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Getting Started with Flowcharts: From Basic to Advanced

man drawing on flow chart on dry-erase board

Introduction

Creating Effective Flowcharts for Streamlining Processes

Flowcharts are powerful visual tools that can help individuals and organizations analyze, understand, and communicate complex processes in a simplified and structured manner.

Whether you are a business professional, a software developer, or someone looking to document a specific workflow, flowcharts can be an invaluable asset.

In this guide, we will explore the world of flowcharts and provide you with all the information you need to create effective flowcharts using the steps of the process.

Whether you are a software developer, engineer, business professional, or an educator, flowcharts play a pivotal role in helping you understand, analyze, and optimize processes. So, let’s dive in and explore the ins and outs of flowcharting and best practices for the process you’re optimizing. 

Understanding Flowcharts

1. What is a Flowchart?

A flow chart is used to show a sequence of steps or actions. It’s a process map and a great way to document a process and the flow of information through it. The graphical process chart serves as a visual tool to depict the flow of algorithms, workflow processes, or any other complex systems.

By presenting information in a sequential order, flowcharts are used in multiple fields to aid in understanding the logical structure of a process and provide clarity in problem-solving along the way. On a web page it’s a valuable asset that user’s find helpful.

Here is a flowchart example that represents the information in a patient’s visit to the doctor:

Flowcharts consist of symbols of different shapes, each used to visualize a specific function or decision point within the predefined process. Here’s what you should know before you make your flow chart on paper or with a flowchart maker. 

Flowcharts can be helpful in a wide range of fields and industries, including project management, software development, business analysis, industrial engineering, and more. Flow process charts are particularly useful for:

  • Breaking down complex processes like in production or engineering quickly and easily into manageable steps.
  • Identifying bottlenecks or areas for improvement in a workflow.
  • Communicating a process or system to stakeholders or team members.

2. Reading a Flow Diagram: Standard Symbols In Flowcharts

To effectively communicate information, flowcharts employ a set of standardized symbols. Each flowchart shape has a specific meaning and is used to represent a particular action, decision, or outcome. When designing a flowchart used in software, these main symbols are essential to know before you get started. 

Flowchart Design, is a function of arranging these symbols to create your own flowchart. Since the flowchart is a diagram about moving from one point to another it easily represents any process. 

Variations of symbols that can be used could involve different colors. Here are some of the important and commonly used flowchart symbols:

Terminator (Oval)

The terminator symbol marks the start or end of the process.

a pink oval or terminator step in flowcharts
flowcharts end and start symbol

Process (rectangle)

A box-shaped symbol represents a specific operation or task within the flowchart.

Process step in flowcharts

Decision (diamond)

A diamond-shaped symbol denotes a decision point where the flow branches out based on different conditions or criteria.

flowcharts symbol

Data Input or Output (parallelogram)

This symbol represents the input or output of information in the flowchart. It can be an order, document, or any data entering or leaving the system.

flowcharts symbols

Flow Line (unidirectional arrow)

Lines with arrows depict the process flow and sequence of steps in the process.

flowline in flowcharts

It’s important to note that these symbols are just a subset of the many available symbols used in flowcharts. Each symbol serves a unique purpose and contributes to the overall understanding of the process. Other flow chart shapes include: Link/Reference (circle), Delay (pentagon), Document and several others that are more specialized. 

2. Benefits of Flowcharts

Flowcharts offer several benefits for complicated processes that make them an essential quality tool for process analysis and communication. Some of the key advantages include:

  • Simplifying Complexity: Help simplify steps of a creation process by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable steps.
  • Visual Representation: Make it easier for individuals to understand and follow your production process. 
  • Process Analysis: Allow for a detailed analysis of a process, identifying inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and potential areas for improvement and help you make decisions.
  • Effective Communication: Facilitate clear communication and ensure that all stakeholders have a common understanding of a process or system.
  • Documentation: Flowcharts serve as valuable documentation tools, capturing the steps and logic of a process for future reference.

By visually illustrating multi-stop processes and systems, flowcharts enable us to identify inefficiencies, understand the structure of problems, and streamline workflows. Flowcharts are widely used across different industries and professions to enhance understanding and communication.

3. Determining the Type of Flowchart You Need

Now that we’ve covered the benefits, it’s time to consider the type of chart you need. There are four main types of flowcharts and each is suited for different purposes and scenarios. Some of the commonly used types of flowcharts include:

  • Process Flow Diagrams: These flowcharts illustrate the general flow of a process and the relationships between its major components. They provide an overview of the sequential steps involved in completing a task.
  • Data Flow Diagrams: Data flow diagrams visualize how data is processed in an information system, showing the inputs, outputs, and transformations that occur during the data flow.
  • Workflow Diagrams: Workflow diagrams depict the steps involved in completing a task or executing a process in an efficient and organized manner. They are often used in project management and business process analysis.
  • Swimlane Flowcharts: Swimlane flowcharts visually separate process flows into different lanes or categories, helping clarify roles and responsibilities within a process.
swimlane flowcharts. Credit: Wikimedia
  • Yes/No Flowcharts: Also known as dichotomous keys, yes/no flowcharts present different paths or options based on yes/no decisions, guiding users towards a specific outcome.

Understanding the different types of flowcharts allows you to choose the most suitable format for your specific needs and effectively communicate the desired information.

Flow diagram graphically represent the process and the physical route or flowof people, materials, documents, or communication associated with a procedure plan or investigation.  

a person drawing flowcharts on a piece of paper
Credit: Pexels

How to Draw Flowcharts – A Step-by-Step Guide

Creating a flowchart can be an empowering and creative process. Let’s walk through the steps to make your flowchart. 

  1. Start with a Blank Diagram: Use flowchart software like Visual Paradigm (or (e.g. Keynote, Word, PowerPoint, App store apps and other computer programs), or you can start from a flowchart template if available.
  2. Identify the Process: Determine the main steps and decisions involved in the process between start and end points. 
  3. Add Flowchart Symbols: Use appropriate symbols for each step, decision, or action in the process.
  4. Connect Symbols with Arrows: Draw your flowchart by connect the symbols with arrows to indicate the sequence of steps.
  5. Label Symbols and Arrows: Add descriptive labels to each symbol and arrow for clarity.
  6. Review and Revise: Double-check the flowchart for accuracy and revise as needed. Decision making steps should be carefully made unlike normal process steps. 
  7. Code (Optional): Optionally, you can use colors to differentiate different classes of the same symbol. 

Flowcharts: A Little History

Flowcharts were initially introduced to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 1921 by industrial engineers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. Since their introduction, flowcharts have undergone continuous refinement and standardization, aiming to optimize processes across diverse industries.

Flowcharts are only one of the seven quality tools and among the easiest to use to 

powerful visual representations of processes. We explored the history of flowcharts, delved into the various flowchart symbols and their meanings, and learned how to create flowcharts step by step. Additionally, we discussed the benefits of using flowcharts in different fields.

From these essential of creating a flow chart you can explore further applications including use-case diagrams

Whether you’re a business professional, programmer, or project manager, mastering flowcharting will enhance your ability to understand, communicate, and improve processes. So go ahead and unleash the power of flowcharts to streamline workflows, identify bottlenecks, and optimize decision-making.