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Flow Chart (+ 11-Page Term on PDF)

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A flowchart is a visual representation of the progression of an entity (product, person, information, etc.) through a process.

Flow charts have two main uses.

  1. Process flow charts are used for documenting the steps of an operation. The visual nature of the flow chart makes is useful for learning a process, for quickly checking the next step as a memory tool, or when reviewing the work of others.
  2. Flow charts are a problem solving tool. They are useful as an analysis tool in nearly every process improvement effort.

In either case, though, the purpose is to provide a greater understanding of how the process operates.

The degree of detail of a flowchart can vary from a brief overview to a detailed, step-by-step guide about the process.

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The visual nature of a process flow chart provides two main benefits. The first is that it creates a deeper level of understanding. Seeing a list of paragraphs doesn’t highlight how complicated steps are, how they interact, or where they fit into the bigger picture. A flow chart, on the other hand, makes those things jump out at you.

The other benefit is that a flow chart acts as a communication tool. Explaining a process can be a challenge with the written word alone. A graphic depiction of a process, on the other hand, helps the author convey the ‘feel’ of a process.

Uses of Flow Charts

  • Problem Solving / Process Improvement: Process flow charts are instrumental tools in problem solving. They highlight wasteful process, primarily through making complexity very apparent, or by showing the circuitous path a process might take.
  • Training Documentation: Training documents require a high level of detail to show an employee how to complete work. These documents are typically too complex for everyday use, but rather are used to teach new employees how to do work, or as a reference guide when an employee forgets something.
  • Process Documentation: Process documentation and training documents are closely related, and in many cases are even one and the same. This form of flow charts is used to preserve information about how a process is done.
  • Reference Guide: A reference guide may be used by an employee as a refresher for an unfamiliar process. For example, a product may have several options on it. This type of flow chart is useful as a reminder, as they typically don’t take long to read. Another common use of this type of flow chart is for leaders to review an operation. They may manage numerous processes, and can’t remember every step of every process. A small flow chart of an operation is a good way to confirm that a process is being completed properly.

Flow Chart Symbols

There are four basic symbols used in a flowchart (though some specific types of flowcharts do use other symbols as well.)

The basic flowchart symbols are:

  • Rounded Rectangle / Oval: This is a terminator. It marks the beginning and end of a process.
  • A Circle: Circles are connectors that link one part of a flowchart to another. It is commonly used for subroutines or when a flowchart is too big for one page.
  • A Rectangle: A rectangle is a process box and shows the step.
  • A Diamond: A diamond is a decision point, and indicates a location where a process branches into two or more paths. A decision point may occur when an active choice is made by the person doing the process, or when a process responds to an external event. Not all decision points come from controlled, planned choices. As an example, a flow chart may show an operator checking a gauge and responding based on whether it is within nominal ranges or if there is a problem.
Flow Chart Symbols

This slide comes from our Flow Charts PowerPoint presentation.

Several others symbols are in use for specialized applications. IT flowcharts have symbols for databases, for example. Stick to the basics for most applications, though. The more complicated the flow chart is, the more likely it will confuse a reader. Only use specialized symbols if you are sure all readers will understand them.

Flow Chart Development Methods

There are three basic ways that flow charts are created.

  • Handwritten: Handwritten flow charts can be done on a single sheet of paper or on a large section of kraft paper. The benefit is that it is easy to do. The problem is that it is hard to adjust, and flow charts are seldom right on the first pass.
  • Software: A variety of programs are useful for creating flow charts. Several tools from the Microsoft® Office suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) all have easy to use flow charting features. Visio offers powerful flow charting tools, and can be used to make a much more sophisticated flow chart. The benefits are that the flow chart is easy to edit and distribute. It is also likely to be far more legible than a handwritten chart. The downside is that you need someone fast on the keyboard to keep up with a team, and that input is limited to one person at a time. It can slow down the pace of an intense problem solving session.
  • Sticky Notes: Post-It® style sticky notes are great for creating flow charts, especially in group settings. They are easy to move around as steps are added. Rectangular notes are great for process steps. Square notes rotated 45 degrees make great decision points. A common method is to use notes on kraft paper and draw in lines once the positions are relatively stable. An alternative is to use yarn to connect the symbols, allowing more versatility. This is a great method when many people are contributing to a flow chart at the same time, or when it will be continually adjusted by non-tech savvy people.

For most tools, I recommend staying simple. For flow charts, though, there are some big advantages to using a laptop and projector. Just be aware of the limitations of the team and how the flow chart will be used so you don’t slow down a project.

Cross-Functional Flow Charts / Swim Lanes

Most flow charts show one operation. Sometimes, though, work crosses functional boundaries numerous times as it progresses through the value stream. A cross-functional flow chart, also known as a swim lane flow chart, shows how work passes between groups.

Each department is shown in one lane. Every crossover between lanes is an indication of a handoff of work. This highlights waste, as handoffs are generally inefficient and add to lead time.

“Swim Lanes” Flow Chart from our PowerPoint Training Package

Current State vs. Future State Flow Charts

Flow charts can show either the current state of the future state. Current state flow charts show how a process is currently done. Future state flow charts show how the team would like to do the process. The future state can be a best case, or it can be set at a specific time frame.

For the first version, a conceptual image of the process is considered, and then an action plan is developed to get there. In the second case, the steps are reversed. An action plan is developed based on identified waste, and the future state flow chart reflects the completion of projects within the time frame.

In some cases, though, it makes sense to use both. This is most common when an overhaul is needed.

  1. Create current state flow chart.
  2. Identify waste.
  3. Create future state flow chart that removes identified waste from process.
  4. Create an action plan on how to get to the future state.
  5. Create a future state flow chart that shows how the process will look in 6-12 months, based on the action plan.

  • Match the level of detail to the purpose of a flow chart. Training and process improvement require much more detail than a reference guide posted over a work cell would.
  • Don’t ever do a flow chart from memory. It tends to miss out on the ‘hidden factories‘ that are nearly invariably performed in a work area.
  • Be careful about using computers for group flow charting sessions. It can limit input if some people are not well-versed in the software you are using.

Flow charts make your lives easier in several ways.

  1. They make training easier. A flow chart helps trainees visualize how work should be done, and highlights areas that need special emphasis. Regardless of whether you are the trainer or the trainee, it will take less time to grasp a new process when you have a flow chart to refer to.
  2. It acts as a memory aid. A basic flowchart posted in your work area is easier to use that written instructions. The simpler a reference guide is to use, the more likely it will be looked at. And it doesn’t only help the person using it. The downstream person will be glad it is available if it helps prevent mistakes.
  3. It helps you make improvements. The flow chart is a valuable problem solving tool. It showcases waste and helps you figure out how to go about taking it out of your process. Most waste is also linked to the frustrating parts of your job.
  4. It helps you communicate with your boss. Your boss is probably busy, and may not have the time to spend on helping you that you would like. A flow chart helps her understand your points more quickly, and draw her into a discussion about problems. Getting your boss interested in helping you solve a problem can be a bit like fishing. You have to get her interested in the ‘bait’, in this case a complicated part of a flowchart, before you can land some help. 

Flow charts are extremely valuable to you. First of all, the development of a flowchart requires that people take a close look at their process. This scrutiny is the first step towards improvement. The most enlightening aspect is often the prevalence of ‘hidden factories’, or the work that is performed, often in response to problems, without showing up on any documentation.

The second benefit for you is that a flowchart can give you an at-a-glance view of a process. You likely manage many processes. It is not easy to stay on top of all of them. Flow charts make the task of managing easier.

Finally, flow charts give you a good starting point for developing metrics and helping teams improve their processes. Complexity and waste jump out when the process is shown visually.

  • Flow charts are one of a handful of tools that are useful in nearly every process improvement effort.
  • Flow charts’ power lies in their visual nature. They make problems with flow and complexity jump out at you.
  • The act of creating a flow chart is nearly as important as the finished product. It takes a deep understanding of work to make flow chart.
  • Flow charts are versatile tools and are useful in both problem solving and in documentation.

A PDF of this term is included in our Phase 3 Information Series.

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