Flow Charts: Why and How

You cannot begin to improve a process until you know exactly what the process is to start. Without a thorough (and accurate!) understanding of your current state, any changes you make in the name of improvement may be a complete waste of time, or worse, may actually reduce your overall efficiency by creating new problems in adjacent areas. You may have the urge to avoid creating a flow chart because it seems too complicated. And that’s exactly why you should tackle one.


A complicated flow chart indicates a complicated process. The more complicated the process, the more room there is for waste and error and, ultimately, more room for improvement. Your flow chart will create a visual depiction for you to use as your guide to simplify “how things get done.” Certainly, there may be a good reason for the steps in any process no matter how complicated they are, but until you chart them, you’ll struggle to get a handle on them and then improve them. You will also find that creating flow charts is a great way to uncover bottlenecks. (See more about bottlenecks in previous issues: Understanding and Identifying Bottlenecks, 5 Steps to Alleviating Constraints, and Fixing Bottlenecks with Tools You Have.)


You may want to start with a flow chart of the view from ten thousand feet that provides an overview of the entire company. Consider the number of departments and processes that occur from the time an order comes in the door until it is in the hands of your customer. The greater that number, the greater the need to start with a broad overview flow chart followed by more detailed charts that depict individual departments and processes.


There are basic shapes that represent different meanings on a flow chart. While there are dozens of flowchart symbols, these few can handle the majority of the creation of any flow chart (and remember, the key is simplicity):

  • Oval = start or end of the process
  • Rectangle = process step
  • Diamond = decision point
  • Circle = connector to a different section of the chart or different chart (used to keep your charts from becoming too cumbersome)
  • Parallelogram = input or output of required data

 

Here’s an example of a simple flow chart for a printing company’s initial process:


 

In this case, the circle “B” connects to a companion chart for the next step in the process; in this case, it’s platemaking. And this chart represents a broad overview; no doubt, there are several in-depth processes embedded in the “produce layout” step that should also be flow charted in greater detail.


Starting with a simple chart as an overview for any department (or the entire company) helps you pinpoint where you need to be more specific, as with the “produce layout” step in the example. Once you get to more detailed charts, wasted steps become more obvious, especially when you have many sequential process steps or rectangles. In our example, we may want to explore if the pre-flighting segment is really necessary. It may be needed, or it may be left over from older processes and outdated technologies and can be excised, saving time and expediting the workflow.
When you’re ready to start creating your flow chart(s), be certain you include those employees who are responsible for the processes. They’re the ones who know the steps and are intimately involved on a daily basis. You may also want to consider gaining input from those upstream and downstream if you’re charting a single department or process. And don’t get too wrapped up in using flow chart software from the start. Consider using sticky notes on a white board, so you can easily re-arrange and add the steps as needed. It’s a rare flow chart that doesn’t go together without the need to re-arrange and re-organize!


Finally, be honest and don’t worry if your flow chart feels complicated. It’s probably a great indicator that you have plenty of room for improvement and streamlining!

 

You can also contact the team at MPower, so we can help review your process and look for ways to help you improve.