Understanding and Communicating how a Process Works
Learn how to use flow charts to explain how processes work clearly to your team
Stop and think about the processes your organization uses. There's likely to be one for managing inbound communications, another for checking for product defects, and yet another for explaining how team members can sign up for health insurance, for example.
If you want to improve one of these processes, you have to understand what's done at each stage along the way. This is where flow charts come in. These visually show the steps, decisions and activities involved in a process, and they represent them in a format that's easy to understand.
In this article, we'll look at what flow charts are and why they are so useful, and we'll explore how you can use them to document and improve business processes.
What is a Flow Chart?
Frank Gilbreth, an American engineer, is widely believed to be the first person to document a process flow. In 1921, he introduced the concept to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. People working in industrial engineering and manufacturing quickly adopted the approach, and now organizations use flow charts for a wide variety of reasons.
Flow charts are easy-to-understand diagrams that show how the steps in a process fit together. Their simplicity makes them useful tools for communicating how processes work, and for documenting how to do a particular job. Furthermore, the act of mapping out a process using a flow chart can clarify your understanding of it, and help you improve it.
You can use them to:
- Define and analyze processes.
- Communicate steps to other people involved in a process.
- Standardize a process.
- Improve a process .
- Identify bottlenecks , or troubleshoot a problem.
Also, by drawing a flow diagram, you can zoom in on each individual stage, without feeling overwhelmed by the rest of the process.
Flow Chart Symbols
Many flow charts consist of four types of symbols:
1. Elongated circles, which signify the start or end of a process.
2. Rectangles, which show instructions or actions.
3. Diamonds, which highlight where you must make a decision.
4. Parallelograms, which show input and output. This can include materials, services or people entering or leaving the process.
You label each symbol appropriately to show the information it displays. For example, this could show the start of the process, the action to take, or the decision to make.
Arrows connect the symbols, and show process flow.
There are many other symbols, in addition to the four highlighted above. However, remember that flow charts are used for communication. If you use symbols that only a few people understand, there's a good chance that your message will fail. As always, keep things simple !
Here are several examples of how you can use flow diagrams to document or improve a business process:
- Software developers can use them to map out a process that needs to be automated. This helps developers visualize individual steps, as well as the big picture.
- Managers can use them to record the sequence of tasks in a process. This helps inexperienced team members understand the process, and complete activities in the right order.
- A Fairtrade organization could use them to map how it sources ingredients, and to show the way that these move through the manufacturing process to become a final product. This documentation could help the organization confirm whether each supplier or manufacturer involved in production has complied with safety and fair wage standards.
As you can see, flow diagrams have a wide variety of uses. They're simple to construct, and easy to understand. They are also highly informative, because they illustrate the decisions that you have to make, and the steps that you need to take.
They can also help you estimate time, and identify who you should involve in any decisions. In some environments, such as quality management, they may even be required for industry or government certification.
If your process or project involves several people or teams, you might find it more useful to use Swim Lane Diagrams instead of flow charts – these help you show process flows between people and teams. You can also use Storyboards to show the steps in your process in a visually engaging way.
How to Create a Flow Chart
Follow these steps:
Step 1: Identify Tasks
Begin by listing all of the tasks in a process in chronological order. Ask questions such as "What happens next in the process?" or "Do you need to make a decision before the next step?" or "What approvals are required before you move on to the next task?"
Put yourself in the shoes of the person using the process. Better yet, take a hands-on approach and go through the process yourself, or talk to team members who work with the process directly.
Use Customer Experience Mapping if your flow chart focuses on customer service, so that you can gain a better understanding of the process.
Step 2: Organize and Document Tasks
Next, start your flow chart by drawing the elongated circle shape and labeling it "Start."
Then, work through your whole process and show the actions and decisions in the order that they happen. Link them with arrows to illustrate the flow of the process.
Where you need to make a decision, draw arrows from the decision diamond to each possible solution, and then label each arrow with the decision made. Remember to show the end of the process by using an elongated circle labeled "Finish."
Step 3: Test
When you've completed your flow chart, double-check it to make sure that you haven't overlooked anything.
Work through each step and ask yourself whether you have correctly represented the sequence of actions and the decisions involved in the process. Show your flow chart to other people, especially those who work directly with the process, and ask them whether it is comprehensive, and to test that it works.
Step 4: Challenge
If you want to improve the process, look at the steps you have identified and check whether any of them are unnecessary, or whether they are duplicated. Are there any other steps that you should include? And have you assigned jobs to the right people?
Then, continue to challenge the steps in the diagram to improve efficiency. You should ask yourself whether each of the steps is needed, whether the requirements they address still exist, and whether new technologies can improve the process. Identify any major bottlenecks , and deal with them to improve performance.
Although you can draw flow charts by hand, it's often much more convenient to use diagramming apps, because your flow charts will be easier to amend, and you can store them in a format that you can retrieve easily.
Use programs like Microsoft Visio or SmartDraw to create simple and visually appealing flow charts; or use browser-based apps like Lucidchart or Gliffy – these can produce flow charts on any device that connects to the Internet.
Flow charts can quickly become long and complicated, so that you can't represent them on a single piece of paper. This is where you can use "connectors" (shown as numbered circles) to link the flow when moving from one page to another. The user can follow the matching numbers to trace the flow of the process.
The diagram below shows part of a simple diagram illustrating how the receptionists in an example company route incoming phone calls to the correct department:
Part of an Example Flow Chart Showing how to Route Incoming Phone Calls
Flow charts are simple diagrams that map out a process, so that you can easily communicate it to other people. You can also use them to define and analyze a process, build a step-by-step picture of it, and define, standardize or improve it.
To draw a flow chart, identify the tasks and decisions that you make during a process, and write them down in order. Then, arrange these steps in the flow-chart format, using the appropriate shapes for actions to take and decisions to make. Complete with "Start" and "Finish" symbols to show the beginning and end of the process.
Finally, test your flow chart to make sure that it accurately represents the process, and that it shows the most efficient way of doing the job.
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