How Flowcharts are Used
Flowcharts were originally used by industrial engineers to structure work processes such as assembly line manufacturing.
Today, flowcharts are used for a variety of purposes in manufacturing, architecture, engineering, business, technology, education, science, medicine, government, administration and many other disciplines.
Here are just a few illustrations of how flowcharts are used.
Plan a New Project
One common use of a flowchart is to map out a new project; particularly one that is technical or in other need of some design structure. Engineers and software designers frequently use flowcharts for this purpose.
Thinking through how the process will work using a flowchart can save countless hours later in design.
Design a System or Program
Using a flowchart allows the designer to think through many complex issues in advance. Since many systems or programs require a step-by-step procedure, using flowcharts is a logical way to think through these steps. Oftentimes, the process requires a "split decision," with an unsatisfactory outcome requiring a portion of it to be repeated until successful. These types of design processes can be clearly thought through and conveyed to others through the use of a flowchart.
Document a Process for External Reasons
Businesses often have external requirements for process documentation, and flowcharts are used for this purpose. From standards reporting to complying with government regulations, using a flowchart can be much more efficient than generating a written narrative.
Here are some examples of external pressures that require process documentation:
- BPM Automation: Documenting processes is a prerequisite for automated BPM (Business Process Management).
- ERP: Documenting processes is required as part of an Enterprise Resource Planning implementation.
- Company Sale: Documenting processes is an important preparation when positioning a company for eventual sale.
- Compliance: Various legislation and regulatory bodies, like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Joint Commission, for example, often require extensive process documentation.
- Customers: Some customers may require ISO or other quality certifications as a prerequisite for doing business.
Document a Process for Internal Reasons
The use of flowcharts to better understand how business processes work offers many advantages to organizations:
- Flexibility: Both new and existing employees can immediately learn the right way to perform any job.
- Quality: If everyone on the team performs a job in the same way each time, the outcome is predictable and consistent.
- Visibility: Management can see exactly how each job is meant to be performed.
- Process Improvement: You can't improve the way your organization gets its work done unless you know how it's being done now.
Audit a Process to Find Malfunctions or Inefficiencies
Flowcharts may be used for diagnosing a malfunction or to troubleshoot problems. These uses are common in the fields of software and electronics. But they aren't confined to just these disciplines. Business organizations also use flowcharts for process improvement. Breaking down processes into smaller steps, then examining them closely can reveal areas of both operating inefficiency and opportunity for improvement.
Mapping Computer Algorithms
Brainstorming computer algorithms with fast, automated flowchart software is superior to a whiteboard. Like a whiteboard, it's easy to make changes or corrections quickly. But unlike a whiteboard, it's simple to move components around and to save and share work.
One of the reasons that flowcharts are used frequently for program and network design is that they also offer a good resource for internal problem solving. They are also a great way to show customers how to troubleshoot common problems, because they are visual and are easy to follow, when presented properly.
Sometimes processes bog down for reasons that aren't obvious. A flowchart can be useful to help identify these roadblocks.
Communicate to Others How a Process Works
A visual model, such as a flowchart, allows information to be captured and shared much more quickly and effectively than writing out narrative descriptions. However, care must be taken. A diagram that is poorly designed and drawn can cause the user to become confused or frustrated if it can't be easily understood. Following the basic rules of visual grammar will ensure ease creation of a flowchart that is easy to use.
Model a Repetitive Process for Quality Assurance
Many processes must be done in a certain, consistent way to ensure the proper result. Think about the way that a fast-food restaurant makes hamburgers, for example. From the time the customer orders until the food is delivered to them, a repetitive, systematic process must take place. If any step along the way gets skipped or performed incorrectly, the quality of the finished product suffers.
Flowcharts are useful in developing and perfecting the model process, as well as training personnel to execute them with Swiss-watch precision.