How do Flowcharts Work?


Flowcharts are part of the process map family. The process mapping technique was invented in the late 1800s by Frank Bunker Gilbert, an industrial engineer.

Value stream maps tend to describe the core set of principles driving the supplier-customer flow in a birds-eye view, expressed as capacity, lead times, etc. Flowcharts, on the other hand, are usually created to describe a well-defined context, for instance, a quality assurance process, a recommended software routine, etc.

You can think of flowcharts as advanced step-by-step diagrams to approaching a problem, a task, a process, a system, or an algorithm.

In Lean and Six Sigma, flowcharts are used to depict process actions and decisions along with the order they’re required to happen in, to achieve an end product. Charts represent actions as different shapes that flow from top to bottom or left to right, with the occasional use of swimlanes (rows), representing various responsibilities. The use of shapes makes flowcharts more concise than a written narrative, and it often helps to transcend language and other communication barriers.

Why use flowcharts?

A fundamental principle of Lean is to visualize work. Doing that in a flowchart makes for a better understanding of what is coming next in the process. This helps with identifying bottlenecks and potential rework areas, both of which can decrease the total value to customers and increase waste.

Flowcharts are used in Lean not only to model the present - also to find improvement opportunities. Having an as-is chart and then mapping a future state can help to convey the changes that will need to take place, the improvements that will follow, and whether everyone has the right grasp of the plan. Flowcharts are useful in every phase of a Lean project lifecycle: Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control.

Flowcharts can also be used as validators or toll gates in your company. If the team would like to change or update a process, leaders could request that one of the outputs is an updated flowchart, depicting the benefits and changes that would transpire with the new process approval.

What symbols are used in flowcharts?

  • Process - the most commonly used symbol in flowcharts, denotes an action within the process. It signals that there is some form of work occurring here, it often contains a title for that specific work.
    Flowchart symbols - process

  • Subprocess - used for a subprocess of a procedure that is already documented somewhere else. It informs team members that more than one step is occurring here and that the full steps are documented somewhere else - under another process map or a standard operating procedure. The symbol should only be used if the subprocess it refers to has been documented.
    Flowchart symbols - subprocess

  • Decision - this is how to mark a point in a process, at which a decision needs to be made. Typically, the decision revolves around a go/no go choice, approval of one thing or another such as the verification of a condition or a situational branching of the process.
    Flowchart symbols - decision

  • Terminator - marks where the process begins and ends. Especially useful when a flowchart spans multiple pages. The terminator shape is sometimes inclusive of a trigger that starts the rest of the process.
    Flowchart symbols - terminator

  • Preparation - a hexagon indicates that a step in the process is in preparation for something else, e.g. the deployment of a new software package, in order to test it.
    Flowchart symbols - preparation

  • Manual Operation - useful specifically where most of the actions are automated or electronic, i.e. in motor vehicle manufacturing, to show which part of the line is operated by humans and which by robots. Remember, in Lean, we are happy with machines waiting on humans but not the other way around.
    Flowchart symbols - manual operation

  • Delay - points to where a waiting time occurs. The shape can help you identify potential waste occurring in your process, e.g. stemming from batch sizing or bottlenecks building upstream from this stage.
    Flowchart symbols - delay

  • Connector - marks a jump from one process to another. It can be used to indicate that an inspection or an audit has occurred and required including a part of another process.
    Flowchart symbols - connector

  • Document & Multi-Document - show that a step in your flow will create a document or multiple documents i.e. as part of a batch process.
    Flowchart symbols - document

  • Display - indicates where information within a process is being displayed as part of the process itself, i.e. a login verification or notification shown to a manager for timesheets approval.
    Flowchart symbols - display

  • Data - used to show where inputs and outputs are going in or coming out of a process, for instance, a user starting a motor, or switching on the power, etc.
    Flowchart symbols - data

  • Manual Input - used to present a step that involves manual entry of information by a person, typically using a machine.
    Flowchart symbols - manual input

  • Or - it’s different from the diamond decision shape, in that it indicates a branching of the process, usually in more than two directions.
    Flowchart symbols - or

  • Merge - given that processes can branch off, based on decision/or shapes, they might also come back together. When multiple branches of a workflow come back together, you can indicate this with a merged shape.
    Flowchart symbols - merge

  • Collate Data - used when data or material in a process has to be collected and organized in a standard format, e.g. the assembly of data required to prepare for a Sprint or a Kanban retrospective.
    Flowchart symbols - collate data

  • Sort Data - used to indicate that information or materials must be arranged in a specific order, i.e. sorting materials by color before moving to the next step in a manufacturing process, or sorting a Sprint backlog by priority.
    Flowchart symbols - sort data

How to create a flowchart?

While knowing these shapes could very well be all you need to build a chart, do consider the below key points, to ensure your flowchart is an accurate depiction of the process, as seen by all involved.

Step 1: Define your process

Along with deciding the process scope and naming the involved parties.

Step 2: List the process steps

Maintain the order that they are going to present in. In many cases, this will require you to take trips across the office floor to see how an item is processed.

Step 3: Translate steps into shapes in a diagram

Use the available shapes to visualize your flow. Most people using these will be familiar with the shapes’ meaning, but it’s best to include a key, to eliminate misunderstandings.

Step 4: Share the chart with the team

Grab your chart and ask the team for verification - did you miss anything, did you get anything wrong, have they got anything to add? It’s not always easy to be objective, so do ask others for input.

Example Below is a flowchart showing a very basic software request being processed.

Flowcharts - basic example