Splitting Hairs? Difference Between Process Frameworks and Maps

When it comes to documenting and understanding processes, there are three core tools organizations use: frameworks, maps, and models. However, there is often little clarity around the differences between these three tools and they can often be used interchangeably. So, how does one clarify the difference between these tools and understand which one is right for the job?

This article will define and explore the best fit applications for process frameworks, maps, and models.

Process Frameworks

Process frameworks are essentially lists of all the key processes performed in an organization. Frameworks are grouped hierarchically to show how the process elements relate to each other. There are several process frameworks available (e.g., APQC’s Process Classification Framework® or ITIL.)

Process Framework

Figure 1
Figure 1


  • Mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive (MECE) — each process element will only appear once in the framework and the framework will include all the common elements found in organizations.
  • Relational structure — the process elements are listed in a relational hierarchy and does not imply an order of operations or flow.
  • Format — typically a list.


Process frameworks are primarily used as a reference list that creates a standardized or common language and set of definitions for processes within the organization. Due to this, they are often used for:

  • Definition and standardization — used as a reference that enables organizations to quickly understand the processes they perform, and the steps needed to perform those processes. 
  • Documentation — used as a reference for developing process models or maps.
  • Benchmarking — understand the performance of processes relative to its peers. Or as a common structure for comparing processes and their related practices.
  • Content management — serve as a tool or taxonomy to structure a process library or repository organize process documentation and knowledge.

Process Maps & Models

A process map is a graphical representation or flowchart depicting the steps and tasks in a process. A map will often include the identification of cross-functional responsibility and inputs and outputs for each step. A process map is also known as a workflow diagram.

Process Map

Figure 2
Figure 2


  • Directional structure — the depiction of the process indicates the flow or order that each step in the process will take.
  • Visual format — a process map is a visual representation; however, it can be drafted either digitally (e.g., Visio) or manually (e.g., whiteboard or paper).
  • Additional elements — a process map can but does not have to include additional elements such as roles, inputs, and outputs.
  • Not MECE — because a process map represents the steps and flow of a process it can include repeated steps.


Process maps are visual documents that describe the ‘as-is’ process, step-by-step. Due to this, they are often used for:

  • Documentation — create a visual guide on how to conduct a process. This can be used for reference during:
    • process work,
    • employee onboarding, and
    • internal and external audits.
  • Process optimization — a visual representation of a process can uncover missing steps, redundancies, unnecessary loops, and complexity.
  • Monitoring — provide a frame for managing the flow of the process and its performance. Which can help identify improvement opportunities.

Process Models

Process Models are graphical representations of ‘as-is’ or ‘to-be’ processes using BPMN (business process modeling notation). A model will often include additional information on the process to provide context for how it works within the organization, how roles interact with the process, and understand potential opportunities for improvement.

Process Model

A generic square placeholder image with rounded corners in a figure.
Figure 3


  • Directional structure —the depiction of the process indicates the flow or order that each step in the process will take.
  • Standardized elements — models are developed digitally and use business process model notation (BPMN)—graphical standards which indicate specific shapes and structures for process elements.
  • Additional elements — a process model must have additional elements such as roles (visualized as swim lanes), measures/data, inputs, outputs, and business rules to provide context for decisions.
  • Not MECE — because a process model represents the steps and flow of a process it can include repeated steps.


A process model is typically used to understand the process in the context of the organization to support analysis. Due to this, they are often used for:

  • Process optimization — used to visually assess the current process and shows how the system functions, allowing you to identify errors, redundancies, and inefficiencies.
  • Process simulation — combines the process model with process data to create a dynamic model that can be used to test changes and observe potential outcomes of the process in various scenarios.


Process frameworks, maps, and models are all assets to process management efforts. Frameworks are useful references that provide the organization with a common language, standardization, and help speed process efforts. They are also intrinsically useful in the development of process maps and models. While maps and models are often interchangeable to most organizations. It helps to remember that the model and map relationship is like the square and rectangle relationship--a model is always a map. It just requires additional information and the use of standardized notation for its visualization. Additionally, maps are useful for understating the current state, while models provide additional contextual information that makes improvements and optimization efforts more fruitful.

Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland
Holly Lyke-Ho-GlandPrincipal Research Lead, Process & Performance Management, APQC

Building on more than 10 years of business research and consulting experience, Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland is a principal research lead who conducts and publishes APQC research on process management and improvement, quality, project management, measurement, and benchmarking for APQC’s Process and Performance Management research team. Her research supports APQC members and clients across disciplines and centers on helping professionals and project managers solve business problems with strategy, process and measurement.

Holly regularly partners with other APQC research leads to look at improving the end-to-end business processes in areas such as procure-to-pay or order-to-cash where true improvement rests in the entire process versus one functional department. On a biannual basis, she conducts APQC’s extensive research survey and report on The Value of Benchmarking as well as annual surveys and reports on how organizations adopt and use the Process Classification Framework®.

She is a regular contributor for APQC’s blogs on topics of process and performance management, benchmarking, and IT and organizes monthly webinars on these topics for APQC members and subscribers. A few of her more in-depth research reports include, Transformational Change: Making It Last and The Value of Benchmarking.

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