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BPMN: What is Business Process Model & Notation?

Business process modeling and notation uses a specific approach to process documentation, using models to help you visualize business processes. Here's how you can use BPMN to effectively document your company's processes.

Introduction

You’ve recently been promoted. This means that apart from the pay hike and laptop upgrade, you’ll have to get acquainted with a whole bunch of new processes. From approving budget allocations to co-ordinating daily operations.

Now, these often get very complex — not to mention difficult-to-understand. 

Enter business process modeling and notation (BPMN). It's an easy way to document your organizational processes, so stakeholders can visualize them better. This helps improve understanding and ramps up efficiency as well. 

Most people hit a couple of roadblocks while trying to model a process. The first one is figuring out where to start. The second is that it takes a lot of time and energy. On the bright side, BPMN comes with a lot of techniques and tools to help you along the way. 

In this article, we'll discuss the popular ones, how to get started with them, and tips to help you bring your processes together in the most effective way.

But first…

What is business process modeling & notation?

BPMN (Business process model and notation) is a modeling language that helps visualize, document, and analyze business processes. With it, you can streamline operations by visually representing each with flowcharts. 

These simple diagrams make it easier for stakeholders to understand how the company functions and the way its internal and external touchpoints interact with each other. 

The first version of BPMN was introduced by the Business Process Management Initiative (BPMI) in 2004. The latest version, BPMN 2.0—released in 2013—has become a benchmark for process modeling in the last few years.

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A lot of project managers also use BPMN to identify gaps in current processes and brainstorm solutions. Not only does this improve efficiency, but ensures optimal resource use as well. Apart from the above, there are a lot of other obvious advantages to using BPMN.

5 benefits of BPMN

As organizations grow, their business processes become increasingly complex. In these cases, you need BPMN to streamline and document everything. Here are five reasons businesses adopt this technique to improve operational efficiency.  

1. Promotes standardized business processes

Successful companies are backed up by well-designed business processes and rules to ensure consistent implementation across the board. BPMN does this by standardizing existing processes through detailed flowcharts. These diagrams help stakeholders eliminate guesswork, ensuring each process follows the company’s guidelines and legal regulations.

2. Visual representation aids memory retention

By adding a visual element to business processes, BPMN makes it easier for people to remember the various steps in each process. In fact, a study reveals that readers retain only 10-20% of spoken or written information after three days. On the flip side, they can retain up to 65% when this information is in a visual format. 

3. Improves interdepartmental communication

Communication is an integral aspect of business process management. It prevents any gaps in understanding and ensures everyone is on the same page. Once you implement BPMN, you’ll find that conveying your ideas and expectations is a lot easier when it’s done visually. 

It’s also a great way to identify potential issues ahead of time. This gives you and your team enough time to brainstorm ways to implement processes more effectively. Considering how BPMN helps interact with stakeholders more effectively, it’s definitely a non-negotiable in any communication strategy.

4. Universally accepted & compatible with most solutions

BPMN works especially well during cross-department or cross-company communication. This is because it’s a great way to provide context before you get into the nitty-gritties of how the business works. 

With BPMN, it is easy to ensure that communication is in place and that all stakeholders understand the process and what they need to do. This also promotes transparency and trust among all parties.

5. Flexibility & capability

BPMN is flexible enough to adapt to many unique business processes. This allows for BPMN to work seamlessly within a business process without requiring a change in the overall structure of the business process. With this flexibility comes a variety of capabilities that are rarely seen in other systems.

How to get started with BPMN?

While BPMN is not a programming language, it lends itself to creating high-level workflows, tracking systems, and other business-process software. Here’s what you need to do if you’re planning to dip your toe into this documentation method: 

Understand BPMN symbols

BPMN symbols are the building blocks of BPMN. They generally include four types of objects: 

  1. Flows: Depict processes and connecting objects are used to connect flows together.
  2. Connecting objects: Establish a relationship between two objects
  3. Swim lanes: They help separate different parts of a process so that it is easier to understand
  4. Artifacts: These include things like data stores or messages that are used in a process. 
  5. Flow objects: Events, activities, gateways.
  • Events are activities used to represent the triggers that start a process. They include a start event, intermediate event and end event.
  • Activities are used to represent the process steps. Three commonly used activities are task, sub-process and call activity.
  • Gateways are used to represent the process exit points or the transfer between different process workflows. In BPMN, there are five types of gateways:exclusive, inclusive gateway, event-based, parallel and complex.
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Connecting objects: sequence flow, message flow, association

Connecting objects are elements that connect the core objects and establish the relation between them. 

  • Sequence flow: Use this to represent sequential execution of activities. It also shows the order in which activities occur, along with the messages sent between various activities. You can depict these by drawing a solid line from the predecessor to the successor activity. The line can also be dashed, but remember to make it clear that the activities are not part of a single process.
  • Message flow: This is a great way to demonstrate asynchronous communications between activities. 
  • Association: Represents the relationship between activities. Associations are used to show that two activities are related, but not necessarily ordered.
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Swimlanes: pool or lane

Swimlanes are used to show the assignment of resources and are usually applied in project management.. You can use them to show which resources (or departments) should do what tasks. 

  • Pool: Represents companies, departments and roles
  • Lane: Represents sub-entities like tasks, resources, categories and teams
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Artifacts: data object, group, annotation

Artifacts let you represent anything that isn’t involved in the target business process. It comprises:

  • Data objects: Represents data that needs to be collected, stored, processed or added. 
  • Group: Represents a reusable set of elements such as data, artifacts, or sub-flows. Use this to organize tasks and processes.  
  • Annotations: Used to add comments, instructions, or information in the diagram itself. 
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Create your process & document with BPMN symbols

After you’ve learned about the different symbols, it’s time to build your first process diagram. You might have to rely on trial and error for a bit before you get the hang of how to model your processes. A great way to start is to learn by example. Look for samples during secondary research that demonstrate how BPMN works. 

Once you’ve seen enough references, take out a pen and paper. List down all the key business processes in your organization and pick one. You can then start drawing a simple workflow to show the sequential execution of tasks. After you’ve gotten comfortable with the simple processes, level up to more complex flows that incorporate parallel paths and asynchronous communication.

Finally, look back to the BPMN objects and figure out which objects are relevant to your processes. You can also use annotations to provide context by to adding comments or information to your diagrams.

Use an online BPMN tool

There are a host of dedicated BPMN tools available to help you get started with process documentation. Some popular options include Lucidchart and Draw.io.

These tools help you quickly create and edit your process diagrams with a simple drag-and-drop functionality. In some cases, you’ll also be able to collaborate with others in real-time, making it easy to get feedback and input from your team members as you create your process models.

What challenges will you face?

Although the goal of this method is to make it easier to streamline business processes, it can get confusing at times. There are two major challenges you’re bound to come across while using BPMN: 

1. Mastering all the symbols

Mastering all the different symbols and elements used to represent process flows takes time and practice. You may face a slight learning curve, as there is a lot of terminology to dig through. But once you familiarize yourself with the basics, things get a lot easier.

2. Finding a suitable online tool

Another challenge is finding an online tool or software program that makes it easy to create and edit BPMN diagrams. There are many options available, but not all of them offer the same level of functionality or ease of use. Analyze the features of a few BPMN tools and create a shortlist of the best ones.  

You can also use Scribe to automate process documentation and create a quick reference of how each process works. All you need to do is record your workflow and the tool will automatically convert it into a series of step-by-step visual guides.

4 Best practices to note while using BPMN

While using a tool makes it easier to document your processes, this method might not give you many customization options. Whichever approach you decide on, keep these best practices in mind while documenting your business processes with BPMN: 

1. Always start at the beginning

When building a business process model, it's important to start with the very first step in the process and work your way through to the end. This will help you avoid missing any important steps or elements, helping you prevent potential gaps down the line.

2. Add context & detail

As you build your BPMN models, be sure to add contextual information like annotations or comments that provide more detail about each step or element. This makes it easier for other people to understand your diagrams. 

3. Collaborate with others

One benefit of using an online tool is that it's easy to collaborate with others while working on a BPMN model together. In these cases, make it a point to get feedback from your team members. You can also ask other subject matter experts or stakeholders for input on the documented processes. 

4. Regularly update your processes

Business processes are always evolving, and it's important to make sure that your process models also reflect any changes or updates. This would involve revising existing diagrams or creating new ones when necessary. 

With the above tips and the right tool, creating business process models with BPMN becomes a breeze. And the visual nature of this process means you can use it to train employees, pitch to investors and create a comprehensive knowledge base as well. 

Conclusion

While BPMN is a useful and effective way to document and share processes, it can be time-consuming and challenging to learn how to use it effectively. Follow the above steps to ease into the process and make your job a tad easier.

You can also use Scribe to create and share process diagrams. It's 15x faster this way and can be shared easily with anyone in different formats. Sign up now