A process is a series of activities that leads something from start to finish.
Common processes include following a recipe or putting together a piece of Ikea furniture.
In the context of business, a process a defined series of activities that turn an input into an output.
There are three main elements to consider when defining the transformation of inputs into outputs: the inputs and outputs themselves; flow units; and the network of activities and buffers.
Inputs and Outputs
An input can be anything that flows into the business process environment. This includes tangible items, such as a product, to intangible items such as an order. An output is an input that is ready to exit the system. For instance, the completed product delivered to a customer, or the order being delivered.
The item that enters the process is called a flow unit. Again, remember that this can be something tangible or intangible. Flow units include orders, products, raw materials/components, supplies, projects, cash, even customers themselves.
A process and a flow unit are linked. Of course, a flow unit can fall under multiple processes. For example:
The Network of Activities and Buffers
The final piece to our introduction is the network of activities and buffers that compromise the process flow. An activity is an action that transforms or moves the flow unit in some way on its way from input to output. A buffer is any time a flow unit is waiting for the next activity.
Let’s use an order fulfillment process for an eCommerce company as an example.
- Activity: Order received, payment processed, stock updated, product added to warehouse pick list.
- Buffer: the time the product waits in the pick list queue to be picked.
- Activity: product picked by a warehouse worker and delivered to shipping
- Buffer: product in shipping area waiting for processing
- Activity: product scanned by shipping worker, weighed, shipping label printed and affixed, product moved to truck
We could continue this example to the third party shipping process, but you get the idea. Each activity adds either value or moves the process forward, while each buffer adds wait time to the total process.
In conclusion, the point of business process management is to measure and improve the activities and buffers, which make up the processes that move a flow unit from input to an output.