Part 1: Flowchart Overview

Flowchart Guide

What is a flowchart?

A flowchart is a visual representation of a sequence of operations that are performed to create a particular outcome. They are commonly used to document complex processes, systems, and computer algorithms in a comprehensible way.

Each step in the sequence is noted with a diagram shape such as a rectangle, diamond, or oval. Steps are linked by connecting arrows that define the directional flow of steps. Anyone viewing a flowchart should be able to logically follow the process from beginning to end.

Some flowcharts are small, only depicting a few key steps of a process, while others are more comprehensive, able to represent complex strings of steps and potential outcomes.

Flowcharts are often referred to by specialized names such as Process Flowcharts, Process Maps, Functional Flowcharts, Business Process Maps, Business Process Modeling and Notation (BPMN) diagrams, and Process Flow Diagrams (PFD).

History of flowcharts

Flowcharts have been around since the 1920s. Originally called “flow process charts,” they were developed by industrial engineers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth who first presented them to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 1921. Flowcharts quickly became a mainstay in industrial engineering for structuring work processes such as assembly line manufacturing.

In the 1930s, industrial engineer Allan H. Mogensen saw an opportunity to extend flowcharts and other useful tools of the industry to business workers. He began training business people in how to use flowcharts to make their processes more efficient, spreading their popularity and use.

Two fellow graduates of Mogensen’s class also helped popularize flowcharts in other industries. Art Spinanger trained employees at Procter & Gamble where he developed their Deliberate Methods Change Program. Ben S. Graham, also the Director of Formcraft Engineering at Standard Register Industrial, adapted flowcharts for information processing with the development of the multi-flow process chart to display multiple documents and their relationships.

By 1947, ASME adopted a symbol set derived from Gilbreth’s original work as the “ASME Standard: Operation and Flow Process Charts.”

In 1949, Herman Goldstine and John von Neumann developed a flowchart to plan computer programs. Flowcharts became a popular means for describing computer algorithms until the 1970s when interactive computer terminals and third-generation programming languages were introduced. Source code then became a more concise way for algorithms to be expressed.

Nowadays, flowcharts are still used for describing computer algorithms, as well as a variety of business workflows and processes.

Types of flowcharts

Flowcharts can be used in practically any industry. A few examples would be manufacturing, architecture, engineering, business, technology, education, science, medicine, government, and administration.

Depending on what you’re working on and who you ask, you may hear flowcharts categorized or labeled in different ways.

In the 1978 book Microprocessors: Design and Applications, Andrew Veronis named three flowchart types based on their level of detail:

  • General Flowcharts provide an overview.
  • System Flowcharts identify the devices used.
  • Detailed Flowcharts document specific details.

In the 2001 book Quality and Process Improvement, Mark A. Fryman categorized flowcharts from a business perspective:

  • Decision Flowcharts explain the steps taken to justify a particular decision.
  • Logic Flowcharts are used to uncover loopholes in logic which could cause problems.
  • System Flowcharts display how data flows in a system.
  • Product Flowcharts represent the order by which a sequence of products is created.
  • Process Flowcharts show any process taken to achieve an outcome.

In the 2003 book Critical Incident Management, Alan B. Sterneckert designated four flowchart types based on what they control:

  • Document Flowcharts show the controls over document-flow through the components of a system, i.e. through various business units.
  • Data Flowcharts show the controls over data-flow in a system, i.e. the channels that data is transmitted through.
  • System Flowcharts show the physical controls of data-flow through the components of a system, i.e. programs, servers, processors, and communication networks.
  • Program Flowcharts show the controls in a program within a system.

Additional flowchart types include:

  • Swimlane Diagrams, e.g. Swimlane Flowcharts depict who does what in cross-team processes.
  • Workflow Flowcharts document office workflows, often involving tasks, documents, and information.
  • Event-Driven Process Chain (EPC) Flowcharts document a business process.
  • Specification and Description Language (SDL) Flowcharts brainstorm computer algorithms using three basic components: system definition, block, and process.

Related diagrams, sometimes thought of as types of flowcharts, include:

  • Data Flow Diagrams (DFD) map out the flow of information for any system or process.
  • Process Flow Diagrams (PFD), a.k.a. Process Flowcharts illustrate the relationships between components at an industrial plant.
  • Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) model the steps of a business process.

Flowchart uses

While the history of flowcharts tells us they originated in industrial engineering before becoming popular in computer programming, they are also used widely today in many other fields.

Here are just a few common industries and uses.

Business

  • Plan order and procurement processes
  • Draft the paths that users take on a website or in a store
  • Develop a product plan
  • Document processes for compliance
  • Detail the processes for a sale or consolidation

Sales and marketing

  • Arrange the flow of a survey
  • Plot a sales process
  • Detail research strategies
  • Demonstrate registration flows
  • Distribute internal/external communication policies

Manufacturing

  • Illustrate the physical or chemical makeup of a product
  • Show a manufacturing process from beginning to end
  • Discover and resolve inefficiencies in manufacturing or procurement

Engineering

  • Depict process flows or system flows
  • Create and optimize chemical and plant processes
  • Analyze the lifecycle of a structure
  • Design a reverse-engineering flow
  • Illustrate the design and prototyping phase of a new structure or product

Education

  • Plan academic requirements
  • Create a lesson plan
  • Organize class projects
  • Demonstrate legal or civil processes
  • Trace character development within literature and film
  • Represent the flow of algorithms or logic problems
  • Visualize scientific processes
  • Chart anatomical processes
  • Map out symptoms and treatments for diseases/disorders
  • Communicate hypotheses and theories

Benefits of flowcharts

Many people may not realize the benefits of visually documenting business processes, but the benefits become clear once you start using them.

Flowcharts allow you to standardize processes for efficiency and quality. They make it easy to communicate workflows for training and understanding by other parties. The process of analyzing flowcharts for bottlenecks, redundancies, unnecessary steps, or missing steps will greatly improve your efficiency.

Once you start thinking about your processes more visually, you’ll get a better understanding of what’s working and what’s not, which means you can replicate the good and start troubleshooting the bad.

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