7 methods for business process discovery


When you apply BPM – or Value Stream Mapping – for the first time, you most probably have not mapped, let alone documented, your processes yet before.

Even though one may be right to argue that you should not spend (too) much time and efforts in mapping the current situation, it always makes sense to discover business processes first; however fast and simple it may be. But how do you start with it? The most challenging step is often to identify your processes.

Identify your (high-level) business processes

Here are 7 helpful approaches for you to start from. Mind that you may combine several of those. The more of theses approaches you will use, the higher the probability that the identification of your (high-level) processes will be exhaustive.

1. Organisational goals & business context

Business processes – even when they are very efficient – are not a goal on their own, though serve a higher purpose, e.g. to fulfill the organisation’s mission, vision, objectives, strategy, etc.

Hence, considering the organisation and its business environment often helps to reflect on how the work should be organised, i.e. which are key processes and how these help to fulfill its goals. The practical case study (of the private company) described further in this blog, illustrates this more concretely.

You may answer following useful questions for this approach:

a. Organisational insight questions:

  • What are the organisation’s Mission, Vision, Strategy and (long-term) objectives?
  • Describe the main functional domains within your organisation:
    • Purchase: what (kinds of) goods or services are mainly purchased?
    • Sales: what does your organisation mainly sell and to whom?
    • Storage: does your organisation store material goods – or even immaterial goods (e.g. data or information)?
    • Production: how do products or services come about?
    • Human Resources: how do you deal with Human Resources?
    • Management: how is the organisation managed and governed?  

b. Business environment analysis questions:Porters 5 forces

  • What changes did your organisation observe in its environment the last years? Either general trends, or specific changes.
  • How did – or will – your organisation respond to these changes?
  • Describe the market / environment according to Porter’s 5-forces model:
    • who are your competitors and how powerful are they?
    • who are possible new entrants in the market in which you are active?
    • who are your suppliers and what does their power relation look like?
    • who are your customers and how easily could they do without your products and/or services?
    • which are the possible substitutes for your products & services?

c. Capabilities assessment questions:

  • Which main technologies and/or competencies does your organisation mainly use?
  • What’s the (current) role of ICT or digital technology in your organisation?

2. Product / Service – Market – combinations

Looking at your own products and services certainly helps to identify your current processes. Indeed, your products and services are the actual outputs of your business processes.

process output

Using these process outputs, you might even more easily distinguish primary processes from supporting processes:

  • final outputs, i.e. the products and services which you directly deliver towards customers, are by definition provided by primary processes.
  • intermediary outputs, like semi-finished products or internal services are often resulting from supporting processes, or upstream primary ones.   

Going beyond products & services, namely by also listing markets or market segments, you will even be able to identify any possible process variants as well.

To know more on how the product/service – market – combinations facilitate the identification of process variants, have a look at  this blog.

3. Stakeholders, stakes & interactions

Knowing all process stakeholders and their respective stakes will help you anyway to reflect on how to improve processes, taking as many stakes as possible into account.

Thus not only the customer expectations, but also the stakes of the management, the shareholders, the employees, the suppliers, society, etc.

Below generic picture illustrates the many possible stakeholders around a business process.

Process stakeholders diagram

Mind that there are even processes which only exist for stakeholders others than customers. Some examples are:

  • Management processes which mainly exist to enable the organisation’s managers to execute their job, i.e. to run the organisation effectively and efficiently.
  • Legal or compliance processes, like the ones specific for a bank to ensure its compliance to the (European) MIFID-regulation
  • Environmental, Health & Safety (often abbreviated as EHS) processes which should be in place to assure that the organisation is compliant with EHS-regulations.
  • Etc.

These process types may even be conflicting with customer’s stakes ; e.g. customers want to have the best price, while the management may strive for maximum profit.

No need to stress that, once you will have identified every stakeholders and stakes, it will be much easier to know how to improve processes, taking the different stakes of a process into account.

4. Generic Value Chain

Particularly when your organisation’s business is rather stereotypical – as it is often the case with private (commercial) companies, especially manufacturing and logistic ones -, starting from Porter’s generic value chain might be convenient.  

Porter Value Chain template

This is, of course, only a basis to start from, as your organisation is – or should be – unique. Hence, you will need to further derive your company’s own value chain with its specific processes.

5. Current organisational structure & systems

Going more in depth than in the first approach described here above, having a look at organisation charts may help as well, particularly when your organisation is less stereotypical. Indeed, having a look at how the activities are organised may help to identify specificities and thus functional specialties and specific processes.

In the first example here below, i.e. the construction material company, when seeing the organisation chart, I immediately could deduce that some materials were manufactured “in house”, while for (most) other materials, the company was a reseller. This finally lead to separated value chains, as you will see.

Also systems, basically any system like production related ones (say machines, equipment), or information systems, and the people using or managing them will tell you about the existence of processes behind those.

6. Work analysis

Going even further, you might ask everyone of the organisation chart – or for a Small / Medium organisation, even every employee – to list up what kind of tasks they are doing. And from this list, you may then reconstitute the “puzzle”, i.e. to group the tasks by logical types of activities, so leading you to the processes. 

7. Process MiningMining magnifier

To have a better knowledge about what process mining is, and how it may help you to discover business processes, I invite you to have a look at this blog, particularly the first paragraph(s). Mind the several Effic blogs on Process Mining.

Even though it may look very tempting and productive to get process diagrams automatically “out of event logs”, mind however that mining business processes without having any insight on (all) your organisation’s processes, will hardly help you to get an exhaustive view, like an entire value chain. Indeed, it is very seldom that all business processes are supported by information systems which moreover provide qualitative event logs to be mined.

Though when you have event logs covering most of your business processes, then process mining can be very productive indeed. Moreover, you then have a view on how processes are really executed (based on facts), rather than what your employees think the processes do look like.

Business process discovery from practice

Let’s now look at some examples from practice.

1. Private company

This company, active in construction materials, was looking at modernising its administration through the implementation of an ERP-software. It had no clue, however, of how choosing the right ERP-software. And even more important: it totally ignored how to implement such an ERP-software so to optimise its processes and so to get the enterprise to a higher productivity level.  

As you may guess, it had never modelled, nor documented any of its business processes before.

How were processes identified and ‘discovered’?

Thanks to individual interviews, mainly with the company’s managers, we started from the company objectives, and its business environment, like described in approach 1 here above. We also considered the organisation chart, visited the sites, etc. Ultimately, we distinguished 3 value chains, given the specific ‘process logic’ for their respective activity domains, i.e.

a. the distribution of construction materials

VC distribution of materials

b. the manufacture of concrete blocks in their own premises

VC blocks & bagged goods

c. the production of dedicated concrete mixes

VC ready mixed concrete

Why 3 value chains? Well, because these 3 main activities consist of quite different processes, even if some of them have the same name. Mind the different sequence – or absence – of some processes in these value chains.

For each value chain, we further “drilled down” – say zoomed – on each individual business process, so ending with a diagram and a detailed description for each process. Hence, this case can clearly be considered as a “top-down” business process discovery.

As we decided to immediately include improvements as well during the interviews, we ended with a full description of all company activities (to-be processes), leading to the detailed specifications for the tender; so to choose the best ERP-software and respective integrator.

If you want to know more about what this looked like, please read the latest alinea of this blog to get a copy of this description & specifications.  

2. Non-for-profit organisation

Stakeholders - ENClearly no “business as usual”, this organisation’s mission is to take care of the children of staff members working for the larger organisation to which it belongs. Other said, child care during working hours, specifically for the employees’ children.

Even though this service is cheaper for the parents than a private nursery or kindergarten, it is not for free. Hence, there are very specific business processes like the payment fees which must be withdrawn from the parents’ salaries, the admission of the children according to very specific rules, etc.

There are obviously also the typical child care processes, like the educational and animating activities, which may be considered as the primary ones. Moreover, there are also typical supporting processes, like facility management – e.g. managing & maintaining the many buildings hosting the nurseries, food supply for the children, bus transport for the children participating to after-school care activities, etc.

How did we identify all processes – and the entire value chain?

For this organization – whose value chain has no resemblance at all to Porter’s generic one -, we started with identifying all stakeholders (approach 3), which counted nearly 20 types! We also identified their respective stakes, which helped us to identify process outputs (approach 2), so to identify business processes.

Given the many actors contributing to the many processes, we planned business process discovery workshops, where for each process – thus each workshop – the key actors were invited and very actively participated.

To get the most out of these workshops, we asked the participants to prepare themselves, by listing all the activities they – and their teams – were carrying out, either daily or on a regular basis. In the beginning of the workshop, they wrote all the activities listed on post-its, which were representing the building blocks of the process, in BPMN called “tasks”. As you may guess this was like approach 6 mentioned here above.

Due to the specific nature of this business, the value chain was not mapped from the beginning, though only once we had more clarity on all the processes mapped, so we did understand the in- and outputs of each process and how these were related to other processes. In contrary to previous case, this one is an example of a “bottom-up” business process discovery : starting from the activities, reconstituting the processes, to end up with the value chain.

When should you apply which approach?

Like already illustrated, not every approach makes sense for each organisation.  Moreover, applying all of them would be too time & efforts consuming.

Some are obviously better appropriate for certain types of organisations than others. E.g. applying Porter’s 5-forces concept, or even not starting from the generic value chain is less obvious for a governmental organisation, while these approaches do make sense for commercial companies.

How to chooseUsing several of them may surely make sense, particularly when you aim at profoundly reflect on your operations. E.g. on the eve of a thorough BPR exercise, or before an ERP (or similar organisation-wide) software implementation.

On the other side, my experience is that you seldom get a clear picture of all your business processes from the first time. You often have to review – say to rearrange – the first version you obtained. Process discovery may require some iterations, indeed. Review the value chain after a top-down discovery, or review your list of processes & activities after a bottom-up discovery. Let alone that processes are never ‘stone-carved’ and will change over time – e.g. for business agility reasons – anyway.

Although business process discovery also includes how to model business processes in details, the topic of process modeling and process documentation as such, including tips & tricks, are described in this blog.

I would like you to share your experience with business process discovery, or you to provide any remark or question about this topic through below Comment box. You will then get useful examples, i.e. the complete process mapping and process description of case 1 (anonymised and in Dutch) and the lessons learned report including the descriptions of the many BPM steps for the 2nd case (in English).

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  • Don Al

    I am in the early stages of starting up a business process consultancy, and found your article on process discovery methods to be very helpful. It is exactly what I was looking for. I really liked how you gave real world examples. Thank you for posting the article.