Harness the Power of the Text Annotation

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A Practitioner’s Guide to BPMN 2.0 as a Process Improvement Tool

The “Text Annotation” Element (or shape) within the BPMN 2.0 standard is the unsung hero of Process Mapping. Using this shape, a skilled Process Modeler can resolve conflict and inspire innovation from Process Owners, Executives, and front-line employees alike. In the real-life examples that follow, we will explore uses for this simple shape, and discover how it has been used to elevate Process Flow Diagrams from a simple documentation tool into a true process improvement tool.

Text Annotations as Described in the BPMN 2.0 Standard

The formal BPMN 2.0 standard is maintained and governed through the Object Management Group. The standard defines what the Annotation shape is intended to accomplish:

BPMN 2.0 Standard, page 28; Highlight added for emphasis

Based on this description, we know that “Artifacts are used to provide additional information.” Let’s continue searching the standard to see if we can find more detail:

BPMN 2.0 Standard, page 30

Once again, the standard states that Annotations are “a mechanism for a modeler to provide additional text information for the reader” of a Process Flow Diagram. We’re directed to page 71 for more information:

BPMN 2.0 Standard, page 71

This is the most detailed description given in the standard of how to create a Text Annotation. As you can see, we are provided with some rules for the acceptable shape to use (the open rectangle that MUST be drawn with a single solid line.) Elsewhere in the standard, we are guided on how to draw the “Association” (the dotted line that connects the Annotation to another shape.)

Given this sparse, utilitarian description of the Text Annotation shape, Process Modelers might understandably be confused as to the shape’s purpose and use cases. However, the flexibility and ambiguity in the standard liberates the Modeler to use this shape in very creative ways and to accomplish some amazing things.

Use Annotations to Resolve Conflict

Practitioners who learn how to create Process Flow Diagrams typically discover very quickly that these diagrams serve a larger purpose than just as a documentation tool. Process is the universal language of business, whether converting raw materials into finished goods or providing services to end users. At its core, all work is meant to convert useful Inputs into valuable Outputs that customers are willing to pay for.

Because Process is the universal language, a Process Flow Diagram also serves as a very useful collaboration tool. BPM practitioners often find themselves facilitating large groups of cross-functional assemblages with the goal of improving some end-to-end process. A leader or representative of each function is invited to participate. Because they are human, each of them brings a set opinions and pre-conceived notions about the other groups. These beliefs are based on previous interactions and the effectiveness or dysfunctionality of hand-offs and communication between their teams.

To demonstrate, I once was involved in mapping what should have been a fairly straightforward end-to-end process but was fraught with conflict. The scope of the activity was to capture the Corporate Expense Account Reimbursement process, which started when an employee incurred a reimbursable expense, and finished when the same amount had been deposited into the same employee’s bank account. The participating teams present were:

1)     Sales, who submits the most expense accounts;

2)     Travel, the Finance team who processed the expense accounts; and

3)     Payroll, who handled the bank deposits.

When we all sat down to create our Process Flow Diagram, it became obvious that the sales team had an agenda. The first step in their process was to complete an expense account, but it was clear that they did not find this activity value-added. They had complaints about the report template being too time consuming to complete, and they felt the expectation to collect and submit physical receipts was cumbersome. To drive their point home, they insisted on capturing a multi-step process, to demonstrate just how complicated their task was. Similarly, the Travel team had an agenda to document just how incompetent the Sales team was in completing the reports! They advocated for a multi-step process in their own swimlane, to demonstrate all the time and effort that was spent on finding the Sales team’s mistakes.

Instead of capturing the detail of each swimlane and enabling a competition to see whose process was “harder,” we utilized the Text Annotation shape to quell the conflict. By capturing pain points in the annotation, both teams felt heard, and satisfied that their complaints had been documented. Even more importantly, the activity of capturing their concerns allowed them to shelve their grievances and focus on improving the process itself. We were able to maintained the proper level of detail in the Process Flow Diagram itself, without adding unnecessary detail that would have needlessly increased complexity.

Example usage of Text Annotation shape (in red)

Use Annotations to Inspire Innovation

Like the capturing of grievances, Text Annotations can also be used to identify wastes and ideas for removing them. Practitioners of Lean, which is based on the Toyota Production System, will be familiar with the Eight Wastes that can exist in a process. If the objective is Process Improvement, the Annotation shape can once again serve as a method for the Modeler to capture this information without bloating the complexity of the map itself:

Waiting: How often are we waiting for information or decisions before we can begin our work?  

Motion: Do we ever move around more than we need to? (Walking too far, too many mouse clicks, repetitive movements) 

Over Production: Do we ever do some work that doesn’t get used by anybody? (creating reports that nobody reads, building product in anticipation of future sales) 

Moving Objects: Do we move too much physical paper around our offices? Do we hold on to unneeded items that have to be moved around? 

Defects: Do we sometimes do work incorrectly and need to do it over again? What are the causes and how can we prevent the same errors? 

Over Processing: Do we sometimes use the wrong tools for the job, making it harder than it needs to be? Do we ever spend extra time making our work “perfect,” when it only needs to be “sufficient?” 

Inventory: Do we have too much of anything? Are we ever slowed down by the sheer volume of “stuff” that we have to manage? 

Wasted Talent: Do we ever fail to use the intelligence and strengths of our people? How can we test their ideas for improving our processes? 

By “tagging” process steps with the wastes that are present, Process Owners and Stakeholders are encouraged to innovate new ways to eliminate it.

Example: Text Annotations (in red) identify waste and improvement ideas

Hide Annotations by Using Layers

If using Microsoft Visio to create the Process Flow Diagram, a final best practice is to utilize the “Layers” functionality when the Modeler wishes to display only the process steps themselves. Process Flow Diagrams with many Annotations can start to look cluttered, and not all readers are interested in the specific contents of the callouts. Fortunately, Visio makes it easy for us to hide and unhide our annotations as needed for the intended audience.

Uncheck the “visible” box to hide annotations

With a few clicks, all of the Text Annotations can be hidden from view.

Result: Annotations are hidden from view

In conclusion, as you are creating your own Process Flow Diagrams, remember the usefulness of the Text Annotation element to move a team through conflict and re-direct their focus towards process improvement. Your stakeholders will appreciate the valuable usage of their time and are more likely to incorporate the Process Flow Diagram into their Process Management activities.


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