December 14, 2022

How to Number the Steps in Your Process Like A Pro

Be sure to number the steps in your process if you are building accompanying procedural (step-by-step) documents.

When detail and precision are required, a visual process workflow alone is not enough.

If you like, you can scroll down to the bottom of the post for the video tutorials.

A cross-functional visual process map (known as level 3 process) will provide an overview of the process steps and include functional roles and/or departments. However, this process map will not provide enough detail to explain “how” a step is to be executed.

This is where a procedure document (known as level 4 process) comes into play. A procedure document will include the necessary detail (e.g. buttons to click, switches to turn on, forms to fill out and even screenshots or onsite images) for a user to accurately execute the steps in a process.

Now the process step numbering becomes vital. Each action step in the level 3 visual process flow should correspond to a numbered step in the detailed level 4 procedural document.

Level 3 process example:

Corresponding level 4 process example:

Tip: if you are not building a detailed procedure document, adding step numbers into your process flow is optional.

Really? Optional? Absolutely! If the step numbers add value, use them. Otherwise, the activity may be a waste of your time.

Processes are about consistency and efficiency. The step numbers are used for reference, but if you don’t need to reference a precise step, why waste your time on adding step numbers? Increase your efficiency and save yourself time by skipping step numbers in your process flow.

If you are creating a visual process that will have accompanying step-by-step procedural detail, please read on! You’ll be a process step-numbering expert in no time.

Adding numbers to steps…doesn’t sound particularly complicated. Put a sequential number to each object and call it a day, right? Hold up, grasshopper. Try it a few times on a process with more than a couple dozen steps that include decision paths and multiple outcomes and you may find yourself feeling like this little labyrinth was designed to frustrate and confuse.

Like any good process, step numbering is easy when it’s designed thoughtfully and executed consistently.

Here’s how to do it:

Choose a numbering pattern that works for your processes.

The simplest pattern to use is whole numbers: 1, 2, 3 … 98, 99, 100

Another pattern to use is decimal numbers: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 … 1.98, 1.99, 1.100

Using whole numbers will help to keep things simple and reduce the number of characters in each step.

Let’s say you have a 3-step process.

Using whole numbers, this would be: 1 – 2 – 3 (a total of 3 characters).
Using decimal numbers, this would be: 1.1 – 1.2 – 1.3 (a total of 9 characters).
When you get into the hundreds, those step numbers will become 1.101 – 1.102 – 1.103 (15 characters).

If you have a hierarchical plan for multiple processes and/or sub-processes, you may choose to use the decimal number approach to tie it all together.

Here’s a quick example:

You’re planning to develop a (somewhat) fixed set of processes that tie in together. You may be tying together multiple processes or sub-processes and it might look like this:

As you can probably sense, this approach will take some planning and if you have multiple departments, your process names and numbers need to be a considerations. Examples:

OPS-1.0, HR-1.0, etc., or
SAL-1.0, ADM-2.0, HR-3.0, OPS-4.0, etc. (SAL = Sales, ADM = Administration, etc.) whereas each of those department’s processes are prefixed with 1, 2, 3, etc. and use decimal numbers.

The decimal number approach may also be preferred for software development processes where precision and numbering uniqueness is required.

The use of whole or decimal numbers comes down to preference and planning, as well as the needs of your organization. Some people will want to reserve whole numbers for distinct/unique processes and not for individual steps within a process.

If you don’t have a good reason for why using decimal numbers will benefit your processes, use whole numbers and call it a day.

Follow a consistent approach to numbering each step.

First, number the optimal path from start to end. This can be known as “the ‘yes’ path” or “the shortest path” or “the desired path” or “the most common path” or any variation of what works best for you. But keep it consistent.

I tend to choose “the ‘yes’ path” or the path that gets me to the nearest/quickest end point.

Take note of the number you ended on. If the initial process step numbers were 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5, you ended on “5” and the next number in the sequence will be “6.”

Second, go back to the beginning of the process and follow the path from start (again) to your first decision point. One of the results of that decision path (“the ‘yes’ path”, “the shortest path”, etc.) will already have been numbered, so this time you are going to follow down the alternate path and continue the numbering of the steps where you left off (as mentioned in the previous paragraph, you next newest step number will be “6”).

Now resume numbering the steps in the alternate path until you’re back on the “yes” path or until you’ve come to another end step.

Here’s an example:

Continue this approach until you’ve numbered all the steps within the process.

This is a simple process. You may come across process steps with non-solid connector lines (i.e. dotted or dashed lines), steps that occur in parallel (run at the same time) and other attributes that will throw a wrench in your step-numbering machine. Those are a bit more advanced concepts for another lesson.

Efficiency Tip: if you can, wait until you have your process approved and/or finalized before you number the steps. Why? Because you’re saving yourself from confusing rework if someone decides to add/remove steps. Let’s say you numbered your steps as shown in our example above and one of your key stakeholders would like you to add two steps and remove steps, like so:

How will this affect all your step numbers? You could redo it all, or you could you use the next sequential numbers available (18 and 19) for the new steps and live with dropping step 14 and having a gap (the missing 14). Neither solution feels particularly appealing to a detail-oriented person.

More than likely, the professional (and possibly the perfectionist) in you will choose to redo the step numbers. It’s do-able but it’s rework that you’ll learn to dread.

My advice is to exercise patience and wait until the process is nearly finalized before you add the step numbers in.

Use a tool to speed up the process.

A good tool can be your gateway to efficiency and time-savings!

My preferred process mapping and diagramming software, Edraw Max, unfortunately does not yet do auto-numbering. I’ve submitted the idea to their development team as a suggestion for improvement, so hopefully that will become available sooner than later.

Microsoft Visio is a good choice for process mapping software with the ability to auto-number the steps. I recommend you configure this option before you begin creating them steps and it will number them as you go. It will not adopt the specific approach that I suggested in step 2, but it will number everything for you so, rest assured, no process object will go numberless.

Automate what you can. It really does save time.

Here are a couple of short videos to see step-numbering in action:

Manually add step numbers to any process (example shown using Edraw Max):

Add step numbers automatically in Microsoft Visio:

I hope this article was useful in helping you to better number the objects within your process maps.

Have questions? Need more information? Leave a comment or contact us and we’ll be happy to respond!

Be safe, be healthy and be efficient.

Alwin Kwan
Your Friendly Neighbourhood Process Consultant


  • Numbering a process has been a question in my mind for some time. What you have captured in this article is very good. The bottom line it is a decision to be made by the organization.

    To number a process has advantages and at the same time may create unnecessary confusion. For me, the creation, review and approval of a process is required prior to numbering a process. The advantage of numbering a process is useful to provide a reference for each step in the process. After all each process step is a combination of the input / activity and output for that step to be started / performed and completed. This may be inclusive of the role(s) performing the process step, a list of activities within that step, the documentation required to complete the step, and the checks to ensure the step is complete or what is required for the next step in the process to begin. Additionally, numbering the process steps can be beneficial from a Continuous Improvement perspective because you know exactly where to address the improvement and can see what other steps may be impacted.

    • Agreed. The choice should be what is best for each organization. And, as you outlined, there are definitely advantages to numbering each of the steps.

      What are your thoughts on numbering decision steps (a.k.a. gateways in BPMN)? I feel I could make the argument that it can be useful for exclusive, inclusive and complex gateways in an accompanying procedural document. On the other hand, if BPMN notation is commonly-understood and/or the legend within the process map clearly outlines how to interpret each gateway, are we just adding complexity by including step numbers for the gateways?

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