Flow Chart (+ 11-Page Term on PDF)
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.
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.
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:
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.
There are three basic ways that flow charts are created.
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.
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.
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.
Flow charts make your lives easier in several ways.
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.
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