Process Mapping –
The Roots and Weeds of Process Mapping.
(Part 3 of 3)


By: Dr. Adam Stoehr

>>> Learn about the Excellence Canada Certificate in Process Management

When I mention Process Mapping to my friends and colleagues they immediately plan their conversation exit strategy. Literally, people start looking at the clock and scoping out the closest exits. I explain how a Process Map is a chart that shows how work flows through the functions in an organization. By the time I get to the part about how a map uses specific symbols to capture and record each step required to convert inputs into outputs, I usually see them scurry away like mice being chased by a cat.

As many of you know, it doesn’t have to be that scary. Process Maps are very useful for improvement activities if they are used consistently and appropriately. At the most basic level, Process Maps are pictures of the way we work. Whether we work in the service/public sector or in manufacturing, Process Mapping is a requirement for continuous process/service improvement.

An approach to Process Mapping that is taught at various levels of detail in some of NQI’s training programs is the best way to simplify your thinking on Process Mapping. The approach breaks down Process Mapping into three levels of detail. A Level 1 map shows the process at its highest level with a focus on the “what”, a Level 2 map shows the process in more detail with a focus on the “who does what”, and a Level 3 map focuses on the transactional level with a focus on the “how”. Over the past three Quest for Excellence e-newsletters, I have introduce one of the three levels of Process Mapping.

Part 1 – August Quest for Excellence newsletter: Level 1 Process Maps – The Forest

Part 2 - September Quest for Excellence newsletter: Level 2 Process Maps – The Trees

Part 3- October Quest for Excellence newsletter: Level 3 Process Maps – The Roots/Weeds

Level 3 Process Maps – Roots/Weeds

A root is defined as the underground portion of a plant and serves as support and draws minerals and water from the surrounding soil. Getting stuck in the weeds is a concept often associated negatively with hindering progress. What do these two things have in common? They are both ways of thinking about Level 3 Process Mapping. This article will explore Level 3 Process Maps and the importance of understanding the “How?” of Process Mapping.

In the last two issues of Quest for Excellence, we focused on Level 1 and Level 2 Process Maps. The Level 1 map was a picture of the process at the highest possible level. It told the story of “what?” was going on with your process. The Level 2 map showed the process in more detail with focus on the “who does what?” or the cross functional relationships between stakeholders and the work they do.

The symbols we introduced for Level 2 maps are also used for Level 3 maps. The two most common and useful symbols are the activity box and the decision box.

Level 3 maps show the process at a transactional level and show “how?” work is being done. They are very useful for team members who are working in the trenches. They give you the specific detail of how an input taken from your immediate supplier is converted to an output for your immediate customer. Level 3 maps are commonly used for training, on-boarding, and departmental improvement exercises. Level 3 maps are often called flow charts.

The following example shows a basic Level 3 Process Map for a typical “Fabric-Based Domestic Engineering Cleansing Process” better known as laundry.

Fabric-Based Domestic Engineering Cleansing - Level 3 Process


Click here to download this graphic.

Notice that I’ve taken one stakeholder from my Level 2 map, in this case the Washing Department and I’ve delved into the very specific instructions on how they convert their input (dirty sorted clothes) to their output (clean wet clothes). There would be a Level 3 map for each “who” that was listed on my Level 2 map. The next Level 3 map for example would be for the Drying Department and would detail how they convert their input (clean wet clothes) to their output (clean dry unfolded clothes).

You can see how Level 3 maps can be looked at as roots. They are the underground portion of a process that serve as the lifeblood or support for the overall objective. Each Level 3 process must be done effectively and efficiently in order to satisfy the overall objective of doing laundry well. You might not see how they can be weeds.  Level 3 maps have a tendency to be weeds because of a concept called sub-optimization. Sub-optimization is when you optimize processes at a sub-level. In other words it’s when you attempt to make a process better at Level 3 without the context of Level 1 and 2. For example in Laundry you might try to fix something in the washing department that might make things more difficult in other departments. In an attempt to reduce re-washes, you might optimize washing by upgrading to industrial soap. This sub-optimization certainly improved the washing department but it might not have improved the entire system when you start getting complaints about itchy skin or harsh soap smells from your overall customer. Another reason why Level 3 maps are like weeds is because they tend to be the focal point of discussion when you sit down to document processes. Everyone in the organization wants to tell you “how” they do something rather than “what” they are doing. One can easily get stuck in the weeds of this discussion for hours. Basically what I’m saying is that the Level 3 maps are only as good as the Level 1 and 2 maps they are a part of. Without a contextual understanding of “what” is taking place “how” you do it is not all that interesting in terms of improvement.

This is as far as mapping goes. There is no Level 4 process map in this approach. Beneath a Level 3 map you may have things like procedures, work instructions, templates, etc. These tend to be more “wordy” and less “boxy” using word documents and PDF files. In some of the organizations that I work with I see this pyramid of documents on their Intranets for all employees to see. The key processes tend to be listed and the option for people to look at the Level 1 maps (Forest). If an employee is interested in seeing the “who does what” they can click on the Level 1 to see a Level 2 map (trees). If they want to know “how” something is done they click on one of the “who’s” and up will pop a Level 3 process map (roots). If they want more details on a particular step in the Level 3 map you can click on it and up will pop a specific work instruction or a procedure or a job aid or template related to that step.

It’s your turn to try a Level 3 map. Choose a simple process that you are very familiar with. Choose one of the “who’s” from your Level 2 map and list it in the box below. Then fill in the activities of “how” they convert their specific input to a specific output for the next stakeholder. Go as deep into detail as you feel necessary to describe how things are done.

How Processes? Template for a Level 3 Process Map


Click here to download this graphic.

Now that we’ve described the Forest, the trees, and the roots the next step is to start documenting your processes and finding opportunities for improvement. Stay tuned for more articles on process improvement in future issues of the Quest for Excellence.

>>> Learn about the Excellence Canada Certificate in Process Management


Author Information

Adam  Stoehr, PhD

Adam Stoehr, PhD