Watch the flow (Flow Charts – Basic Creation / Use)

Almost every process has a flow. Whether is writing this blog, or how the mail gets delivered on a daily basis. Flow is the definition of the movement of an item through a process. Good flow would be easy transitions, and, of course, bad or poor flow would mean that the process does not allow the item to smoothly move or there is resistance based on design.

I have used flow charts to trouble shoot a process, improve a process,  teach a process, empower operators with controlled decisions, as well as to help in standardizing processes.

For troubleshooting I would take the process a mark the issues, determined by a problem solving, where they are occurring in the process. This allows for a visual aide to view and talk to – while examining what changes could be made.

Continuous improvement, from my experience, was examining the process and how the movements take place. From the actuals – look for opportunities to reduce time, or movement in the process that could reduce the overall length (time) from beginning to end.

Teach a process involves a hands on walk through of the process while using the flow diagram to explain the process during the education process. The tool can often provide direction for overall steps needed.

Empowering looks like a decision tree. The flow is based less on the process and more on the criteria which generates action items or next steps based on the criteria each step of the process. i.e. Out of Gas > Yes / No > a) Get gas or b) continue…

basic flow chart shapes

basic flow chart shapes

Standardizing the process with a flow chart defines each of the steps in a process . Once standardized it should be clear what steps need to be taken to move the process along.

A flow chart diagram can become really complex, almost resembling a schematic or CAD drawing with all of the activity. To get you started, we must understand the RECTANGLE, DIAMOND, CIRCLE, and an OVAL.

  • Rectangle – Represents and step of the process, or an action. i.e. Walk the dog
  • Diamond – Decision to make, which dictates the next path. i.e. Is it raining
  • Circle – Process that is not described in this flow chart, and most likely on another page. ie Dress appropriately for going outside
  • Oval – Start or End of the process
  • Arrows / Connectors – Connectors with arrows on one side show the flow from one piece to another within the flow chart. At some point the arrows many overlap.

The linking of the decisions, steps and processing can be quite daunting and overwhelming if you are a perfectionist such as myself. When I make flow charts, I tend to over complicate the decision trees as I try to create every situation available. If there are 3 items, 3 different outcomes; I would try to map all 9 scenarios. While this is good for detail, if can make the tool less effective during a 101, or introduction. The charts, which are used in the smallest to most complex processes, can become more complex. You can take a flow chart and break it into “swim lanes” which helps define the person from a RACI which is responsible for task completion (R or the do-er). In the link below I have provided an example of all the shapes. The picture below shows the basic shapes we talked about, and a few examples of uses.

Swim Lanes

Swim Lanes


Simply flow using tools discussed, showing a process improved

Simply flow using tools discussed, showing a process improve
















Other Related Links:

Examples of more shapes and functions, definitions, uses



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