Business Process
Business Process

Business Process

This page is a work in progress, part of a multi-year effort to capture and share learnings, frameworks, tools, and processes to run organizations. See Running Organizations for more.

Understanding Business Process

What Is Business Process?

A Process is a sequence of activities that turn inputs into outputs. Business process is how the work in your organization gets done. Process is considered to be "the white space" on an org chart, as it's how value is created, independent of your formal organizational structure. Formalizing and improving business processes is how you create consistency in a business.

"Business is an interaction between processes, people, and technology, supported by an underlying infrastructure. Business processes are how work gets done, people are who do the work, and technology is how we enable the work, the underlying mechanisms for effectiveness, efficiency and productivity." - Artie Mahal (Source: How Work Gets Done)

Processes determine business performance - we're only as good as our processes. If your processes are inefficient, inconsistent, and don't produce value, then you'll have poor performance. If your processes are efficient, consistent, and drive value, you have an advantage in the market.

Types of Process

There are three types of processes in a business - Management Processes that guide the organization, Core Processes where value is created, and Support Processes that enable value creation.

When we talk about improving business processes, we're mostly talking about improving Core Processes.

Management Processes

Management processes are the strategic plans, the monitoring, and managing of performance in an organization. Management processes set the direction and govern the organization.

Core Processes

Core processes are the processes that create direct value for customers. This is where product and service outputs are produced. Core processes lead to customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

All of your management processes and support processes serve to supply the organization's core processes. If management passes down stringent policies that limit account managers, core processes are compromised. If IT doesn't deliver the right tech infrastructure, customer support can't satisfy customers.

Support Processes

Support processes resource the core processes of the business. These are HR processes, finance processes, IT processes, and other areas that support the operation of the business but do not create direct value for customers.

Process Hierarchy

Process creation is an art, not a science. You can break down many "layers" of processes and sub-processes in a large enterprise. A small business might have one layer of process. How you think about levels of processes is up to how sophisticated and complicated the business is to run.

Beyond levels of processes, there are three key layers that underlie a business process - Procedures, Tasks, and Work Instructions.


Most organizations have 20-30 processes that run the entire business, and a handful of processes are truly critical to value creation. Each process can be broken down into sub-processes, and into greater levels of detail.

Processes capture at a high level what must be done, but not how to do it. The three levels below explain how to execute activities to turn inputs into outputs.


Procedures or Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are a practical, detailed list of steps taken as a part of a Process. They explain how to do the work and why it must be done.

Procedures usually take the form of a narrative and often include graphics and images. Procedures can also include checklists, which support the steps described in a Procedure, and ensure accountability that those steps get done.


Tasks are the individual steps taken as part of a Procedure. Tasks are always carried out by a single person, whereas Procedures can involve multiple people, and Processes almost always involve multiple people.

Tasks can be rolled up into a Checklist format.

Work Instructions

Work Instructions are exact step-by-step instructions for how to complete a Task. Instructions are generally long-form written instructions that include screenshots of choices to make, buttons to click, and more.

Why Document Processes?

Every organization has business processes, whether they are documented or not. If they are documented, they're considered formal business processes. If they're not documented, they're informal.

Documenting processes helps you improve your processes. Just seeing a process visually process will help you to find inefficiencies and ways to improve. Having your processes documented is a huge part of new employee training and of building and preserving company knowledge. Documentation also helps you manage risk and increase the overall market value of a business.

How to Think About Process

Formal Process Creates Consistency

Where Is Consistency Important?

What parts of your organization require excellence and what parts require consistency? Look for areas where you can remove needless variation. Variation can cause internal delays, increase cognitive load, and can disappoint customers.

Support Processes and Management Processes are great candidates for a consistent, formal process. Many organizations work to cut back on Support Processes and invest more heavily in Core Processes. If you don't formalize Support Processes, you're unlikely to find ways to improve efficiency and cut costs on them.

Core Processes often require consistency to limit variation. Areas within the business where teams hand off work to one another can benefit the most from formalized processes.

Innovative and creative areas like R&D, engineering, and design often demand more variation and less consistency and therefore can get by with less formalized processes. That said, there are areas in every role that can benefit from formalized process.

Consistency Is Not Excellence

Steps in a process approximate "completeness." Formal processes ensure that people execute, but following a process doesn't ensure excellence. Much of knowledge work requires the use of creativity and the exercising of judgment. The development of creativity and judgment of humans is a frontier you can't solve with procedures and checklists.

"Standard processes for knowledge work are almost always empty at their center. So a new process may tell you, for example, the twenty-nine steps you must go through in the interviewing and hiring of a new engineer, but never give you a bit of guidance on the only thing that really matters: Will this guy cut the mustard?" - Tom DeMarco (Source: Slack)

Formal Process Makes Jobs Easier

Process Prevents Catastrophic Errors

When you have just enough process, you prevent the major mistakes that could cause you to miss payroll, harm your internal culture, lead to bad product quality, or ruin a customer relationship. You can't design errors or mistakes out of an organization, and if you try, you'll kill creativity, motivation, and ultimately, the culture. But improving processes to “design out” major mistakes is key.

Process Frees Up Cognitive Energy

Formal process frees us from bandwidth-sucking tasks that limit us from thinking, creating, and creating leverage in our roles. Processes, Procedures, and Tasks should be viewed as a way to free us to do our highest value work, not oppress us.

Principles for Process

Are You Buddhist or Catholic?

In the book Scaling Up Excellence, the authors divide organizations into two categories: "Buddhist" and "Catholic." "Buddhist organizations" adopt a common mindset (i.e. Core Values, Operating Principles), but practices and rituals differ throughout the organization.

Four Seasons is a Buddhist organization in that they have global standards, but each location operates differently and is localized to the city it's in. "Catholic organizations" replicate their training, processes, and practices identically, in every area of the organization. In N Out Burger and Sees Candy are two examples of Catholicism - they look, feel and operate identically everywhere.

Determine your approach
  • Does everything vary unless you can make a compelling case it should be standardized?
  • Is everything standardized unless you can make a case it ought to vary?

The Best Performance as the Standard

Instead of standardizing everything and enforcing consistency as a way to approximate quality, hold up the best performances as the standard and don't budge. Let teams and individuals decide how that performance will be replicated.

"If perceived performance has an upbeat bias instead of a downbeat one, if one takes the best results as a standard, and the worst results only as a temporary setback, then the same system structure can pull the system up to better and better performance." - Donella H. Meadows (Source: Thinking in Systems)

Use KPIs to monitor performance against that standard. KPIs, alongside people’s judgment and intuition, help you to monitor for broken windows in the neighborhood and ensure that performance doesn't backslide.

People Own Their Processes

Knowledge work jobs require judgment and creativity, but not every element of our roles require those things. For those areas where variation doesn't improve the output, let teams decide how to tackle the standardization of the work.

Don't make documenting processes a management-only exercise. While your leadership team may be accountable for documenting the highest-level key processes in the business, ensure that leaders engage with management for help. Utilize frontline employees for as much documentation as possible.

Letting people own their own processes, as much as possible, empowers people.

"If the term 'empowerment' is to have any meaning at all, it means putting process ownership largely into the hands of the people doing the work. That doesn't mean there should be no standard, only that whatever standard evolves should happen at the level of the work itself. Ownership of the standard should be in the hands of those who do the work." - Tom DeMarco (Source: Slack)

Focus on Developing People

If you train and develop people, you can get away with less process, and those people can use their skills to solve problems in real time. People who are well-trained and prepared to handle decisions with good judgment take more responsibility for outcomes and produce better outcomes than a set of SOPs ever could.

You have two basic choices:

  1. Deploy Managers to train people on SOPs and then monitor (police) behavior and reel people back in
  2. Use Managers to coach, mentor, and train people to solve problems for themselves

The best strategy is somewhere in-between, but defaulting to developing people is the more humanistic approach.

Use "Defaults" Instead of Standards

In Brave New Work, Aaron Dignan proposes the idea of using Defaults rather than Standards. The use of Defaults shapes culture and sends a message, especially to new hires. For one, it ensures that new hires and junior-level talent follow the formal processes and experience early success. Second, it creates an expectation that people outgrow the Default as they gain expertise, and that they help to improve it.

"Instead of enforcing standards, think about proven practices as defaults. Defaults are exactly like standards with one exception: you don't have to use them. A default says: If you don't know what you're doing, do this. If you don't have time to think, try it our way. But if you've achieved some level of mastery in an area and you think you see a better way, feel free." - Aaron Dignan

When you have junior-level talent using Defaults effectively and senior-level talent creating new Defaults by consciously "breaking Defaults", you create a high-performing culture of development and innovation.

Don't Overengineer Process

“Without order nothing can exist - without chaos nothing can evolve” - Oscar Wilde

Every business has Core Processes and should have SOPs to accompany them. Not every Process needs an SOP, and not every SOP needs Work Instructions. A business that’s overly reliant on SOPs and Work Instructions creates worse problems than a lack of consistency. In The Road Less Stupid, Keith Cunningham lists the symptoms of organizations where business processes are over-engineered:

Red Tape
Not My Job
Limited Flexibility
Zero Passion
No Curiosity Or Proactive Learning
The Intensity of a Sloth

We tend to build up processes and procedures because as the organization matures, managers confuse variance and one-off issues with process or system problems, and then work to fool-proof the system.

"Not every problem needs to be overcome, just the ones stopping you from getting where you want to be." - Ann Hill, scientist and process improvement expert 

Creating Processes

Start With Core Processes

Core Processes Drive Value

Core Processes are where value creation happens, and in order to ensure performance, they need to be monitored for bottlenecks. Documenting your most critical processes is the first step to monitoring and improving customer value.

In the book Process!, the authors define Core Processes simply, by asking leaders to sit quietly and create a list of processes that “makes the organization consistently unique and valuable.”

Name, Assign & Visualize

Name Them

What will you call the process? An agreed-upon name clarifies what the process is meant to serve. Good names are simple and easy to remember.

The best way to name a process is to use Verb + Noun - i.e. "Hiring Employees." You might name your Core Processes Customer Onboarding, or Request for Quote, or Accounts Receivable.

Assign Them

Assign a functional Leader in your organization who's accountable for each Core Process.

By assigning accountability at the Leadership level, you ensure that as you grow, no Core Processes will be ignored or forgotten.

Visualize Them

Build a flowchart of all of your Core Processes that shows how they interact with one another. The goal is not to list steps of the Core Processes, but simply to list their names in sequence. You can display this vertically or horizontally.

This map gives you a birds-eye view of how the customer delivery components of the business are run. When you experience Issues, you can reference your map, see where that Issue lives, and understand how it affects downstream outputs.

There are two main ways to visualize processes - flow charts and swimlane flowcharts. Flowcharts are diagrams of the sequence of actions that take place in a process, from beginning to end. Swimlane flowcharts add swimlanes for an additional level of detail. Swimlanes are usually created to denote responsible roles or departments. Swim Lanes are great for complicated shared processes like Customer Onboarding, which involve handoffs.

Both diagrams can be created in tools like Lucidchart, Miro or a simple presentation tool. An advantage of diagramming tools is their templates and built-in notation.

Note: Business Process Model and Notation, BPMN, is a standardized graphical notation. A good resource for BPMN notations is here. Instead of figuring out how to use BPMN, use a tool with built-in notation.

Break Down Subprocesses

Core Process -> Sub-Process

With a list of the highest-level Core Processes and an assigned Leader for each, go deeper into defining the Subprocesses for each of the Core Processes.

This level of detail gives us an understanding of what has to be done to complete the Core Process.

In a Hiring Employees process, we may have four Subprocesses:

  • Recruiting Candidates
  • Interviewing Candidates
  • Making Offers
  • Planning Employee Onboarding

Each of these Subprocesses can have additional layers of Subprocesses or just associated Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).

Organize Processes

Build a Table of Contents

Build a table of contents of your Core Processes and Sub-Processes so that everyone can see what your Core Processes and associated Sub-Processes are.

This allows Leaders and their Managers to get on the same page about the Sub-Processes that must be managed, and how they fit into the big picture.

Store Them In A Knowledge Base

Process documents should be stored in a Knowledge Base where they can be accessed by anyone in the organization. These processes should be organized, usually into functional areas within your Knowledge Base.

In Chris Ronzio’s The Business Playbook, he breaks down a categorization of Collections, Subjects, Topics, and Steps. Collections are folder groupings of Subjects (i.e. Finance & Accounting). Subjects cover single subjects (i.e. “Payroll”) and are sub-folders. Topics are your procedures (i.e. “Creating Payroll Reports”) and are usually documents, while Steps are the bullet points or headers within your Topic documents (i.e. “Reviewing Time Entries”).

Implementing Processes

Systems Management + Project Management

The key to the successful integration of formal processes into the day-to-day operation is the link between your formal process and people’s everyday tasks. By linking the documentation (high-level files, folders, documents, and videos) to the actual tasks, you get people following Defaults in the way they were designed.

Template your common projects and tasks/task templates in a project management platform like Asana,, Jira, etc, and create links within those tasks to your Processes, Procedures, and Work Instructions.

Three Approaches: EOS, Scaling Up, 3HAG Way

The EOS Approach

The EOS approach to documenting processes is to write out processes across each core function of the organization. EOS suggests spending one hour with the Leadership Team to identify what the Core Processes in the organization are, and what they're called.

  1. List each Core Process in a doc.
  2. Assign each functional leader with documenting the Core Process(s) in their area. Each process should be between 2-10 written pages, and kept at a high level (i.e. not including Work Instructions)

The Scaling Up Approach

Scaling Up takes a similar approach to focusing on Core Processes. They suggest gathering the Leadership Team to list out the 4-9 Core Processes in the business, assigning accountability for each process to a specific person, and then designing KPIs for each process.

  1. Use the Process Accountability Chart (PACe) to assign accountability to Leadership Team members.
  2. Map out each step of the process.
  3. Set KPIs at critical steps and decision points in the process.
  4. Create a checklist for each process

The 3HAG Way Approach

Shannon Susko's approach roughly follows the Scaling Up approach but uses a tool called the Key Function Flow Map (KFFM), which assigns an accountable Leadership Team member to each process. The KFFM is well-detailed in this article.

  1. Split the Leadership Team into groups of 2-3
  2. Each group writes on sticky notes the 3-6 key functional processes that make the company money
  3. Each group draws how those functions interact within the company and identifies the inputs and outputs.
  4. Groups present their flows.
  5. Come to an agreement on a single flow that reflects the KFFM.
  6. Color-code functions: Red-Yellow-Green depending on performance. The Functional owner should update the color-coding every quarter.

The commonalities across these approaches are in:

  1. Clarifying the most important Core Processes
  2. Assigning Leadership accountability for each of them
  3. Having the accountable party break down their Core Process into appropriate Subprocesses.

Creating Procedures

SOPs Are Everyone's Responsibility

Executing Repetitive Work

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) create consistency in the operation. They're necessary for detailing how to execute repetitive work that demands consistency and doesn't require high levels of judgment and creativity.

Written procedures help in training, give answers to common questions, and thereby help to streamline organizational communication.

"Businesses that fail to implement and maintain SOPs often fall subject to procedural drift, gradually compromising results. With no standardized procedures to reference, it becomes all too easy for employees to execute tasks suboptimally. Procedural drift can also occur if SOPs are not kept up to date, if they do not truly capture the way work is really done, and most of all, if leadership allows it to happen." - Ken Babcock (Source: How To Implement Standard Operating Procedures for Business Growth)

Preventing Catastrophe & Solving Issues

It's easy to default to creating SOPs to "fill the gaps," but you do not need SOPs for every Core Process. You want just the right amount of SOPs for Core Processes such that you avoid major mistakes and make people's lives easier.

Instead of building SOPs when you run into problems, and just gradually adding more and more SOPs, create SOPs when you anticipate that they can prevent catastrophic errors or when there are clear Issues that a new SOP would resolve.

Everyone Contributes to SOPs

SOPs are highly detailed and subject to frequent change. Updating SOPs is a manager accountability, but keeping them up to date should be everyone's responsibility.

As new hires begin to take on work and find problems and inconsistencies with your SOPs, ask them to contribute to changing them (or log suggestions for changes). This is a great way to set the tone of a continuous improvement culture and gives managers fodder for appreciation and recognition early in an employee's journey with the organization.

Writing SOPs

SOP Names

Write names for each of your SOPs. Keep names simple and short. Verb + Noun is a good structure.

In the Subprocess example, we used Hiring Employees as the Core Process, with Subprocesses for Recruiting Candidates, Interviewing Candidates, Making Offers, and Planning Employee Onboarding. For a Subprocess like Interviewing Candidates, we may have five SOPs:

  • Screening Candidates
  • First Interviews
  • Checking References
  • Second Interviews

SOP Formats

Make SOPs consistent in format and style and easily consumable and understandable by the people using them. SOPs are only useful if they're easy to use.

While Processes are often best expressed visually, SOPs require step-by-step explanation and need to be expressed in written form, usually as long-form writeups in a version-controlled tool like Google Docs.

A Standard SOP Template
  • Title/Name - A clear, easily searchable name
  • Department Name - If necessary, include which department the Procedure applies to
  • Date of Last Revision - With lots of eyes and hands on SOPS, having a way to control versions of SOPs is important for keeping them effective and up-to-date.
  • Purpose and Scope - Answering the "why," framing the Procedure as part of the larger process
  • Keywords - To increase searchability in your storage system (i.e. Google Drive)
  • Definitions - Any potentially confusing jargon used in the document.
  • Knowledge/Pre-Qualifications/Related Documents - Any training required to execute the Procedure
  • Roles/Stakeholders & Responsibilities - Who is involved and what parts are they responsible for?
  • Required Tools - What tools will be used?
  • Procedure Steps - What steps will be taken?

Writing Procedure Steps

For simple procedures, a numbered list of steps is likely all you need to guide to a user to complete a procedure.

For more complex procedures, you might need to show sub-steps and hierarchy. You can also use flowcharts to show how a decision leads to a different set of steps. These longer-form documents might include headers and a table of contents.

Using Work Instructions

Work Instructions and their associated Tasks are optional components of Processes but can be very helpful for detailing repetitive, non-intuitive steps in a Procedure. Work Instructions are job aids that help train new employees and get them producing in your organization quickly.

In our example of Hiring Employees (Process), our Subprocess of Interviewing Candidates included an SOP for Screening Candidates, which could include Work Instructions for:

  • Scanning Search & Social Results

A given Task within that Work Instruction could be:

  • Google the person's name

Created by Experts

Work Instructions should be created by experts who know how to execute the Tasks that satisfy the SOP. Instructions need to be updated frequently and should be managed by staff, not by Management.

Use Screenshots or Videos

Screenshots can be particularly helpful in showing how to navigate SaaS user interfaces to complete a series of Tasks. Stick to short, simple sentences and use labels and annotations on screenshots in documents.

Video explainers can be even more helpful, but need to be re-shot every time a platform changes or a button moves, as opposed to a long-form document of screenshots that can be quickly edited.

Embolden, Italicize and Color

When following instructions, we tend to delegate our judgment or intuition, so missing a key step can undermine the entire Procedure. In long-form Work Instruction documents, use bold, italics, reds, and greens to emphasize key points and ensure that the person carrying out tasks doesn't miss a step.

Measuring Procedures

Process! breaks down three types of measurement for Procedures: compliance, frequency, and outcomes. Compliance means ensuring that a person completed a step. Frequency is checking to see how often the step is completed. Outcomes is about verifying that it’s delivering results.

If doing things the right way matters, measure compliance.
If doing things often matters, measure frequency.
Always measure outcomes. Ensure your processes are working.