Also known as Flow Diagram, Activity Flowchart, Process Diagram.
Variants include Process Sequence Chart.
A flowchart is a graphical tool that illustrates the flow of a business process and the relationships between its activities. It allows to break up any process into individual activities and see how they fit together. The simplicity of flowcharts makes them useful for understanding any process and finding waste and inefficiencies for further problem-solving efforts. They can be used by any industry and in any function.
Flowcharts are ideal tools to visually representing business processes. For example, if you want to see the flow of activities for the purchase order or a sales order through the various departments within your company, flowcharts are good options. They help to understand what activities and decisions are involved, and thus, performing the tasks correctly and in the right order. This is why they are often used to document how to do a particular job and can be found in procedures and quality manuals.
Flowcharts are also used when designing new processes to support organizational transformation. Software developers are using them to map processes that need to be automated. Kaizen teams are using them to identify and analyze problem areas in order to simplify the work and improve performance. They help revealing areas of inefficiency such as unnecessary activities, bottlenecks, complex procedures and missing steps.
Flowcharts are typically drawn with arrows and shapes of various kinds to indicate different types of activities. There is no specific format for a flowchart, however, there must be an agreement of the shapes used to ensures they are drawn in a consistent manner. It’s worth checking whether your company has any standard set of shapes or symbols that should be complied with.
The following are the basic shapes that are applicable in most situations.
A single flowchart can quickly become long and complicated. That’s why connectors are used to link sub-processes and indicate converging paths. Other shapes may be used to describe the type of activities more specifically. Flowcharts can also show more information such as who is responsible to perform an activity and how much time each activity takes.
Flowcharts are widely used in particular industries, such as software development, auditing and quality management. Each of these industries uses specific shapes and symbols that are specific for that industry.
We will discuss in the following sections the three common types of flowcharts.
An activity flowchart displays the sequence of the activities that make up the process in a way that focuses on what happens. It is the basic form of flowcharts and typically illustrates the flow of activities, their order, decision points, rework loops and process boundaries. There is no precise format for an activity flowchart, however, it should be drawn in a consistent and uniform manner.
Example – Making a Cup of Tea
Note: Cycle time is the time from the start to the end of the process. In this example, it is the time needed to prepare the cup of tea.
Example – Preparing Reports for Decision Makers
Note: More information can be displayed in flowcharts. In this example, the performance indicators to be tracked for this process were added above some of the activities.
Example – Changeover
The following is an example of a flowchart that was created for a changeover operation (size conversion) for a production line.
Note: There is a rework loop in this manufacturing process where the approver rejects to run the line until the specifications are met.
A process is described as a cross-functional when it involves several departments. A swimlane flowchart illustrates the sequence of activities required to accomplish a cross-functional process. This type of flowchart is divided into multiple lanes to indicate the multiple responsibilities in a process. An activity or decision that appears in a particular lane is within the control of that department, work group or individual. This helps clarifying the responsible for performing the activity or making the decision.
Swimlane flowcharts are particularly helpful for non-manufacturing processes that mainly involve the flow of information, knowledge, and documents between several functions. Those processes involve many handoffs where information and documents are passed back and forth among the departments, work groups or individuals. When there are a lot of handoffs within a process, this maybe a sign for having waste due to unnecessary transporting, wasted motion or overprocessing.
Example – Acquiring New Equipment
This example illustrates a cross-functional flowchart for acquiring new equipment by a company’s business unit.
An opportunity flowchart provides a way to analyze and study business processes by highlighting those steps that add waste and complexity. This type of flowchart is normally divided into two sections to differentiate the activities and decisions in the process that add value from those that don’t.
By separating the non-value-added steps, it becomes more clear and easy to see opportunities for improvement. Opportunity flowcharts will increase the awareness of what previously was accepted as normal and unavoidable waste. If the non-value activities could be reduced or eliminated, there is a great chance to simplify and streamline the process, and this is one of the main goals of the lean methodology.
Example – Use of an Office Copy Machine
With the development of this flowchart, it becomes more clear where to focus the continuous improvement efforts to deliver more value. For example, regularly cleaning the glass of the copy machine and regularly checking the availability of papers are examples of ideas to improve this process.
Constructing a Flowchart
Whether you want to draw an activity flowchart, a swimlane flowchart, or an opportunity flowchart, the following simple steps can help you construct your flowchart:
- With your team, describe the process and your objectives.
- Determine the type of flowchart, the level of detail, and the appropriate scope and boundaries.
- Brainstorm and identify all major process activities, decisions and the sequence of completion.
- Draft the flowchart using the standard set of shapes, Label each step appropriately.
- Prepare the final flowchart, check for missing activities or decisions, and add further details as necessary.
- Test the flowchart to make sure that it represents the process accurately and completely.
- Publish and distribute the completed final version of the flowchart to all concerned.
- Update the procedures and other documentation as necessary.
- Identify the areas that hinder the process or add little or no value for further process improvement.
- Plan and implement actions to reduce inefficiencies and waste.
Flowcharts and Document Management
Every company should have a standardized way for documenting their procedures and processes. Flowcharts can be useful to summarize a procedure or a process. They can play an important role of document management as they help understanding procedures and work instructions. Flowcharts can either be included under the relevant procedure or be placed in the appendix at the end of the document or manual.
Flowcharts and Software Applications
The process of drawing a detailed flowchart can be an overwhelming task. This is where applications and online services can offer the flexibility that a piece of paper cannot. Although you can draw flowcharts by hand, it’s often more convenient to use any of the drawing applications to create visually appealing flowcharts. A good practice is to draft the flowchart on a paper first before designing it using an application.
There are many software applications and online services that allow the creation of professional flowcharts including Microsoft Visio, SmartDraw and Micrografx. One of the simplest ways is to use this flowchart template.
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