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.

Making Process Improvement a Green Affair

It’s easy to underestimate the impact that process improvements has on the environment, but it’s real. Whichever tool a team uses to examine and improve their work, one of the first targets is usually muda. Muda is a Japanese word that means waste. Wastes appear in all processes, even in processes that have been improved. As a result, employees engage in continuous improvement activities like standardisation, 5S housekeeping campaigns, work improvement projects and staff suggestions to make sure that waste is kept at bay.

In almost all processes, 7 types of wastes frequently occur.

  • Overproducing– which refers to purchasing or providing a service, information package or product before it is needed. Overproducing also happens if a particular space- with its air-conditioning and lighting- is made available when there is little or no need for it.
  • Inventory– which refers to work piling up in inboxes, partially completed tasks or documents, files, online or electronic storage. Excess inventory also occurs when files and records are kept without regularly purging old items. This makes searching for records complex, and demands a huge investment in storage facilities.
  • Waiting– which refers to delays caused by pending reviews or approval. Even difficulty in accessing, retrieving and manipulating information cause delays.
  • Extra Processing– which refers to time spent doing unnecessary steps. An employee who has to spend time re-keying or reformatting data, printing extra copies of unneeded reports, multiple versions of drafts etc, is likely to be caught in a loop which triggers other kinds of wastes like Waiting.
  • Rework– which is one of the most common kind of wastes caused by defects in either a service, product or document. A form that contains unclear instructions, for example, may cause the customer to provide wrong information. The person who receives the form is forced to either amend the defective form, or request the customer to resubmit a fresh form. Both are considered rework.
  • Excess Motion– which means that when a worker wants to retrieve anything that is essential to a task, he or she finds that it is out-of-reach. These items may include data, information, files, centralised inboxes, stationary, printers, fax and copy machines.
  • Transportation– which refers to the excessive movement of work between locations. E-mail attachments, documents or files routed for multiple layers of approvals or evaluation, even expertise that is located too far away from where it is really needed can cause this waste.

Wastes are non-value-adding activities that do not directly benefit either an internal or external customer. A service is not enhanced by Extra Processing, for example. Neither does a product take on a better shape or quality by Rework. It does, however, make customers unhappy about the organisation.

In a knowledge-intensive environment, for example, wastes appear in many ways, but are increasingly caused by excessive and unnecessary use of smart devices like mobile phones, laptops, desktop computers and smart watches.

While portability exacts an environmental price in the creation, maintenance and disposal of batteries, all modern devices exact a price in computing power, which is neither cheap nor evenly distributed across societies.

Computing power needs physical spaces to host servers, as well as precious electricity to feed an ever-growing demand for speed, storage and intelligence. Almost all wastes will trigger unproductive use of computing power in the form of extra emails that are sent to chase for late submissions, or a customer staying that much longer in a chat session to finally obtain the information he or she needs.

For organisations that still use traditional paper documents, wastes like Rework are liable to create tons of paperwork, cycling between customer and organisation in a deadly but entirely avoidable loop. Imagine the number of trees that are chopped down to support such horrifying practices.

There is no doubt that that process improvements can play a significant part in helping organisations achieve energy and environmental conservation.