Why talk about business processes? For our particular needs, the answer is simple: processes are the basis of any automation, BPR (Business Process Reengineering), software development, and approaches to understand and improve businesses. The only way to deliver quality results is by truly understanding how processes work and how they interact with each other to accomplish the final goal.

So, what’s a process? In plain terms, a process can be considered as any task or group of tasks that produces output from input received. The keyword here is “produces”; in other words, a task can be considered a process if it generates an output that is different from the input received. A process might be as simple as receiving a paper document and creating a digital copy from it using a scanner, or as complex as creating electronic devices from its components. First figure below illustrates a process from this point of view.

Simple Process

Now, from a business perspective, all processes should work together to support company goals. The best way to understand business processes at your company is to start from a 10,000 feet view of the company and break down the main processes into smaller ones. But, for illustration purposes, we’ll start from a simple department: the warehouse. Consider the main process within the warehouse department for retail Company X (figure below). At high level, the warehouse process receives purchased products, and ships them to customers.

Warehouse Process High Level

Once we understand the main goals of the warehouse process, it’s easier to focus on these goals while we break the main process down. We know the warehouse process receives and ships products, but how does it do it?

Well, now it’s time to break the process down in smaller pieces in order to better understand it. The next figure illustrates what happens within the warehouse process. Basically, the main warehouse process has been broken down into two smaller processes: receiving and shipping process. In our illustration, the goal of the receiving process is to receive and store the product in the right location within the warehouse, while the shipping process focuses on retrieving and shipping the stored product to customers.

Warehouse Process Breakdown

If we break down the shipping process, we might find several smaller tasks such as find product location, retrieve product, pack product, print shipping label, ship product, and so on. The same holds true for the receiving process, but with different tasks. Just remember, this is a very narrow view of the warehouse process, which ignores interactions with processes outside of the warehouse as well as other warehouse internal processes. For instance, a wider view of the process would also include the purchasing process output, the purchase order, that would be sent as input to the receiving process, enabling the warehouse to receive products. On the same hand, a sales order would be sent by the sales process as input to the shipping process, triggering the shipping of a product to a customer.

Basically, the breakdown process continues until we have a complete understanding on how all the pieces fit together. It’s usually necessary to interview users at several levels in the organization to obtain the full picture we’re looking for. Top executives are usually concerned about the big picture and they can give you a nice view of the company and all major processes from 10,000 feet. Once you start to break down the processes, you’ll have to step down to lower managerial levels for better quality input. And don’t forget those who actually perform the work as they’ll provide you with the best input at the lowest level.

Now more than ever, companies are looking for people who are able to help they achieve their goals and make their business more competitive. Truly understanding how business processes fit together and being able to provide effective business solutions are key factors in helping not only businesses, but also yourself, succeed.