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What are flowcharts and how are they used?

Flowcharts can turn complicated workflows into digestible visuals that highlight bottlenecks and inefficiencies.

A flowchart made of wires and pins

What is a flowchart?

A flowchart is a diagram which typically represents a process, system or computer algorithm and is commonly used to document, plan, refine or visualise a multi-step workflow. Creating flowcharts can help to define the purpose and scope of a workflow and chronologically identify necessary tasks. The concept was first documented in 1921 when industrial engineers Frank and Lilian Gilbreth presented the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) with a graphic-based flow process chart. The popularity of flowcharts grew throughout the '20s and '30s, with Art Spinanger and Ben S. Graham becoming notable adopters of the system. Building on the Gilbreths' work, the ASME adopted a symbol set system for flow process charts in 1947. By 1949, flowcharts were beginning to be used in the planning of computer programs. Although this is now typically done by pseudocode, flowcharts still remain a popular and powerful productivity tool.

Flowcharts as we know them today use different shapes to outline unique aspects of their workflows and arrows, or flow lines, to describe their step-by-step sequences. They can range from simple hand drawn designs to complex, computer generated patterns depending on their users' needs.

What do the different flowchart shapes represent?

If you've seen flowchart examples in the past, you may have noticed different shapes being used within them. Though they may appear arbitrary, these shapes actually signify predefined processes and sub-processes. Detailed flowchart diagrams, particularly those used for computer programming, will use a wide range of symbols, while simpler diagrams often only need a handful of shapes. Here are some flowchart symbols that you can expect to come across most frequently:

  • The Process or Action symbol: This symbol is denoted by a rectangle and represents a step in the process. It is the most commonly used flowchart shape.
  • Start/End or Terminator symbol: This symbol is a rectangle with rounded edges that appears at both the beginning and end points of a flowchart.
  • Decision symbol: A diamond-shaped symbol that indicates a question to be answered, typically yes/no or true/false. The flowchart then splits off into different branches providing unique directions for each answer.
  • Data or input/output symbol: A parallelogram shaped symbol that represents data being brought into or taken out from the process, i.e. resources used or generated.

While you can expect most flowchart templates to follow these established symbol standards, it’s okay to ignore these rules if you are diagramming your own process map, particularly if you are just creating a document for yourself or to be used by an internal team. Being understood by your audience is the most important thing. If symbols are to be used unconventionally, it is best they still remain consistent so as not to cause confusion.

How can I use flowcharts?

Flowcharts are versatile tools with a wide variety of use cases. Generally, process flow diagrams are used to:

Simplify and visualise complex systems and ideas

The shapes, colours and directional lines of flowcharts make them far more easily accessible than the intimidating wall of text that can often come with typical business process evaluations. By breaking down workflows and concepts into small chunks, the task of analysing the process becomes much more manageable and it is far easier to see the bigger picture.

Document, outline and standardise processes to build a shared perspective

When working with a team, it can be easy to only focus on the aspects of the process that you are directly responsible for. Collaborating on a flowcharting exercise can help to break down silos by reinforcing the larger goal the team is working to achieve. Ensuring everybody is able to look at a problem with the same view goes a long way in helping your team come together to find a solution.

Organise teams, identify redundancies and collaborate to improve processes

Sometimes, having a visual representation of the work that needs to be done and seeing who needs to do it can help immediately identify issues in the process. You may see that a member of your team has too much work or free time that could be better allocated. By carefully outlining the purpose of each part of your process, you are well positioned to recognise which elements are truly necessary and which could be better optimised.

Track progress at a glance with a single source of truth in one central location

Flowcharts, especially detailed and intricate ones, will typically be documents that you will frequently refer back to throughout various stages of your workflow process. Knowing that you have one master document with every detail outlined and every phase of production tracked can will be invaluable both during production and when analysing the process upon completion. Using process flowcharts as trackers and evaluation tools will help ensure your process remains smooth as you are more aware of your tasks moving parts and the aspects of the workflow that are likely to go wrong.

Despite their broad uses, there are occasions where more specific types of flowcharts are necessary. Swim lane or cross-functional diagrams highlight workflow processes by grouping them into categorised columns. These columns are typically divided by role, department or stage of the process. Visually, this creates divisions to the flowchart that are similar to those found in a swimming pool, giving the diagram its name. Swim lane diagrams won’t always be necessary but can be very useful when trying to compare the demands on various divisions in a workflow at a glance. Alternatively, data-flow diagrams differ from general flowcharts in that they have no decision rules, loops or control flow. They are instead solely focused on how data moves within a system. Particularly, where it comes from, where it goes and how it is stored.

Another flowchart of distinction is the Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) which is the standard for providing graphical views of business workflows. It has become the accepted visual modeling language for business analysis and has conventions and best practices which must be followed. Although it is based on familiar flowcharting techniques, BPMN only supports concepts of modeling applicable to business processes and is not intended for any other use.

Despite their many forms, flowcharts are not the only way to visualise information. Diagrams which at first glance may look like flowcharts because of their familiar shapes or flow lines can often be very different. For specific use cases, diagrams with unique characteristics may instead opt for: decision trees, mind maps, timelines or fishbone diagrams just to name a few.

How can I make a flowchart?

Making a flowchart can be as simple or as complicated as you'd like it to be. You could outline a technical process with a dedicated software designed to conform to an industry standard or start scribbling shapes connected by arrows on a sheet of scrap paper. The choice really is all yours. If you are trying to outline a business process or co-ordinate work within your team, you may want to consider an option that is both easily stored and shared. For this, a dedicated flowchart software like Lucidchart can be a great way to help you and your team visualise complex processes and demystify complicated workflows.

Lucidchart provides flowcharts, mind maps, org charts and a range of other technical diagrams and visuals, providing you with an immediate outline of your processes and a clear overview of your team’s organisation. Lucidchart’s integration with Dropbox Paper means you can seamlessly preview Lucidchart documents in Paper and easily share them with your collaborators. There’s no setup required – you just need to paste a Lucidchart publish link into a Paper doc and Dropbox Paper will automatically generate a preview of the visual. This means your team members can leave comments and make real-time changes to a single shared document while ensuring they are looking at the most up-to-date version of the file. Even outlining complex processes is made so much simpler by being able to easily share flowchart outlines with the very people who participate in the process to make sure nothing is missed. You can even film yourself over screenshots with Dropbox Capture to present the flowchart and send it to project teams to reference.

Flowcharts have a rich history and are a timeless tool for evaluating systems of all descriptions. If you ever find yourself stuck on a process puzzle, consider visually mapping your workflow. A solution may have been right in front of you all along.

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