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7 plus or minus 2

Author:
Walter Tran
Chief Operating Officer
Holocentric

LinkedIn Profile

How many steps should a process map have? This is a common question driven for the need to conform to a standard. The answer to that is ‘it depends.’ The ultimate goals when attempting to capture process information are: 

1. To be able to accurately reflect it, but more importantly, 
2. To enable other people within the organisation to understand it. 

These 2 goals pose a challenge though. Accuracy means more detail is required which in turn adds volume and complexity. Complexity means that it will be harder to consume. When using a single dimensional tool like Visio to draw a diagram or MS Word to describe process in words, we always seem to side with accuracy, only achieving one of the goals i.e., we achieve accuracy, or what we believe to be accurate. 

The Miller principle, as it is sometimes known, suggests that if we can chunk our information into 7 plus or minus 2 things, then it will be easier to recollect. It plays on the brain's short-term memory as a method for grouping information. It also means that it might be easier to consume.

This isn’t a strict principle, and you shouldn’t try to force everything to conform to it. It's not about being 100% accurate after all. Most processes will always have an amount of variance to deal with exceptions. But if it's used as a principle, you might be able to ensure simpler processes are not accidentally captured as complex web of decisions. 

In practice, this means that smaller elements of process can be rolled up and represented as one process step, with the details to be further expanded within the details section. Holocentric customers are used to this, but process mappers using drawing tools don’t have this luxury at times. 

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