How to create effective flowcharts

Flowcharts are incredibly handy tools for process mapping. I love using flowcharts because they are quick and easy to draw. Furthermore, flowcharts are visceral, in that people instinctively recognise what they represent, how they should be read. To increase the effectiveness of flowcharts, here are a couple of simple rules to follow1:

Define the boundaries of work: Like a race, every flowchart should have a clear start and finish, represented by rounded rectangle symbols.


Use a logical directional flow:
Flowcharts are visual tools. Therefore, it’s vital for a flowchart to be able to tell its story quickly. The best flowcharts strictly follow a single direction: either left-to-right, or top-to-bottom. This makes it easier to see how one activity comes after another. On the other hand, if arrows are allowed to point in different directions, the flowchart can swiftly become a mess.

Use symbols: Good flowcharts capture end-to-end processes. Between the start and end of a typical workflow may lie several kinds of activities. It’s good practice to describe activities with meaningful symbols. This way, a person reviewing a flowchart can immediately grasp the kind of work involved.

Keep symbols the same distance from one another: Remember that the flowchart is first and foremost a visual tool. Thus, it always pays to devote some attention to how it is displayed. Something as trivial as making sure that symbols are the same distance from one another really goes a long way in making the flowchart easier to digest.

Avoid crossing lines: As the title says, crossing lines in flowcharts should be avoided. However, don’t spend too much time trying to make sure every line flows cleanly. If crossing lines is inevitable, then do it this way:

Properly label decision branches: Nothing is more confusing than a decision symbol whose branches are either mis-labeled, or worse, not labeled at all. Always label the branches that emerge from decision symbols.

Identify output of activities Lastly, it’s good practice to label the outputs of activities, when it is necessary for understanding.

Although flowcharts are powerful tools, they are only appropriate for drill-down views within a larger process. Often, these focused views do not involve very many stakeholders, and the alternation of work between stakeholders is limited.

What about you? I’d love to hear from you other best practices you’ve uncovered while flowcharting. Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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