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How to simplify BPMN Data Models

Why simplifying your diagrams can actually make them more informative.

You’ve probably seen one of these ‘look at me’ diagrams. You may even have created one.

They are the big, colorful ones which sit over the desks of some modellers. They have loads of boxes, even more lines, and they are designed to say one thing.

"Look at Me"

If they were just a harmless exercise in drawing, they wouldn’t be so bad. But you just know that they took someone hours and hours and hours to create. And someone paid for all that time

Ah!” you say. “But the modeller needed this big diagram to give them an overall picture of what’s happening“.

But does it?

Can you really look at this diagram and see where something is missing? The example above is from the OMG’s BPMN modelling language, and is one of their demonstration examples, presumably to show what a great thing BPMN is.

But it’s a hopeless way of conveying information  – which is one purpose of such a diagram – and shows lazy modelling. By lazy, I mean intellectually lazy. Not time-lazy, as it clearly took ages to create. The modeller chose not to use their knowledge and experience to chop the diagram into bits, so they they and their readers would have a chance of spotting the gaps, overlaps and inconsistencies.

Because this is what we’re supposed to be doing.

4 ways to spot you have a 'look at me' diagram

  1. You’re starting to feel that printing the diagram and putting on the wall near your desk will enhance your chances of promotion
  2. You’ve spent a hour on the internet looking for a device driver which will let you print it on a giant printer
  3. You found the driver, but not the giant printer, but you did find lots of sticky tape and glue in the stationary cupboard, so now you’re having loads of fun joining the bits together
  4. If you print the diagram as A4/Legal size, the writing is only visible with an electron microscope.

..and what to do about it

  1. Chop it into pieces.

That’s it. Simple.

Well, not always.

But this where we show our modelling skills. We’re the ones who are supposed to be able to pull all this knowledge into our heads, and write down a set of smaller, easier diagrams, which help a reader to work they way into the problem. This is our job.
More on ‘how to make diagrams readable’ in future posts.

So, if you get me in to your project to see what you’ve been modelling, and you have one of these diagrams over your desk, don’t expect me to be impressed.

Update - August 2020

A while back, I had some time to spare on a long train journey, and decided to take the example above the create some more useful diagrams from it.

As I was doing the simplification, I wrote down the decisions I was making as I did it:

  • Split the diagram – Make it into at least 4 different diagrams, corresponding to the main clumps on the original picture
  • Add some intermediate business events – Link the new top-level processes with Business Events, to show the sense of the process.
  • Make separate diagrams to show where the Data Objects fit – There are too many of these, so have one diagram where they don’t appear, so readers can get the idea, then another where we add this additional detail.
  • Remove multiplicities from Black Box and Data Object – Having the multiplicity symbol on the Voting Members black box is not helpful. The clue is in the name. Members plural. Just more notation to forget.
    Also removed the multiplicity symbol form the Issues List. Apart from the fact there is only one list, not many, it’s obvious what this means. Symbolic clutter
  • Give parallel flows an explicit branching gateway – It’s not clear in the original where and why the ‘Announce Issues for Discussion’ Activity causes a parallel branch. As I added one, so we can see that only after it completed does the flow branch.
    This might not be what the original modeller intended, but I think this is clearer. If it wrong, then it’s clear where to correct it.

So here is how I re-imagined this diagram.

First I decided on a few initial ‘chunks’ and made those bits which weren’t already sub-processes into their own sub-processes.

Even the act of drawing the red boxes (which are just for illustration, not part of our model) makes the model easier to understand: the reader can start to concentrate on smaller bits, and not get intimidated by the whole.

Now we can start to make progress. Having decided that there are 6 big boxes, we can put just those bits into a new diagram, and hook them up with events:

To create this diagram, I’ve added EVEN MORE BOXES. This is ok – making stuff simpler doesn’t mean the same as making it smaller. I’ve chosen to link my top-level processes with Business Events (see process modelling with style), but it gives a sense of purpose and achievement to the overall process:

  • stuff happens, which creates a business event (which we might expect a business person to understand),
  • ..which in turn allows further processing to take place.
  • …which results in another business event

It’s this kind of analytical thinking which is where we earn our living as modellers. Anyone can copy/paste boxes from one diagram to another. We’re adding-value and helping understanding. By the way – it took me quite a while to do this, and I kept the mega-diagram to make sure I’m not messing-up the overall picture.

The Sub-Processes

Now that we’re freed from the mega-diagram, re-organising the smaller ones isn’t so hard, but there’s still work to do.

If left un-edited, one of the boxes looked like this, which I found hard to understand, so I re-structured and re-drew it to look a bit simpler:

This diagram is simpler for a number of reasons:

1- I have removed some of the diagram elements, namely, the notes and the Messages, to the black box pools. These appear on another, similar diagram which has all the detail.

2 – I’ve added the business events (not part of BPMN) top left and bottom right, to show how the sub-process starts and ends. This immediately suggests that I may have forgotten something: the process has no error conditions. Something to look into…

Simplifying things is Complicated

I probably spent a good few hours simplifying this process, but in doing so found lots of questions which I’d like to ask the authors. So that’s me doing my job of using the model to Analyze stuff .

At the end of it, I think I not only understand what they are trying to say, but I could also give someone a document which would help them to understand it too. It would have the top-level diagram, then the sub-process diagrams, and some additional diagrams with supporting details.

The process is then not just a big, clever-looking diagram which nobody understands. It’s been added to our collective knowledge. I don’t need the authors in order to understand it, nor a PhD in BPMN notation. Anyone who knows a little BPMN could understand it and even improve the process.

Job Done.

PS. If you’d like a copy of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ models (as an XMI file out of Sparx Enterprise Architect) then email me at ian at eadocx.com

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