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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.