standard business reporting (SBR) Systems Modeling Language (SysML)

Universal Process Notation (UPN)

What is Universal Process Notation?

Universal Process Notation is a method for illustrating the steps in a business process.

It is one of multiple approaches that an organization can use for visualizing, or notating, a business process.

UPN is known particularly for its easy-to-use and easy-to-read notations; UPN calls for illustrating a business process using boxes, with each box representing a unique step within a process.

UPN's straightforward approach differentiates it from other methods of business process mapping.

UPN was developed to create diagrams of business processes that could be understood by a general, or universal business audience yet also provide mechanisms for providing additional information on each step within the process.

To do this, a UPN diagram creates a concise visual presentation of a business process by using activity boxes to present a top-level view of the steps that make up a process.

Additional information about each process step is made available through attachments and a drill-down feature.

Each UPN diagram begins with the starting point, known as the "input," and details the following in each activity box:

  • What the step (or activity) is.
  • Who performs that step.
  • How that step is performed.

The diagram shows how the steps flow from one to another to bring the process to its completion, or "outcome."

UPN establishes specific diagramming principles and notations.

For example, UPN calls for limiting the number of activity boxes to no more than 10 on a screen and attaching detailed information to the activity box (symbolized by a paper clip in the box's right-hand corner).

These diagramming principles and notations enable UPN to be used to document any type of business process, from the simplest to the most complex.

UPN was developed in the early 2000s by Walter Bril and his colleagues at Nimbus Partners, a provider of business process discovery and analysis applications. Nimbus released UPN as an open standard in 2008. (TIBCO Software acquired Nimbus in 2011.)

UPN remains nonproprietary and is, in fact, supported by and embedded in many enterprise software programs.

Key elements of Universal Process Notation

UPN -- like other methods for business process mapping -- has its own principles and notations for diagramming a business process and providing details on the steps in that process.

The UPN method requires adherence to several key rules.

  1. The activity box is the only object used to visualize a process step.
  2. The process steps are described as activities.
  3. Each activity includes an input and output.
  4. Resources are listed for each activity.

Other key features of a UPN process map include the following:

  • Activity box. An activity box describes the specific task or activity in the process.
  • Verb-based description. The description of the activity starts with a verb.
  • Role specification. An activity box identifies who (the role) is responsible for performing the activity.
  • System information. An activity box includes details about what systems are used to perform that activity.
  • Drill-down capability. If needed, an activity box can include a drill-down feature to access information or mapping on subprocesses.
  • Paper clip symbol. A paper clip symbol indicates that supporting information (in the form of notes, files, URLs, etc.) is attached.
  • Arrows (flow lines). Arrows direct users from one activity box to the next one in the process.

UPN versus BPMN and other business process mapping methods

As previously noted, UPN is one of many methods that an organization can use for mapping a business process.

Commonly used alternatives to UPN include the following:

  • Basic flow chart (which is also known as the top-down process flow chart).
  • Data flow diagram.
  • Detailed flow chart.
  • Suppliers, inputs, process, outputs and customers (SIPOC) diagram (which is sometimes called high-level process maps).
  • Swimlane flow chart.
  • Value stream map, which is often used in Lean Six Sigma.

Another common business process mapping approach is business process modeling diagram. This uses a more formal type of process mapping and specific, defined language along with Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) symbols for representing component tasks. Also referred to as Business Process Model and Notation, BPMN uses standardized graphics to represent the activities and flow of those activities within a process as well as the roles and decision-making that happen.

A chart comparing UPN vs. BPMN.
UPN and BPMN are methods used to represent the steps in a business process. Here's how they compare in a nutshell.

Benefits and drawbacks of using UPN

There are many reasons organizations map their business process, including the following:

  • To ensure compliance with best practices, regulations and standards.
  • To more clearly communicate how a process works.
  • To train employees to perform tasks within the process.
  • To increase visibility into how work actually gets done.
  • To ensure standardization of process execution.
  • To audit processes to identify opportunities for improvement.

These reasons illustrate the value of business process mapping, which is an essential element of the business process management discipline. However, each mapping approach also has benefits and potential drawbacks. UPN is no exception.

Here are the main benefits organizations cite of using UPN:

  • Visually appealing.
  • Clear and concise.
  • Creates little to no ambiguity.
  • Easy to understand and use without training.
  • Easy to follow the diagram from one step to the next.
  • Easy to use, allowing users to get a high-level view right away as well as more details when desired.
  • Supports collaboration among all stakeholders.

There are also some potential drawbacks to using UPN.

  • Not as well-known or used as frequently as other more established mapping methods.
  • Less capable of illustrating complexities at the surface level, as it requires users to drill down or access attachments to access additional details and supporting information.
  • Not supported or fully useable with all software systems.

Best practices when using UPN

Although proponents of UPN cite its ability to be understood by a general (universal) audience, mapping a process using UPN still requires attention to some best practices.

Key practices are as follows:

  • Keep the number of activity boxes to no more than 10, using the drill-down feature or the attachment option to include additional information or mapping on subprocesses.
  • Phrase the step in each activity box to start with an affirmative verb.
  • Always include what, when, why and how.
  • Be mindful of general business process mapping best practices, too, such as involving stakeholders and validating each step in the process map in a live workshop.
This was last updated in December 2023

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