You have probably heard of the term “Process Map” or a process flow chart (the terms are used interchangeably) to describe a process. But what exactly is a process map anyway?

Are there different types of process maps? Are all process maps created equal? We’ll try to answer some of these questions by taking a look at seven different types of process maps and how they are used to describe a process. After all, the foundation of all businesses is a common set of core processes.

What is a Process?

A process is a structured set of activities that transform inputs into outputs.

We believe processes should be measurable with clear performance indicators. Processes are strategic assets of an organization that if managed well deliver a competitive advantage. And processes assist us in defining responsibilities, internal controls, and work standards for compliance, consistency, and performance.

Process Flows or Activities

A “process map” visually describes the flow of activities of a process. A process flow can be defined as the sequence and interactions of related process steps, activities or tasks that make up an individual process, from beginning to end. A process map is read from left to right or from top to bottom. We prefer to minimize “backflow” or arrows that go from right to left or bottom to top because it can greatly confuse the reader (more on this later).

SIPOC diagram

It helps if a process map identifies a Supplier providing Inputs to a Process, which produces Outputs for a Customer. We call this basic format a SIPOC (Supplier, Input, Process, Output, Customer) diagram (Figure 1). There are many variations of this SIPOC theme but it does provide a useful framework for understanding the critical elements, sources, and outputs of a process.

Standard symbols are used within a process map to describe key process elements. These symbols come from the Unified Modeling Language or UML, which is an international standard for drawing process maps. There are many symbols that can be used. Figure 2 provides some common UML symbols.

Better Process Understanding

Process maps are used to develop a better understanding of a process, to generate ideas for process improvement or stimulate discussion, build stronger communication, and — of course — to document a process. Often times a process map will highlight problems and identify bottlenecks, duplication, delays, or gaps. Process maps can help to clarify process boundaries, process ownership, process responsibilities, and effectiveness measures or process metrics. Process maps can be very effective at increasing process understanding during training.

Process maps are not limited to a single department or function. For example, the ISO 9000 Quality Management Systems standard requires some type of process map of the organization’s quality processes. Mapping should be the first step in designing a process or in documenting a procedure. Why? Because, to improve a process you must understand it and most of us understand a graphical picture better than a written procedure.

SIPOC Process Map

Process maps come in many different forms but they all tend to use a SIPOC format and a standard UML for symbols. The most common process map types include: High-Level Process Map, Process Flow Chart, Document Map, Cross Functional or Swim Lanes Process Map, Value Stream Map, Work Flow Diagram, and a Rendered Process Map.

Types of Process Maps

How important are process maps in developing policies and procedures? There are seven types of process maps, which include the 7 types of flow in accounting. We’ll discuss three types: High-Level, Low-Level, and Cross Functional or “Swim Lanes” Maps.

process map is a flow diagram of the primary processes within an organization. It very specifically shows you both who and what is involved in a process. Process maps visually describe the flow of activities of a process and are not limited to a single business department or function.

Process mapping is about communicating your process to others so that you achieve your management objectives. You can build stronger communication and understanding with process maps.

High-Level Process Map

One of the types of process maps is a High-Level Process Map. This describes all of the core processes within an organization. For example, ISO 9001 requires that the sequence and interaction of the Quality Management System processes are determined. One way to demonstrate that processes are “determined” is through a high-level process map.

Figure 1 shows nine core processes that make up the Order-To-Cash Cycle, their sequence and interaction, thus fulfilling the basic ISO 9001 requirement. The color coded boxes show the three main process flows or cycles in your business:

  • Red is your Order Cycle (Purchasing + Production < Sales);
  • Blue is your Just-In-Time (JIT) Production Cycle (Shipping = Receiving + Production); and
  • Green is your Cash Cycle (Inventory + A/R – Payables > 0); which taken together make up your Order to Cash Cycle.

Inputs/outputs are labeled, information flows are indicated with a dotted line, and the material flow is a solid line (black for inventory and red indicating the primary material flow). If you need more detail, then each of the nine processes can further be explained separately in a lower-level process map. The term “process map” does not refer to the scope of a process being high-level, low-level, or very detailed. A process map is focused on the activity flow, order, or sequence and interaction.

7 Types of Flow in Accounting

What are the seven types of flow? In the Order to Cash Cycle we see a number of implicit and explicit flows.

  1. Order Flow – Customer to Sales to Production to Purchasing to Supplier.
  2. Quote Flow – Same as the Order Flow.
  3. Material Flow – Supplier to Receiving to Production to Distribution to Customer.
  4. Information Flow – The dotted line.
  5. Cash Flow – Customer to Accounts Receivable to Inventory (Purchasing) to Accounts Payable to Supplier.
  6. Disbursements Flow – Purchasing PO to Accounts Payable to Supplier.
  7. Collections Flow – Customer PO to Sales to Distribution to Accounts Receivable to Customer.
order to cash cycle

Figure 1: High-level process maps show all core processes within an organization

Low-Level Process Map

The main difference between a high-level and low-level process map is one of scope. In this one of the types of process maps, the process flow has not changed, just the scope of what we are looking at. The Order-To-Cash Cycle has nine processes identified but each process can be further subdivided into sub-processes. Each sub-process makes up a low-level process map or process flow chart. A low-level process map is an area of a high-level process map that we have zoomed into for more detail.

For example: the Accounts Receivable (A/R) Cycle is comprised of customer billing, credit, and collections. If we take a look at just the credit approval portion (Figure 2) of the whole A/R cycle we see that there are five main steps: sales call, order entry, credit check, review A/R balance, and calculate credit terms. There are three UML symbols used: square for process steps, diamond for decisions and an odd looking square with a curved bottom representing data. Decision diamonds produce an alternative flow that here represents either an “OK” or “Bad Credit” decision, which requires a new sales call to resolve.

credit approval flowchart

Figure 2: Credit Approval Process Flow Chart


Low-level process maps can provide a lot of detail for analysis and can be used in place of textual procedures for simple processes. If you want to “lean out” your documentation for ISO 9001 then flowcharts can simplify your procedures and reduce unnecessary paperwork. Organizations with highly trained employees can benefit by using simple process maps.

One problem with low-level process maps is that sometimes it is hard to determine who is responsible for which activity. Another is that they may not conform very well to the SIPOC format we prefer. In this case a Cross Functional or “Swim Lanes” Map can be used to convey individual responsibilities or departmental roles within an organization.

Cross Functional or “Swim Lanes” Map

Another one of the types of process maps is a Cross Functional or “Swim Lanes” Map. These have the same UML flowchart symbols used in the low-level process map example. Only now, four cross functional swim lanes have been used to identify who is responsible for each element, decision or data. You can have any number of swim lanes in your map, although as a practical limit you may want to make it fewer than ten for clarity.

In Figure 3, the first band, the customer is clearly responsible for making a “buying” decision and must complete the credit form. The sales department is the second band and must respond to sales calls, receive the credit information (form), enter the order, and produce an order form. The order form is sent to the credit department, which compares the data to the credit criteria issued by management. If everything looks “OK” then credit reviews the customer’s existing A/R balances for credit capacity, and then calculates the credit terms. Management is responsible for preparing a “credit issued” report and overseeing the credit approval process.

credit approval

Figure 3: Credit Approval Swim Lanes Map


Swim lanes are really good at depicting responsibilities and with no loss in the low-level process flowchart information. Suppliers and customers are obvious and it does conform to our SIPOC format. Although, we still see alternative back flow present in the “bad credit?” decision. The problem with alternative flow is they can make it hard to follow the process. A better method would be to use “single-piece?” flow (the path a single product takes without alternative flows) and eliminate alternative flows such as in a Document Map. You can also learn about other types of process maps such as Document and Value Stream maps in other articles on our site.

Keep in mind that process maps only communicate the process steps. They are not active on their own. If the process changes then you must update the process map to communicate the new changes. Process mapping is about communicating your process to others, so you can achieve your goals.