A Flowchart is a diagram that shows how the steps in a process fit together. It allows to break any process down into individual activities and illustrates the flow of the process as well as the relationships between its activities. Its simplicity makes it useful for understanding processes and finding flaws and inefficiencies for further problem-solving efforts. It is often used to provide a detailed view of how a process should be or what needs to happen.
Flowcharts are useful tools for communicating the sequence of activities and how a process works. They are often used for documenting how to do a particular job and can be found in procedures and quality manuals. This helps team members to understand the activities and decisions involved in a process and thus perform the tasks correctly and in the right order. Flowcharts are also used when designing processes and programs. Software developers can use them to map processes that need to be automated.
Constructing flowcharts promotes better understanding of processes by all participants of a problem-solving team. Continuous improvement teams can use them to identify and analyze problem areas and provide insight in order to simplify work, reduce cycle times, troubleshoot a problem and improve or redesign a process. They also help investigating the performance of a process and reveal areas of inefficiency such as unnecessary activities, bottlenecks, excessive delays or complex procedures.
Flowcharts are typically drawn with arrows and shapes of various kinds. There is no specific format for a flowchart, however, there must be an agreement of the symbols used to ensures they are drawn in a consistent manner. It’s worth checking whether your company has any standard set of symbols that you should comply with.
The most common symbols that are applicable to most situations are:
- A process step which represents an activity (denoted as a rectangular box). In most flowcharts this will be the most frequently used symbol.
- A decision which represents a decision point (denoted as a diamond). This symbol will require a yes/no response.
- The start and the end of a process (denoted as ovals).
- Arrows that connect the symbols and show process flow.
You may use other symbols to describe the type of activities in the chart more clearly. However, remember that you have to keep things simple in order to gain people’s understanding. Colors and shading can also be used to call attention to different types and steps. Some flowcharts even demonstrate more information such as: who is responsible for each specific step and how much time each step takes.
Just like real maps, flowcharts can be created for many different levels of the process. A single flowchart can quickly becomes long and complicated when there is much detail to be shown and you may need to represent everything in more than one flowchart. For this purpose, nested flowcharts can be created and connectors (often denoted as numbered circles) can be used to link sub-processes together.
A process is described as a cross-functional when a it spans several department boundaries. A Cross-Functional Flowchart (or a Swimlane Flowchart) is a diagram that shows all steps and their logical sequence arranged per department or function. This type of flowchart is divided into different “lanes” and demonstrates the control of the different departments on each process step. An activity or decision appearing in a particular lane is within the control of that department which allows to clarify the responsibility for performing an action or making a decision.
How to Construct a Flowchart:
Flowcharts are easy to understand and simple to construct through the following steps:
- With your team, describe the process and its objectives.
- Determine the level of detail, the scope and the boundaries of the flowchart.
- Identify all major process steps, decisions and the sequence of completion.
- Using the above information, draft a flowchart using the standard set of symbols then label each symbol appropriately (whenever possible, use only two words: a verb and a noun).
- Prepare the final flowchart and add further details as necessary (e.g., the cycle times and the responsibility information).
- Test the flowchart to make sure that it represents the process accurately and completely.
- Review the ‘big picture’ then identify problem areas and improvement opportunities.
The following is an example of a flowchart that was created for a change-over operation (size conversion) for a production line.
The following example illustrates a cross-functional flowchart for acquiring new equipment by a business unit.
- The exercise of flowcharting internal processes can clarify your and your team’s understanding of their work.
- It’s always a good practice to walk the process before you draw your flowchart to get an overview of the process and identify the boundaries.
- Although you can draw flowcharts by hand, it’s often convenient to use any drawing program to create visually appealing flowcharts. Some applications even offer special support for flowchart drawing.
- Flowcharts showing steps that are visible to the customer are considered service blueprints.