As founder and CEO of Nimbus I spent 14 years evangelizing the importance of processes as a way of driving improved operational performance. I don’t think anyone in the BPM community would have issue with that.

Since Nimbus was acquired by TIBCO over 2 years ago, I had very little to do with processes and clients directly. In December was then asked by an ex-Nimbus client to support him as the Program Manager on a major transformation at the company where he had joined as SVP. The company, a major global engineering and construction firm desperately needed to drive some standardization, risk management and accountability into the way it delivers major projects.

So I am now back in the thick of process mapping, running a great team, which is fun as we see the client’s excitement build in the live workshops. The hierarchical mapping approach is so powerful in helping them understand what they (should) do, from the high level “Deliver Project”, the hand-offs between departments and the critical stage gates that can help reduce risk.

Which got me thinking. Have I been wrong all this time?

Are the principles, that we, and our clients, have lived and breathed for over a decade, correct? The guiding principles can be described simply as: easily understood process diagrams that fit on a single sheet, even for large cross functional processes

  • simple mapping approach with boxes and lines; not swimlanes, flowcharts or BPMN diagram notation
  • diagrams organised as a hierarchy; not single diagrams
  • deployment to the masses is the aim; not analysis for the few or just a per-cursor to workflow
  • making the process content consumable by a wide range of stakeholders; end users, risk & audit and IT
  • role-specific guided walk-throughs overlaid on the process diagrams

So, if the hierarchical mapping approach (which has its origins in IDEF0  ) seems to work so well, why are we surrounded by business people drawing single level process diagrams using Visio Powerpoint and even Excel in swimlanes? Once they see the hierarchical mapping approach they are instantly converted, but are we expected to be evangelists forever?

I remember the saying “Eat shit – 100 billion flies can’t be wrong!” So all the millions of people drawing swimlanes – are they right or are they simply waiting to discover the power of hierarchical mapping and swimlanes are the default because that is what Visio does? Also, consider the new web-based, and very elegant, diagramming tools that have emerged that only draw single level diagrams and swimlanes, like and the free Are they responding to a need or simply chose to develop a less complex application to code? As Steve Jobs famously said “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Henry Ford (allegedly) said that if he had asked his customers they would have said they wanted faster horses.

Hierarchical process maps  or single diagram swimlanes? Which is best?

So, finally with no axe to grind I am genuinely interested in the answer.

2 thoughts on “What if I was wrong all these years?

  1. Hi Ian. Good to hear about your soul searching. Yes, you were quite wrong!!!

    Unless you want to be wrong again I would not focus on analysis and prescription of any kind. Hierarchies are just networks of dependencies, so that is not a huge discovery to use them, but certainly flow-diagrams – using swimlanes or not – are utterly limited for describing what people in a business do on any level.

    What needs to be laid out is strategic objectives with value proposals, business capabilities and their operational targets, process goals and outcomes matching the above, which people (roles with authority and skills) can perform which actions in which context, and finally which resources (content, data, services) are needed to fulfill them. As we have compliance needs these days there is also a set of rules which are mostly boundary rules that can’t be overstepped. And you do not want then in a separate rule engine unless you are a systems integrator propping up revenue

    These things must be describable in business language which means you need an ontology that you map to IT and process mananegement functions. Then IT and experts must let go but let the business do what it does. Which means all of the above must be a runtime and not a design-time only functionality as otherwise you end up coding all of it in one way or the other … which is what happens today.

    A final hint: As long as you still need email and MS-Office you have not managed to support all the processes that your business performs.

    1. Max

      As ever you are very clear on your views. My client required that everyone had the same understanding about the end to end process for a major project – one which lasts 2-5 years and can cost $1-10 BILLION. Therefore there are very few repeatable processes. This was not looking at their core operation processes (ops, finance, HR etc). Across the project there are many different groups who are engaged at the same time; risk, quality, H&SE, engineering, design, procurement and construction. Simply getting one consolidated view of the process which they could all agree one, and identify their role, was a huge task, but the results were compelling. And we achieved in a few short weeks using a simple hierarchical mapping approach what had failed for years in the client when using siloed swimlanes.

      Your comment seems to be based on looking through the narrow lenses of automation / ACM. The client has sophisticated systems tailored for their industry, and did not need automation. What the did not have was a shared vision and understanding of the roles each others played. Nor was this shared across every similar project across the world. IE The objectives were not trying to design with a view to automate. It was about a shared understanding of the best way of delivering a project – the Gold Standard – and then delivering that consistently across the world.

      Did we need TIBCO Nimbus? No. Could we have done it with another hierarchical process mapping tool? Yes.

      So, I could agree with your point of view – but then I fear we would both be wrong.

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