What Is BPMN? BPMN In A Nutshell

Business Process Modeling Notation was developed in 2004 by the Business Process Management Initiative (BPMI)  – a non-profit organization promoting the standardization of common business processes. Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) is a way to model the steps of a planned business process by using a flow chart.

Understanding BPMN

A standard BPMN helps a business understand its internal processes in graphical notation.

It is targeted at the people involved in the process, giving them just enough detail to enable precise implementation.

What’s more, BPMN facilitates a standard language that can easily be communicated to stakeholders.

These may include business analysts, managers, technical developers, and external teams or consultants.

Primarily, BPMN is used to improve process efficiency, account for new circumstances, and gain a competitive advantage.

Each process is visually depicted on a flow chart detailing the sequence of business activities and informational flow required to complete a process.

Since it was released, BPMN has been revised and updated.

In 2011, a new version incorporated a richer set of symbols and notations for process diagrams.

Another update three years later saw BPMN complemented by a decision flow chart to improve its decision flow capability. 

Elements of a BPMN flow chart 

There are four main elements to a BPMN flow chart.

Flow objects

Such as events, activities (tasks), or gateways – which break a business process into two or more mutually exclusive paths.

Connecting objects

Denoting sequence flow, message flow, and association.

Swim lanes

Here, a pool defines the major participants of a process, while a lane defines the activities each participant is responsible for performing.


These encompass data objects, groups, and annotations.

Data objects show the data necessary for a specific activity.

Groups show a logical grouping of activities but importantly, do not impact the flow of the diagram.

Annotations provide flow chart explanations where necessary.

BPMN sub-models

Sub-models allows technical and non-technical viewers to differentiate between sections of the BPMN flow chart.

This allows them to concentrate on parts of the diagram most applicable to their needs

There are three general sub-models:

Private business processes

Or those processes internal to a specific organization that do not cross organizational boundaries.

Process flow is contained within a pool.

Abstract business processes

Describing interactions between a private business process and some other process or participant.

Abstract diagrams show external stakeholders the sequence of messages required to interact with a process, but do not reveal the process itself.

Collaborative business processes

As the name suggests, this sub-type depicts the interaction between two or more business entities.

Interactions are displayed by a sequence of activities representing message exchange patterns.

BPMN best practices

There are a few general tips for creating effective BPMN flow charts:

  • Ensure the scope of a process is defined with a clear beginning and end.
  • Map the business process first to highlight and then address any inefficiencies. 
  • The flow chart itself should not be larger than a single, poster-sized page. 
  • Sequence flows should be laid out horizontally, with associations and data flows laid out vertically.
  • As noted earlier, different versions of the diagram should be created for different stakeholders depending on their role.
  • Lastly, BPMN should not be used for charting organizational structure or functional breakdowns. While it does depict limited information flow, BPMN is not a valid type of data flow diagram (DFD).

BPMN example

To conclude this article, let’s take a look at a BPMN example to better acquaint those who are new to the concept.

We’ll start with the most basic of scenarios involving the order fulfillment process of an eCommerce store that sells tennis rackets.

The fundamental steps of this process could be represented in a simple BPMN model as follows:

  1. Receive tennis racket order.
  2. Check credit card credentials.
  3. Fulfill order. 
  4. Send invoice.
  5. Order complete.

At this point, it’s worth noting that we don’t yet have a process model.

This is because the linear process we have shown above does not consider activity flow paths.

Assuming some activities can be successfully or unsuccessfully performed, we will now need to include paths for both conditions.

Adding gateways to the BMPN model

Two steps in the tennis racket ordering process should be tested with a gateway: the activities “check credit card credentials” and “fulfil order”.

If the consumer’s credentials are not validated or if the order is not fulfilled for whatever reason, the order does not reach completion.

In response, we can add another possible end state labeled “order failed” to make two end states.

With two end states, we have two possible end events.

Note that this is not part of the BPMN specification as such, but rather a best practice that keeps the process representation as simple as possible.

The degree to which we differentiate process steps and end states is up to the management of the retailer.

For example, if the order was not fulfilled because a racket was out of stock, the retailer would contact their supplier to determine when new stock would arrive.

This would result in a different process flow and potentially different potential end states. 

Adding pools and swimlanes to the BPMN model

Sticking with the above example, let’s now add a pool to the diagram that encapsulates the major participants in the process.

For the sake of this example, we’ll call it the “Tennis racket ordering process”.

Now we will add three lanes to the order process to define the activities various roles people are responsible for performing.

These include a lane for sales, a lane for warehouse distribution, and a lane for finance. 

The sales lane will process the “receive tennis racket order” step and become involved in the “order failed” end state.

The finance lane, on the other hand, includes the ”check credit card credentials” step (which is tested by a gateway), the “send invoice” step, and the “order complete” end state.

Lastly, the warehouse distribution lane contains the “fulfil order” step which is also tested by a gateway that returns to the sales lane if the test fails.

Adding different task types

Tasks can be broken down further into three types, with each illustrated by a different shape in the BPMN diagram.

The three types of tasks and examples of each for our retailer include:

User tasks

Any activity performed by a person and denoted by a person symbol.

Receive order” is a task carried out by a worker in the company’s warehouse office.

Service tasks

Automated tasks with no user involved and indicated by a gear symbol.

For example, validating the buyer’s credit card is performed by a computer automatically.

Abstract/none tasks

The type we have used in the first section above which is not denoted by a particular symbol.

Key takeaways

  • BPMN, or Business Process Modeling Notation, is a means of graphically depicting business processes on a flow chart.
  • BPMN flow charts have four key elements: flow objects, connecting objects, swim lanes, and artifacts.
  • Before drafting a BPMN, the organization must define a clear scope and any existing process inefficiencies. The chart itself should not be larger than poster size, with sequence flows arranged horizontally and associations and data flows arranged vertically.

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