Although business flowcharts can be very complex, the general rules behind them are simple. You begin at the oval symbol at the top, labeled “Start,” and perform the actions described in each connected box symbol. Continue by following the line connecting the symbols. You make a decision at the diamond shape and proceed with each action until you see an oval marked “Stop” or “End.”
Purpose of a Flowchart
Flowcharts serve a few different needs. They document a process in clear detail, allowing others to understand and perform the various actions needed. As documentation, they communicate the exact steps in a business process.
You can create a flowchart to document a process already in place or use it to brainstorm one you are developing for the first time. It is much easier to work through and edit a flowchart on paper or a computer screen than to revamp a business process once it is established.
Flowcharts for Other Purposes
In addition to communicating processes among workers in your business, a flowchart can document business procedures for an auditor or can show a new process to an investor. It pays, however, to manage your flowcharts carefully and even keep them under lock and key, as they may contain crucial trade secrets you might not want competitors to know.
Flowchart Symbols Examples
Most flowcharts consist of simple geometric symbols — ovals, rectangles, diamonds — connected together with straight lines. Inside each symbol, a written action describes what to do at that point. For example, an elongated oval indicates a terminal symbol, and it contains the word “Start,” meaning you start there. A rectangular box underneath the oval might contain the instruction, “Ask customer for name and account number.” You do the action and go to the next symbol until you see another oval that says, “Stop.”
The Decision Diamond
The simplest flowcharts consist of only actions. More often, however, they must include a comparison or decision. To handle this, you use a four-pointed diamond with a question written in it. The diamond allows two or three simple answers such as yes or no. The process flows from previous steps into the top of the diamond. One branch of the process leads off the “yes” answer point, typically to the right, and another leads off the “no” point, which leads straight down.
Of course, some questions have more than two answers. A four-pointed diamond can handle up to three: one leads to the right, one to the left, and one to the bottom. To accommodate more than three, you usually “stack” diamonds, one on top of the other. The bottom of one connects to the top of the next. Each additional diamond handles up to three more answers or choices.
More Flowchart Symbols and Meaning
You might see symbols other than the three basic ones depending on the complexity of the chart. For example, a circle typically indicates an off-page connector for flowcharts that are too big to fit on a single page. A right-pointing pentagon leads from an off-page connector to the current page, and both the circle and the pentagon contain the same letter or number, allowing you to follow the flow.
Symbols may vary depending on for what the chart is used. For example, the information technology field has special symbols for disk storage, paper hard copy and manual data entry. You may create your own custom symbols to indicate steps that are unique to your business.
Understand Flowchart Rules
When creating your own flowchart, use a top-down and left-to-right flow direction wherever possible. In some instances, such as continuing a process from the bottom of one page to the top of another, you have to reverse the preferred direction.
Always put arrowheads on lines that reverse the typical direction. For better clarity of the process flow, use arrowheads on all lines. For flows that may go in either direction, use a line with two arrowheads.
Tools of the Trade
To make a flowchart, you can choose from a variety of tools. You can dash out a quick-and-dirty chart with pencil and paper to discuss some process ideas at a business lunch. You can buy inexpensive symbol templates to make your handmade charts a little neater.
You can also find a variety of stand-alone apps and online software to draw flowcharts on your office PC or laptop. Popular software titles include Gliffy, Microsoft’s Visio and Lucid Software’s Lucidchart.
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