Microsoft Visio is cheap(ish) but doesn't handle multiple users at the same time - it doesn't impose a methodology on you and not everyone can get their head around the "templates and lines" concept.
What is needed is a tool which will work the way people think: You drop your thoughts into some sort of basic structure, add as much or as little information as you want and let the free/cheap software take care of it
That's where Lombardi Blueprint comes in. The software itself is SaaS (i.e there is no download and it all runs off the web) and it comes in two versions: Free and Licenced ($50 per user per month with extended functionality that is cut down if the free version is used after the end of the trial period). Blueprint was the tool that was used in Tillamook County Creamery Association's project that I wrote about in February
What I liked about it:
- It's actually very simple to use. You can literally sit there and type in a list of 'activities' which can be at various levels. For each activity all you then need to do is add in a couple of bits of information to classify and quantify the data and the system does the rest
- It's intelligent: it can create full, BPMN standard process maps based on your input
- It's not difficult to learn (I picked it up with very little instruction)
- It allows multi-user collaboration on-line
- It has in-built revision history for when things don't work out exactly how you would like
- It has publishing facilities to get your thoughts off the PC and onto paper
What didn't I like about it
- It uses the concept of 'milestones' - which are arbitrary groupings of processes as a means of modelling these processes Not everyone uses milestones in their modelling.
- The printout is not customisable and is, frankly, lacking in finesse.
- Was not able to test it with 'large' process maps, so unable to validate whether there is a problem here or not
- No third party export functionality
I'll cover these in detail but let's go through an exercise to see how it works.
To use the software you will need a user profile creating with Lombardi. This means signing up and accepting the email link supplied. Incidentally the terms and conditions are fairly lengthy and are displayed in a scrolling window on the sign-up screen which shows about 5 lines at a time (Lombardi - Stick them in a separate screen and make them easy to read! Not hiding anything in there are you?)
Once you have access to the system you will see a couple of default examples provided by Lombardi which will allow you to see exactly what the system can do. It's worth looking at the different examples to see the approach that Lombardi have taken in documenting the process (admittedly each of the examples are fairly simple or rudimentary - but it's always the same with any software demo).
You can create a project to start with. This groups all your information together and makes it easily accessible.
The whole ethos of this software is that you need very little 'knowledge' about process to work this. All you need is knowledge about HOW you do your role. You start by typing in some items on the Discovery Map.
The Discovery map
This is, basically, a screen which identifies 'blocks' of work - at whatever level you wish. Each block of work (or activity) can have some text associated with it and details such as inputs and outputs as well as business owners and participants. The sequence in which these blocks are entered determines the sequence in which the process 'flows' from one block to the next. (Click here for a screenshot of the Discovery map)
What I particularly like about this style of documentation is that it is 'non-inclusive'. By that I mean that there is only a bare minimum amount of information that you have to provide (An activity name), but any other information can be supplied to make it easier. I can foresee this being very useful in facilitated sessions or other process discovery activities when the users can talk around what they do and the information they give can be captured as they talk. Sometimes a lot of information is supplied and sometimes a little. At this point if there are any attachments that exist they can be linked to a particular process step or activity for further review. It as assumed during process discovery that activities are performed sequentially. No decisions are included at this point (although textual information about decisions can be added at the relevant point). This is also the point at which information can be entered about who performs or owns this activity. All of the entered information in stored against the process and can be regurgitated onto either word or PowerPoint documentation.
But the beauty comes when you have entered this information and changed the view to 'process diagram'.
The Process Diagram
The system will automagically sequence the information into swimlanes, with the appropriate flow between boxes. The diagrams will be created in BPMN standard notation.
This is, of course, just the start of the diagramming. You can then start to manipulate the model any way you like. Decisions can be added, sub processes created automatically, and message events, conditional splits and exception events can all be added too. They cool thing about this particular part of the tool is that as soon as you move one of the activities between swimlanes it automatically updates the appropriate information behind the scenes, thus maintaining the integrity of your documentation.
It should also be worth remembering that this is not a fully featured 'Visio' like tool. In fact it is pitched as the tool that people would use as a way of replacing Visio. But at the moment there are some layout issues associated with the tool. For example I added a conditional split to a diagram. The layout was altered to include the conditional split and it included a link to one of the existing boxes I had entered (which was good) The second branch of the conditional split went to a new process sink. However I actually wanted to direct this to a different activity on the diagram but was unable to. After several minutes messing around trying to make this happen I was ended up deleting the conditional split and starting again (Click here for a screenshot of the Process Map)
I like some of the simple but useful tweaks that Lombardi have added to this tool. For example each of the activity boxes can be colour/color coded. The coding is totally arbitrary but you can, for example, assign a red colour to activities that are risk related, a blue to activities that are input tasks and a green to activities that are output (these are totally user defined). Any colours entered on the Discovery map are carried forward to both the process diagram and the associated documentation.
Blueprint also supports linked processes. This means you can create a 'sub-process' which has a number of repeatable steps and then add that process to a diagram. Sub processes can be shared between diagrams making this a nice little feature to have.
Once you are happy with this you can select the documentation view
This view allows you to take your input and create PowerPoint or word slides from it. The screen changes to display a simple structured layout for the data you have entered. Behind this is also the additional data and information you have entered in the process discovery phase. From here there are icons to output to word or to Powerpoint. The Powerpoint output is predefined and the template used to create this can be modified within Powerpoint itself. There is no facility to format the output prior to it leaving Blueprint.
I was deeply disappointed with the Word document layout. It appeared to be a fairly simple graphic dump of the data into a word document with minimal attempt to structure or format it appropriately. The data is also dropped in as a read-only table which may not be to everyone's taste.
Reservation: I'm not sure how this will work for very large diagrams (which, of course, you should never have) or for diagrams that drill down to multiple levels of detail. Can you have 4 or 5 levels of drill down?
Ultimately the driver behind this is that the end users can create and manage their own process diagrams whilst then allowing the final output to be fed into the Lombardi Teamworks tool to actually build processes to support the processes being modeled. If you are not using the Lombardi Teamworks tool there is still a great deal of benefit in using something like this as a means of capturing data from your users. Getting data out of the tool would then be something that would need to be considered as I couldn't identify either an XML output or a BPML type output so that this could be used as a source for third party applications. I would certainly encourage anyone with the Teamworks tool to look at using this for their process discovery. It is quick, simple and reasonably sophisticated. The linkage with Teamworks makes things useful. If you aren't using Teamworks but still want a swish process discovery tool, this is a useful one to have. My reservation about the transfer of data to third party apps still stands though.
Click here to go to Lombardi's website and sign up for a blueprint account.