Concept Maps

concept maps thumbnail from Lean to Flow

A concept map is a way to clarify connections and relationships by making them visual. It can be a very useful tool when figuring out where to start when faced with a messy complex problem, and in planning and strategy to avoid the mistake of focusing on the parts and missing the whole. 

Visual tools help us understand more quickly. Among the visual tools I will share coming posts are flow charts, matrixes, ​fish bone or cause and effect diagrams, run charts, and process behavior charts.

The difference between all the others is they have a start and a finish, a top and a bottom. They flow in one direction. While the concept map was original set up to help explain concepts, starting with a main concept then moving downward towards subconcepts, it has evolved into an all purpose tool for helping to understand messy problems, problems that are too complex and defy analysis.


Remember George Box's brilliant little saying, "All models are wrong, some are useful" It depends on the problem, the person and the model which visual tool will work best. You have to fool around with them until you find the ones that work for you. There is no right and wrong, there is only what works.

By mapping the relationships between functions, people, ideas, tasks, things –the parts, we are able to get a more complete picture of the whole and in many cases, gain insight into the best place to start in trying to solve the problem. It is a pre-step to analysis, meant to help out when the way isn't clear.

It also works well in planning strategy, because it can model complex relationships so well.

The goal is to create a new understanding​ through discovering connections among seeming unconnected things.

To make a concept map you use only three squiggles, a container, like a circle or a rectangle, arrows to connect things and words to explain the connections and what the container represents.

Here is an example of a concept map that looked at the relation​ship between a sales department and customer service. Looking at it I suspect you will see a good place to start improving very quickly. Very often the recurring problems we face come from the "between" places, the places where different people, functions and things interact, and very little attention is paid, like the communication between Sales and Customer Service and the rest of the company.

While the example above is hierarchical to help us understand better, here is an example of a concept map that is not. 

Concept Map of Influences

From Andrew Manriquez of

They can also get very complicated as in this of a manufacturing business as a system. You can see things more clearly when you model them visually, and understand new approaches to old problems almost instantly.

Concept map of a business

Get Cmap Tools Free

NASA has created a super software to help you create Cmaps (concept maps) easily. It is a little java ware thingee you download with great instructions, resources and many examples. Great tool and its free. Wish I had created it!

About the Author

Dan Strongin works with medium to small companies, helping them master the art and science of managing.

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