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How does process mining work?

Business processes are the lifeblood of a company. Thereโ€™s a process behind everything an organization does: buying, selling, paying, collecting, shipping, and so on. When these processes run better, your business runs better.

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Why companies need process mining

More and more, industry leaders are realizing that superior processes are a competitive differentiator. So itโ€™s no surprise that investments in process improvement tools and initiatives are skyrocketing in recent years. This is especially true for process mining technology, which has grown from a $90 million market in 2018 to a $340 million one in 2020, according to the Everest Group.

Process mining creates an โ€œX-rayโ€ of a business process that helps you gain visibility and identify inefficiencies in core operations. Process mining tools have quickly become the backbone of many companiesโ€™ efforts to streamline and optimize processes.ย 

But how does process mining work?

Since the rise of databases and transactional systems like ERPs, companies have invested in digitizing processes and optimizing them to run more efficiently.

And yet, most companiesโ€™ processes arenโ€™t performing to their full potential. Just look at the average process performance against best-in-class benchmarks:

what-is-process-mining

These four processes are very different โ€” as are the systems, data, and people behind them. But they have one thing in common: the way these processes are executed has a direct impact on critical business outcomes. When these processes run efficiently, goods get to customers on time, orders are processed faster, operational costs are minimized, and working capital gets freed up.

In most cases, companies have outlined the way that these processes should run in an ideal world. But the way they actually run in the real world... can be a very different story.

The problem is many organizations arenโ€™t able to see and understand whatโ€™s happening in these processes on a day-to-day basis, so they canโ€™t identify the difference between the process โ€œas isโ€ and โ€œas expected.โ€

And as they say, you canโ€™t fix what you canโ€™t see.

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Process mining step-by-step

Letโ€™s take a look at each of the basic steps involved in how process mining works.

1. Data Ingestion

Modern business processes are incredibly complex. They run across a variety of systems that use different types of data, have different users, and belong to different departments.

Most process mining tools provide a few different methods for getting this data from the underlying systems. In its most basic form, a user can simply export an event log from a system as a .csv and upload it to the process mining tool. But the most advanced organizations are using real-time data ingestion to continuously sync process data.

what-is-process-mining-event-logs

As individual business objects, or cases, within a process move through systems, they leave a trail of breadcrumbs โ€” whether itโ€™s an invoice making its way from โ€œrequestedโ€ to โ€œpaid,โ€ or a customer service ticket going from โ€œsubmittedโ€ to โ€œresolved.โ€ Throughout the stages of the cycle, these cases leave behind digital footprints, which are called events.

Process mining technology picks up these breadcrumbs by ingesting system logs of these events, or event logs, and visually reconstructing whatโ€™s happening in the process.

These event logs contain, at a minimum, three key pieces of process data for every individual event:

  • Case ID - A unique reference to each business object
  • Activity - The stage of the process the case went through
  • Timestamp - The time that that specific case went through that stage

Additional information can be added as well to increase context: think vendor details for an invoice, or priority level for a service ticket.

2. Process discovery

Now that weโ€™ve gathered all of our data, the magic of process mining can start to happen.

Process mining uses those event logs to produce an end-to-end visualization of the process that superimposes every step that every case took as it moved through the cycle into one visualization. This is sometimes called a digital twin of the organization.
digital-twin

Itโ€™s a chronological sequence of events that shows all of the different paths that cases took to get from the beginning of the process to the end. Each unique path is called a variant, with variants that donโ€™t follow a standard or accepted path being called deviations.

Process discovery allows you to explore this interactive process map and see all of the different variants.

You can zoom out and see all of the different variants, which often number in the hundreds or thousands โ€” we affectionately refer to this as the โ€œspaghettiโ€ diagram.
spaghetti-diagram

Or, you can zoom in on the happy path, which is the way we would expect the process to look and, hopefully, the most common variant.
happy-path-variation

You can slice and dice the process anyway youโ€™d like to see how itโ€™s really running.