create professional-looking flowcharts, organizational charts, UML diagrams, mind maps, and more. With over 280 diagram types, EdrawMax enables you to create information-rich diagrams to meet any visual needs.
There are plenty of benefits of process mapping tools, but they all really boil down to the same thing: Process mapping tools save you money.
The right process mapping tool will:
Basically, your process map should keep everyone on the same page, with clear objectives and responsibilities. Process mapping tools help you do that.
A process mapping tool can’t solve all your process mapping problems for you. It can help, sure, but there are still some inevitable obstacles you’re going to have to face up to:
You heard me: Not every process can – or should – be mapped. More abstract and open-ended processes usually aren’t suitable for process mapping because they involve a lot of unpredictable factors.
Let’s look at the hiring process as an example:
The process for recruiting, interviewing, and hiring new employees will pretty much stay the same every time you need to bring on a new employee. Regardless of the department, team, or role, you follow the same steps.
When you get to the decision-making part of that process, however, it’s much more difficult to map. With each round of hiring, you’ll have different variables at play such as:
Depending on your organization, location, and industry, there could be even more. Trying to map out that process would be time-consuming, very likely impossible, and definitely pointless.
But, as clever as your process mapping tool might be, it can’t tell you that you’re mapping the wrong process. That’s all you.
I’ll be honest: I’m part of that generation still handy with a paper map and using inches to calculate miles.
The thing with geographical maps, though, is that even if you handed one to a Gen Z-er who had no idea paper maps existed, they could probably figure out how to read it pretty easily.
A process map isn’t so simple – largely because there aren’t really standardized symbols for process mapping. You have the basic flowchart symbols – square, circle, triangle, and so on – but once you get into more complex maps, suddenly your interstate map turns into a mountaineering map when you’ve never been on a walking trail.
I’m mixing metaphors, but you get the point. You need to choose the right symbols and layout so the people using the map will actually understand what it means.
The really fun thing about any sort of app is the options that come with it. Who doesn’t love being able to color-code and customize every single detail with a few clicks and a little drag-and-drop?
Process mapping tools are no different. While the point of a process mapping tool is to make creating your map easier, it also makes it a lot easier to get sidetracked by how your map looks instead of how it works.
Process mapping tools are great enablers when it comes to making that map pretty. But – and just guess what I’m about to say next – it won’t point out that you’ve spent five hours choosing the right font and only mapped out step two of the process.
Don’t act like that’s never been you. I know things.
I’ve given you the basics, but now it’s time for you to venture out and find your perfect process mapping tool.
How do you know when you’ve found the right tool, though? There are a lot of good ones out there, but just because it’s good doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
You can make that decision just by asking yourself four simple questions:
Do you know why building a flowchart is so difficult in Word?
It’s a frickin pain in the ass to update.
Way back in the olden days, static process maps were the thing. People drew them out by hand (on paper no less!), then moved on to whiteboards, then programs like Word or other fancy doodads with cringy clipart.
But this is the 21st century and you seriously need to reduce your carbon footprint so why are you still using paper for anything?
I can guarantee that whatever process you’re mapping now is going to change. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for every process you map.
You don’t want to be stuck re-mapping your process every time it needs an update. Or maybe you do, but it’s things like that you need to take into consideration when comparing process mapping tools. Make a list of your must-have and secondary features so you can quickly eliminate any tools that don’t make the grade.
You can find the absolute perfect tool that has every feature you could ever want but if you can’t teach your team how to use it – or more importantly, figure out how to use it yourself – it’s not any good, is it?
When checking out a process mapping tool, you want to make sure it has:
You don’t want to get a developer-centric tool if you don’t have a team of engineers to use it. Likewise, you don’t want a WYSIWYG tool if you do have a team of engineers.
In other words, what are you really getting from this tool?
Maybe it’s easy to create a process map but doesn’t include all the details your processes need. Maybe it’s so complicated only a few people on your team know how to use it. Maybe you aren’t able to access tutorials to get the best use out of it.
There are thousands of little factors that play into how much value an app or tool actually brings with it. Before you invest any time or money into a process mapping tool, you want to make sure you’re going to at least get the same value out of it.
Everyone knows the old saying, “You get what you pay for.” Sometimes that’s true, but it isn’t always.
You’ll spend more on a Ferrari than a Volkswagen but you’ll have to replace it sooner, too. (No, I’m not getting paid to say that; I just have a soft spot for VWs, OK?)
When it comes to purchasing a process mapping tool, you have to look at it the same way. Just because an app is more expensive upfront doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily save you money down the road. Your subscription cost might increase every time you renew or you might have to pay more for features that were originally included.
The company may not even update the software regularly, meaning you eventually need to add on other apps because the original tool is so outdated. We’re starting to head back into value territory here, but you get the point.
Set your budget and stick to it. You don’t need the flashiest, shiniest right out the gate. You may not ever need the flashiest, shiniest at all. If it works, it works, right?
Like any map, a process map ensures that everyone knows where you’re going and how to get there.
With a process map, it’s easier to see any gaps or bottlenecks in a process and communicate what needs to happen next with the other stakeholders. Without that clear overview of how the process should work, you could end up using an inefficient process that costs you more than it saves.
Using – and choosing – the right process mapping tool makes that easier. You can keep your process maps in a centralized location that everyone can access from anywhere, plus be able to make changes when and where you need to.
Process mapping tools give you the flexibility to create processes that really do do the work for you.