Process Maps: Turn-by-Turn Directions That Lead to Supply Chain Optimization

June 16, 2016 Bob Weston



Last week, Dennis Trchka laid out Four Steps to Unlocking Supply Chain Value. The first step, documenting current processes, is the foundation from which opportunities to realize both bottom line savings and top line growth begin to appear. A Process Map (PM), quite literally, gets everyone on the same page. It’s a great visual aid that helps everyone in the organization “see” how a product moves through the supply chain, identify gaps and pain points, and begin to brainstorm new approaches and solutions.

During my 30-year tenure at P&G, I led a vast number of Process Mapping exercises across pharmaceutical, OTC and non-healthcare consumer product categories. We mapped activities as diverse as manufacturing forecasting, start-up processes, international shipping, warehouse utilization, and even personnel hiring. In every case, the exercise resulted in “aha” moments of discovery that led to specific action steps and operational improvements.

Sounds easy, right? Conceptually, yes. In practice, sometimes it is more challenging. But it doesn’t have to be. In this piece, I’ll give you the roadmap to creating accurate, dynamic Process Maps from which to springboard your supply chain optimization and value creation initiatives.

1. Begin with the End in Mind.

A process map is a means to an end, not the end itself. What is the problem statement the initiative is intended to address? What is the goal…cost savings? Revenue generation? Productivity improvement? Alleviation of a specific pain point, such as re-work, cost overruns, missed delivery schedules? It is imperative to achieve goal clarity and alignment across all functions involved in the process before you begin.

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2. Select the Coach, Draft the Team, and Schedule the Game. 

Once the end-game is established, the “owner” of the outcome selects a PM facilitator, identifies those who will participate in the PM exercise, and confirms meeting logistics.

A cross-functional team, representing all operations that touch, impact, or are impacted by the process in question, is the most effective. While it’s important to include those with first-hand knowledge of the current state, outside experts with fresh perspectives are also valuable additions to the team. Those living in a process are sometimes so accustomed to the way things have always been done that they are not able to see when something is not optimal or practical. Further, individual functions may view their role in isolation, unaware of the implications their SOPs have on the preceding or subsequent steps. For example, while mapping the processes of a manufacturing site that consistently missed monthly demand forecasts, we surfaced practices at both their supplier and their customer that contributed to their delivery shortfall. This myopia can be alleviated with the use of an independent, trained facilitator to lead the PM process. 

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of meeting logistics: location, room set-up, and graphic/media resources. Hold sessions on-site at the facility where the processes occur so team members can “walk the floor” and see firsthand what is being described. Make sure the meeting room comfortably accommodates everyone. Most importantly, have a whiteboard at the ready - the bigger the better! It’s the easiest way to make the continual additions and corrections to the documentation process that naturally occur as the participants’ “juices start to flow.”

3. Map It. 

With the team assembled, the mapping process begins. The facilitator reconfirms the goal, establishes the ground rules, and starts with the question, “What is the first step in (process X)?” It is surprising the amount of dialogue that is required to establish this initial anchor. Often, subsequent conversation surfaces one or two additional steps that actually occur before this first stake in the ground. This is not a bad thing, and it is why the whiteboard is essential! 

Visually capture each step in the process on the whiteboard. Although many mapping symbols are available, I generally use just a couple, the Block and the Diamond. I find these two symbols comfortably address any process flow I’ve encountered. Blocks contain the basic action step of the process. It is critical that each block captures the (1) Sender of the Action, (2) Receiver of the Action, and (3) Object of the Action. The Diamond illustrates any point where the process diverges based on the answer to a specific question, e.g., Yes or No, Left or Right, etc. 

As you work through the process, it is important for the facilitator to recognize, and not be constrained by, participants’ biases, perceptions, or artificial boundaries. This ensures the PM truly reflects the process as it is presently performed. I recently worked with a landscape nursery with excessive receivables. At the outset, they insisted that their invoicing procedure was singular and straightforward. However, probing during the PM exercise revealed four different paths an invoice could take, resulting in complexity, lack of visibility into aging, and, ultimately, delayed income. At times, process mapping is very tedious, but it is important to stay the course and capture every meaningful step. Don’t stop until you are sure the PM accurately and completely describes the existing process. 

4. Capture the Gaps.

This is the crux of the work. Don’t be surprised if questions are raised that no one in the room can answer. Record agreed-upon action steps, due dates, and action owners on the whiteboard for all to see and keep in mind as they work through the balance of the process. Follow-up solutions must address the root cause of the issues, be systemic to prevent future occurrence, and be cost-effective.

Expect the unexpected. More than likely you will identify many more (or different) gaps or process improvement opportunities than what triggered the PM session in the first place. For example, a temporary staffing company experienced numerous post-placement problems, creating significant rework and risk of employment law violations. Through the PM exercise, it became obvious that the key issue was lack of clarity and alignment around the roles, responsibilities, and requirements of the various functions involved in recruiting, interviewing, and hiring. After significant discussion, the team mapped the “ideal” process, and assigned action steps, owners, and completion dates; the new process was in place within two weeks.

5. Follow Up. Follow Up. Follow Up.

Finally, agree on a routine schedule of follow-up meetings to share updates and track progress against action steps. This discipline ensures assignments are completed and goals are achieved. Consistent follow-up and feedback often identifies additional opportunities and gaps, which advances the PM from a one-time event to a continuous improvement initiative.

No Process Map is evergreen. Like all things in the universe, it too erodes with time. Staffing changes, software updates, or new company goals cause the process to shift and change. Given these continual changes (what I refer to as “Process Creep”), re-mapping should be considered every 2 to 3 years. When re-mapping is performed, those involved in the original session are always surprised at the degree of change.

Bonus Benefit: Following these 5 steps results in Process Maps that provide a solid foundation for measuring, mastering, and marketing your supply chain for competitive advantage. But I have to point out that one of the most significant benefits of this effort goes far beyond the tangible ROI of supply chain optimization and revenue growth. It is the calibration achieved between the multi-functional participants. In nearly every PM session I’ve led, it is the first time the team members sat in the same room, documented the entire process together, and heard the basis for the others’ SOPs and requirements (which in isolation may seem outrageous or counter-productive). It’s also often the first time everyone examines their own function’s requirements and needs. The outcome for everyone is a broader business perspective, greater collaboration, and new relationships that endure long after the Process Mapping project is completed. 

Process Mapping: The First Step in Unlocking Supply Chain Value

About Bob Weston: Bob spent over 30 years leading warehousing, fulfillment, reverse logistics, transportation operations, and customer service for Procter & Gamble’s Pharmaceutical, Over-the-Counter, and non-Healthcare products. A Total Quality trainer and practitioner for over twenty years, Bob is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt. His career experience spans Manufacturing, Engineering, Human Resources, Initiatives Management, Operations Planning, and Global Customs Compliance. As a YourEncore Expert, Bob helps consumer goods companies and their suppliers and co-packers identify and create new operations and processes for supply chain optimization.


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