A well-designed flowchart can provide brilliant insights to identify roadblocks and ways to improve a business.
Cross functional flowcharts can be used to clarify the overall business processes: how the company works, who is responsible for each process, and how a process flows across different roles and departments. They are also great for linking procedures or work instructions to show how they fit together. However, often flowcharts become too complex and difficult to follow, and they cause confusion rather than provide clarity. Here are 10 tips for making easy-to-follow flowcharts.
Tip 1 Start at top left and flow to bottom right
Aim to make your flowchart flow from left to right and top to bottom, minimising crossing of paths. Put the first step in the top left column. This means that the person or role (or department) that starts the process needs to be in the top row (or left column, depending on whether your roles run across the top or down the side).
For the Breakdown Maintenance process shown above, the process starts with Operations in the top row, as they are the ones who identify a breakdown. Unless the breakdown has a priority of less than 3, the Supervisor is next to become involved, so they go in the second row, allowing your flowchart to run across, then down the page.
Tip 2 Minimise words
Describe the steps in a minimum of words. One way to do this is to make every step a command, or, if it is a decision box, a question. If your steps are wordy, you can’t fit them in a reasonably-sized text box unless you make the text tiny, which then makes it difficult to read. You can also use well-known abbreviations or acronyms but be sure they are acronyms known to the intended audience.
Note the concise wording in the example above: “Raise WO” (Work Order), “Make safe and put back into operation”. And the decision boxes: “Priority >3?”, “Permanent fix possible?”
Tip 3 Keep to the same level of detail
Often you’re creating a flowchart because the process is complex and has many levels of detail, but you want to represent an overall process. Each shape in a flowchart could theoretically be expanded into multiple steps, but with a flowchart you need to condense those steps into a simple action, so that you don’t obscure the forest with the trees. What you want to show is the lay of the land, so you need to keep to a helicopter view throughout the flowchart.
For example, “Raise a WO” might involve logging in, entering information into several fields and saving the Work Order. However, adding that information would unnecessarily complicate and lengthen the flowchart. It could instead be covered in a Work Instruction specifically aimed at operations staff or examined in a separate flowchart.
Tip 4 Use a larger font size
Select or adjust the font size so that it is legible. If you use concise language, you’ll have the space to enlarge text enough so that people don’t need to squint to read it. I’ve seen many inscrutable flowcharts with a paragraph inside each shape and shrunken text that would need a magnifying glass to read.
Tip 5 Minimise lines that cross
Experiment with moving boxes up and down and rearranging the rows or columns so that you can align shapes without crossing lines. Be prepared to rearrange multiple times. This is like a puzzle and can take time. It takes skill to make a complex process look simple, but when you get it right, it’s rewarding.
Tip 6 Keep to 1 page
When you have a complex process, it’s tricky, and not always possible to keep the flowchart to 1 page. You may need to reduce space between shapes, change orientation between portrait and landscape or even print on a larger page, say, A3. If you do need to use more than 1 page, try to make the transition between pages at a logical point.
Keeping your wording concise, or summarising several steps in the one shape, if they are performed by the same role, can also help contain the size of the flowchart.
Another option is to break the flowchart into 2, or several, sequential charts as per the next tip.
Tip 7 Separate monster processes into smaller ones
Some people don’t like flowcharts because the ones they’ve been presented with are monsters. When they try to understand them, the mind boggles. Don’t try to put everything on one chart. Break them into layers of complexity and each layer into a few charts. For example, for the maintenance process, you can divide a huge flowchart into planned maintenance, corrective maintenance and breakdown maintenance.
Tip 7 Use colour to convey relationships
Check out the flowchart below. It was used to describe the design process for renewal infrastructure projects. Untangling of the threads was necessary even before drawing the flowchart, as we needed to identify the 4 different types of projects before determining how each type was managed. As it is still a relatively complex process, colour has been used to help those viewing it to follow it.
You’ll notice that the different players, or roles, have been indicated using colour, with scoping and design steps shown in blue, the client SWC, shown in bright pink, and checks by engineers shown in pale orange. Since it is not easy to convey three dimensions on a 2D surface, colour adds that extra dimension and it is visual – you instinctively follow the grouping without a key to explain it.
Tip 7 Avoid decision diamonds when possible
Sometimes you need decision diamonds, but they always complicate a flowchart and make it bigger. To get around it, sometimes you can describe the different flows by writing them on the arrows rather than a separate diamond. Consider whether the decision is really required. If it doesn’t meet the condition and the process consequently ends, then that may be self-evident and stating the obvious may simply clutter the flow.
Tip 10 Use a title that summarises the process
Don’t forget to title your flowchart and make sure it’s apt. The first question people will ask is “What am I looking at?” The title needs to explain in a few words what the flowchart shows. The first example “Breakdown Maintenance” shows the path followed for the process followed by maintenance if there’s a breakdown. The second example “Design Path Flowchart” shows the path followed for different complexities of designs from request to handover.
A well-designed flowchart takes time and effort but can be a work of art that simplifies a complex process. A series of flowcharts can define a company’s entire operations, providing the foundation for improving processes and creating an efficient, rewarding business.
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