Traditional vs Modern Flowcharts

Flowcharts have been around since 1921, when Frank B. Gilbreth presented his "flow process chart" to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Over the next several decades, the applications and uses of flowcharts spread into other areas. In the 1940s, engineers at IBM found that diagramming processes was beneficial in planning and coding early computer equipment.

Standardization of Flowchart Symbols
IBM manual flowchart drawing
template and envelope

Standardization of Flowchart Symbols

As flowcharting gained in popularity, the ways in which they were presented grew in complexity. This led groups such as the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and ANSI (American National Standards Institute) to develop a consistent set of symbols to be used in flowcharting. Click this link see a list of common flowchart symbols and their meanings.

But even with a standard set of symbols, there is a wide diversity in how they are developed and presented. Differing sizes, colors, and directions of data flow can create diagrams that are difficult for users to comprehend.

The modern flowchart moves beyond the symbol library and provides a framework that makes them easier to create, understand and use.

What is a Modern Flowchart?

A modern flowchart is designed within a simple set of rules known as visual grammar. But before we go into that, let's look at some of the issues that led to the development of visual grammar and today's modern flowchart.

Problems with Traditional Flowcharts

Despite having a standardized set of symbols, traditional flowcharts still pose problems for both their makers and their users. The reason is the lack of a clear, concise set of rules making them easy to create and to use.

To illustrate, here are three different examples created to document a billing process. The author of this flow diagram chose not to use standardized symbols, opting for rectangular shapes and one oval. But the biggest problem with this drawing is that it is completely incomprehensible.

Traditional flowchart

We can see in this example how important it is to have an understandable workflow or data flow. Presumably, the process begins at "Billing". But what is the end, "Refile"? And while the arrows help lead the reader along, what happens at a step such as "US Office" where there is one arrow in and two out, but they aren't identified? Which path is the user to choose?

The "Procurement" diagram presented next is a little less perplexing in terms of moving from step to step, but the process flow is a bit like being in a maze. The differing shapes, colors, sizes and erratic spacing are unnecessary visual distractions.

Maze of colors in a traditional flowchart

Finally, let's look at the billing process diagram, shown below. It applies an array of haphazard colors, fonts, and shapes. One of the problems frequently encountered in traditional flowcharts is the incorrect use of shapes. The one below includes symbols for data storage, a decision and a subroutine that have been used incorrectly. The use of a variety of symbols, even when done correctly, can be confusing. Using them randomly can cause chaos.

The erratic flow direction creates another problem commonly found in traditional flowcharts: connecting lines that cross each other. Even though the author of this chart used line hops, it is much better to build a drawing that avoids this necessity altogether.

Flowcharts with line jumps

Visual Grammar and the Modern Flowchart

Now that we've seen some of the problems that exist with traditional flowcharts, let's look at how the development of basic rules of visual grammar can alleviate them.

Here are the five simple rules of visual grammar that apply to the modern flowchart:

  1. Consistency Rule
  2. One-Page Rule
  3. Left-to-Right Rule
  4. Split-Path Rule
  5. Return Lines Rule

Consistency Rule

This rule simply says that shapes, lines and texts within a flow diagram should be consistent.

Consistency rule flowchart

This example shows how the consistency rule is applied. Notice how only the start and end shapes are oval. All the others are rectangles. Every shape is the same size as is the spacing between them. They also have the same outlines and are aligned uniformly.

Using consistency eliminates unnecessary distraction and makes the data flow or workflow very easy to follow.

One-Page Rule

This rule simply says that the modern flowchart fits on a single page and the text must remain readable. When a diagram becomes too large to fit on a page, it's advisable to divide it into multiple charts and connect them with hyperlinks.

Left-to-Right Rule

This rule is self-explanatory. In Western cultures, people read from left to right. Applying this rule makes the modern flowchart easier to read and comprehend.

Split-Path Rule

Traditional flowcharts use a diamond symbol to represent a decision. There are three inherent problems with this:

  1. A decision symbol immediately introduces two directions of information flow, breaking the left-to-right rule and making the flowchart more difficult to follow.
  2. Most users don't understand the meanings of various symbols, so the introduction of a diamond shape is distracting.
  3. Many creators of flowcharts are also unfamiliar with conventional symbols, thus using them randomly and creating confusion.

The use of a split-path eliminates all three. It continues the left-to-right process flow, and it's easy to see and understand without explanation. Here's an example showing the same process using a split-path versus a traditional decision symbol:

Split path

Split path

Decision symbols

Decision symbol

Return Lines Rule

This rule states that, since we naturally read text from the top of the page down, that return lines should be placed under the flowchart rather than above. If two return lines are needed, they shouldn't overlap. Here's an example of how return lines should look:

Return lines

Some Examples of Traditional vs Modern Flowcharts

In today's world, flowcharts are often used for improving business processes. When applied in this area, they are also sometimes referred to as business process maps, workflow diagrams or just simply, process maps.

But let's not get too hung up on terminology. For most users, the goal of diagramming business process flow is to improve organizational efficiency. It might start with an "as is" analysis that looks at current workflow with an eye to finding areas for improvement. Another use would be to document a process for regulatory compliance or to ensure quality control, such as an ISO 9000 or ISO 9001 quality management system. Flowcharting a business process can also be beneficial in training new employees.

However, an inherent problem has emerged. That problem is that traditional flowcharts are frequently created in such a way that they aren't easy to understand, because they don't follow a simple set of rules.

Let's look at a few more process flow diagram examples.

Capital Expenditure Process Flowchart Type - Traditional

Capital Expenditure Process Flowchart Type - Traditional

This diagram is designed with a top-down orientation. It uses traditional symbols such as decision diamonds and a document shape.

One of the problems that can be encountered using traditional flowchart designs such as this is that they can be difficult to both create and use in a simple, understandable manner. For example, note that the "modify project" box has no outlet-thus, the user faces a dead end at this point.

Capital Expenditure Process Flowchart Type - Updated

Capital Expenditure Process Flowchart Type - Updated

Here's a redesign of the previous flowchart type. It follows the basic rules of visual grammar, which uses with a more readable left-to-right flow. Rather than diamond-shaped decision boxes, it employs a split path. Notice how the "modify project" box now has a return arrow that directs the user back to a previous step in the workflow process.

The other notable difference in this example is that there are only two shapes: ovals for start and end of the process and rectangles for everything else. This format doesn't require any deciphering on the part of a user.

Purchase Order Approval Process Flowchart

Take a look at the following flowchart. Do you see any potential problems in trying to follow the workflow process outlined here?

Purchase Order Approval Process

Purchase Order Approval Process

Here are just a few of the issues that might arise when trying to follow the process as diagrammed.

Possible problems with diagrams

Now let's look at the same flowchart, revised to make it easier to understand and use.

Purchase Approval Revised

Purchase Approval Revised

When the order is received, it is simply processed into two buckets: new vs existing customers. The next steps for orders from existing customers are very simple: if they are paying cash, their order is logged and processed. Credit orders within the customer's credit authorization are also processed immediately. Otherwise, they are routed to the controller.

New customers placing credit orders simply require an application and are routed to controller; regardless of their location. Cash customers in the US and Canada are processed at this level, but foreign customers must be routed to the controller's office for approval.

This flowchart is easy to follow and understand, even for a new hire. There are only two terminations: either the order is approved at this level and sent to processing or it is routed to the controller's office. You'll note that this process is not concerned with what happens at the controller's level. That would be done in a separate chart.

The key to a good business process map, as this example shows, is that it has a logical start and end and that the steps in between are easy to understand and follow.

Applying Visual Grammar in a Flowchart

Always remember that the priority is to make your diagram easy for the user to understand. Applying these basic rules of visual grammar will help you meet that goal.

A good flowchart software program will have automatic drawing features that let you create this type of diagram effortlessly.

Download this free white paper to learn how to apply visual grammar for a better, modern flowchart.

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