Five symbols you need to know when mapping your processes

Posted: 11/07/2018

When you look at any process with the intention of improving it, it’s important to start by understanding how the current ‘as is’ process works and every step that is taken within it. If you try to create your ideal ‘to be’ process without taking into consideration your ‘as is’ first, you can waste time creating a process that doesn’t generate the outcome you need.

This is where a process map comes into play. It’s a pictorial representation of an entire process and it’s designed to communicate what needs to be done and when to a large group of people in a way that is easy to understand and replicate. The other benefit of producing a process map is that it gives you the opportunity to identify ways to shorten, streamline and improve your ‘as is’ process further.

As a process map is made up of different graphical symbols, lines and arrows, to map your processes effectively, you need to be familiar with the symbols used to communicate all activities and decision points that make up a process. To get you started here are the five main symbols you need to know when mapping your processes. See also our article on understanding a digital transformation roadmap.





The terminator symbol appears at the start and end of every process. Without a terminator, someone reading the process map will not know they have come to the endpoint in a process, which can increase confusion and the margin for error. By having a different shape it becomes clear for anyone following the process where the start and end point is.


  • The description of the first and last steps of the process should be written inside the terminator symbol like in our process map example Withdrawing from Course.
  • For the initiating terminator, ensure that only one line is exiting it so your reader can easily follow it.

Process Step




The process step symbol is the most common symbol you will see in process mapping. This symbol identifies where an action or activity takes place in the process.


  • A process step should have only one output line coming out of it, if there is more this step will need to be changed to a decision point as it indicates there are varying pathways.
  • It is important to write only one activity in each process step and to be consistent with the level of detail you include.
  • It is up to you how detailed and high-level each step is, though whatever you choose it should be reflected consistently in each process step to prevent confusion.

Decision Point




The decision point symbol is used to indicate a point in the process where the path can change based on a decision. For example, in our ‘as is’ process map example you will see a decision point symbol is used for ‘Approval Type’ this is because the activities in the process need to change for different approval types.


  • For it to be a decision point there needs to be at least two output lines extending from the symbol, like in our Withdrawing from Course process map example.
  • There should also be a clear question or decision in the symbol to ensure the right path to take is clear for anyone following the process.
  • For ease of use, we recommend that the most common decision made is the one that comes out straight in line with all other process steps to keep the main path going forward.


NOTE: How we show systems and data is a bit different to typical Business Process Mapping – and there is a very good reason for it. We’ve found our approach works really well in the Education sector and we’d be happy to explain why. We can also train your team in this approach if needed.

The data symbol is one you probably won’t regularly use when process mapping business processes but it is an important symbol to know. This symbol is used to indicate when information needs to go into or come out of a system. In the Withdrawing from Course process map example, this symbol is used to indicate when information needs to be updated against the student’s record.


  • Use this symbol to indicate when information needs to come out of or go into go into a system.
  • The description of the data or the activity that needs to be taken in the system should be written clearly in this symbol.

Predefined Process

The predefined process symbol indicates a part of the process that has already been defined elsewhere and will not be mapped out in detail within this process. In our Withdrawing from Course process map example, the predefined symbol has been used for ‘Refund Request’ indicating that there is a separate process for this step.


  • The title or description of the separate process should be provided in the predefined process symbol to make it easy for a staff member to locate and refer to the predefined process if needed.
  • The predefined process symbol can also be used to signify that the process has already been mapped out in the current process and needs to be repeated again. This allows you keep the process map short and simple.
  • As there can be different purposes for the predefined process symbol we recommend using a colour coding system to help people following the process clearly identify whether the process will be found in the same document, in another document or if it is yet to be mapped.

By using these five process mapping symbols, and educating your team on them, you can ensure your processes are easy to follow and easy to improve. Need a quick reminder for you and your team? Download our handy process mapping postcard here.

Need help mapping and improving your business processes? Download our handy process mapping symbols postcard here. Contact us today on 1800 870 677 to ensure your processes are streamlined and efficient.