Assumptions are the gateway drug for businesses. Once you make your first assumption, the second is easier to make, and it goes on, becoming easier with every passing statement to forget that these are not actual discoveries, but conjurations of the imagination and guesswork. In the end, all you have are hypothetical scenarios that have no real world utility. Having a basic hypothetical understanding is why we need process mapping in the first place. Make no assumptions, question everything. I would not bring my car to a mechanic who guesses at what the problem with my engine is, I will bring it to the one who has experience servicing these cars, has seen the problem before, is able to dissect, isolate, and discover root causes and address them as permanently as is reasonable. These are the only ways to get true business process understanding.
Process understanding starts with tracing an item: maybe it’s a form, or a tool being used on a factory floor. Often, it can be a human being going through a process. True business process understanding happens away from the desk, not behind it—it takes time, patience, and lots and lots of note taking. Marking the time and every detail of events unfolding as they occur will help you reconstruct the process later when you do eventually get back behind your desk.
The only way to truly understand a process is to see it with your own eyes and ears, to put your own hands on the process itself. Even if you get the right people in the room, there are so many steps that are simply second nature to them; they will not realize that they are omitting them when recounting how their work is performed. As an outsider, you have a gift, the gift of fresh sight. By listening to the process second hand, you are foregoing that gift and exchanging it for a process performer’s bias. A tech enthusiast might not realize how many digital hoops they are jumping through, because they are used to it, and a tall person may not realize how often they are reaching for objects above their desk because it is not a big reach for them. You as an outsider need to be able to observe, note down, and reassemble the process objectively, and completely. Business process understanding comes from making no assumptions and actually seeing the process unfold. It takes investigation, questions, and often uncomfortable scenes where you must integrate yourself so completely into a process that you are no longer seen as an outsider.
I have personally sat in a radiology waiting room “reading a newspaper” for several hours waiting for a defect to occur (In this case, it was a patient who was a walk in for an X-ray, whose information had not been sent down by their referring physician) so I could see how it unfolds with my own eyes. The nurses that describe it later have their own bias, as do the patients. But I am the outsider with the gift of fresh sight. I have an investigative bias to find out what’s really happening, and with that gift I was able to quickly discern that which went previously unseen, and it ultimately meant the difference between success and failure for my project.
A vast array of companies, agencies, and organizations will tell you about which wondrous tool you need to get the best possible process map that definitely does not miss out on any details. A mechanic with all of the right tools will fix your car quickly and easily; with some tools, he or she can still probably fix your car but it might take longer. A full garage full of tools without a mechanic will ensure that your car not only never gets fixed, but in all likelihood will be worse off than it was last week. All it takes to obtain business process understanding is patience, practice, pencil, and paper.
Some businesses will train in house mechanics, some will try to get outside mechanics to come in and help, some opt for a balance of both. In either case, the car can only run for so long before it needs to be looked at by someone or else it will fail, crash, and may have devastating consequences. Finding the right mechanic isn’t easy, it’s hard to build that trusting relationship, allowing someone else to poke around in your car, your property. But, once you find a mechanic you can trust, everything about owning a car becomes easier. Whenever something goes wrong, you know that there’s someone who can fix it for you; no matter the problem. Having that relationship and safety net is just as important as having the car in the first place, and the same goes for a business process. If no one understands the process, it will inevitably fall apart, whether it’s now, next month, or next year; it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ just a matter of ‘when’.