Flowcharts provide a visual representation of an organization's processes.

Flowcharts provide a graphical representation of the steps within a process. But flowcharts are much more than just a visual depiction of a process; they're a mixture of things-a simplification of process steps, a means to communicate processes to employees, a tool to help to highlight and root out unnecessary steps in a process, and a roadmap for process improvement.

Paul Stannard, CEO of SmartDraw.com (San Diego), says one of the biggest benefits of flowcharts is their ability to be a communications tool. "Most people, if they see a multi-step process reduced to a simple flowchart, they can understand it and see the big picture better than if someone described it to them," he says.

David Best, development director of Proquis Inc. (Des Plaines, IL), agrees. "One of the problems that many companies have is in actually understanding all of the different steps of their process, and documented procedures can help with that," he says. "But if people can visualize a process, then it's much easier to communicate those processes, to understand those processes and to ensure that things are not missed."

According to SmartDraw.com, flowcharts have several benefits: to identify all tasks in a process; determine the boundaries of a process; reveal redundancies; identify bottlenecks; identify unnecessary steps; compare and contrast the actual work flow of a process with an ideal flow; and help train employees.

Avoid the spaghetti

Clarity is the key to making accurate and informative flowcharts, says Stannard. He says flowcharts can help companies think through the actual steps of the process, "but if you start and have never documented this before or thought about it, and you start putting down the steps, you might find that your flowchart may look like spaghetti after a while."

A chart that looks like a plate of spaghetti serves as a sign that processes are not represented in a clear manner, and Stannard suggests reorganizing flowcharts so their progression remains simple. Build the flowcharts from left to right and top to bottom, and avoid confusion by trying not to cross lines that link processes.

Stannard suggests that a hierarchy approach be used to document complex processes to make flowcharts readable. The first layer should flowchart the big picture. If an automobile is being manufactured, for example, it would be inappropriate to document, in full detail, every step that goes into the manufacturing process in the first layer. Begin with a big picture flowchart and then break down each process in its own flowchart. Some software programs allow users to drill down to subsequent levels of the process. "In general if you're trying to understand the big picture of manufacturing a car, you don't want to know how many coats of primer are put on," says Stannard. "You want the big picture and you actually get more information out of seeing the big picture."

Good design rules, such as consistent use of symbols in a standard size, help keep flowcharts readable. For example, if a rectangle is used to represent one of the steps in a process, use a rectangle for all equivalent steps. Shape and color can be used for effective communication as well. If certain steps are outsourced those could be colored blue while the steps that are done in-house could be colored red, thereby quickly identifying the steps done in-house vs. the steps that are outsourced.

People also are key to successful flowcharts. Best says that a newcomer cannot be expected to understand an organization's process map, but these are the people who can help create process maps. "Once you've got the processes mapped as they currently stand, then I think you need a questioning mind to say, ‘Well, why do we do that?' It's very easy to say that we've always done it that way. You need some people that are going to challenge the status quo and that are going to ask the difficult questions."

Ease of use plays an important role in flowcharts. In a society that wants tomorrow's answers yesterday, long gone are the days of extensive training. Software users want programs that can be used right out of the gate with little or no training.

Stannard is fully aware of this. "Our whole model rests on it," he says. "If somebody comes to our Web site and downloads a trial of our product, they have no documentation. If they can't use the product to do something useful in a few minutes, they're not going to buy it. Nobody has the time to invest these days in learning something complicated. They want instant gratification."

Not only should a program be easy to use, but making modifications to a flowchart should be easy as well. "You can create a very large diagram, and if you're anything like me," Best says, "you realize that you missed some steps when you're halfway down page three. And what you need to do is go back to page one, insert some additional steps, without having then to redraw the whole diagram."

Best says some software is able to accomplish this because it understands the logic of the process. "By that I mean the connection from one step to the next," he explains, "so when a step or series of steps is added, diagrams are automatically adjusted."

Often, flowcharting software must do more than draw flowcharts. Some software packages have the added benefits of analysis and simulation tools.

"One of the things some software can do is assign data elements behind each of the steps of the process," explains Best. "They may be costs, time, people-there's a whole variety of things you can assign behind these steps, and then have software analyze that process. The software will summarize all of that data so you can look for the optimal route-the critical path through the process. Fairly immediately, you can identify paths that need to be investigated more carefully." It is these paths that can lead to process improvement.

Some programs also allow for simulation of processes, identifying a potential mistake before it happens, saving a company time and money.

Future of flowcharts

Some software goes beyond drawing businesses processes and generates a description of a business process. Stannard says with the advent of Web services and service-oriented architecture, computer systems of large companies can conduct business with each other, thereby eliminating human involvement.

"The software allows you to draw a business process and behind each symbol is a set of code and when you export the code, you get a script-essentially a program-that can run on a business process engine," explains Stannard. "So we go from drawing business processes as a communications tool to drawing business processes or flowcharts that actually run on a real computer in the real world. It becomes a programming interface to business."

Best says his company's development drive is to move the software technology onto workflow. "What I see as the future of our flowcharting software is it beginning to extend the boundaries and functionality so you can map your process, you can analyze, you can simulate, but then you can connect that process to your real operation. If you can do that, then you're moving into the area of workflow. You're allowing your employees to view a process on the screen, to follow that through to understand which steps are often following and to have that connected directly to the various other applications within the organization."

Flowchart software continues to evolve. In the future, flowcharts will be more than just a diagram of how the steps of a processes are connected, it may provide a more detailed map of a process even as the work flows through that process.

Sidebar: Tech tips

• Flowcharts provide a graphical representation of all the steps in a process.

• Flowcharts can help identify opportunities for process improvement.

• The future of flowcharts is to connect them to real-world processes.