AN INTRODUCTION TO FLOWCHART

All you need to know about flowcharts—what they are and how to use them.

Flowchart Example - Sales Process Map

OVERVIEW

In simple terms, flowchart or flow chart, is a type of diagram that describe processes. These diagrams compose of blocks, often rectangular, connected by arrows. The blocks contain information of a step in a process. In such way, the blocks help keep the information of a process concise. Flowlines, in turn, serve to signify the direction or flow of the steps in a given process.

Here’s a quick example: let’s say you need to write up the instruction of the first step to clean your home, which is deciding whether to throw away or keep an item (courtesy of Marie Condo’s cleaning method). Here would be the text-only instruction and the same instruction presented with the help of flowchart:

INSTRUCTION: Follow the following steps. First, pick up an item, then ask yourself: “Does this item spark joy for me?”. If the answer is Yes, the keep the item. If the answer is No, then discard the item. Then, repeat the process until you have gone through all of your items.

Flowchart Example - Marie Condo Method

This is only a made-up scenario, and in which case, flowchart is not that helpful because the text-based instruction is already quite easy to follow. But as you can imagine, for processes with numerous steps and complex rules, flowchart can be a powerful tool to describe processes clearly and concisely.

Since its invention, flowchart has expanded its usage to different functions and industries, with various types serving specific purposes. Alternate names for “flowchart” may include process flowchart, functional flowchart, process map, process chart, functional process chart, business process model, process model, process flow diagram, work flow diagram, business flow diagram, etc.

WHEN TO USE A FLOWCHART?

Flowchart is a very simple yet powerful tool to improve productivity in both our personal and work life. Here are some ways flowchart can be helpful:

  • Document a process
  • Present a solution
  • Brainstorm an idea
  • Design a system
  • Explain a decision making process
  • Store information

HISTORY

It is not clear who was the true inventor of flowcharts, but the first standardized documentation on flowchart was first introduced by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. In 1921, the couple presented the graphic-based method in a presentation titled: “Process Charts: First Steps in Finding the One Best Way to do Work”, to members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

After that, in 1930s, Allan H. Mogensen, an industrial engineer trained some participants in his Work Simplification Conferences in New York. Participants from this conference such as Art Spinanger and Ben Grahamthen began to use flowchart in their respective fields, which helped propagate the usage of flowchart.

In 1947, ASME adopted a symbol set derived from Gilbreth’s original work as the “ASME Standard: Operation and Flow Process Charts.”

In the year 1949, flowchart began to be used for planning computer programs and quickly became one of the most popular tools in designing computer algorithms and programs. Nowadays, flowchart is an important productivity tool, serving employees in various industries and functions.

Flowchart Inventor - Lillian and Frank Gilbreth
Lillian and Frank Gilbreth
Flowchart Discussion - Allan Herbert Mogensen and Ben Graham
Allan Mogensen (left) and Ben Graham

MAIN COMPONENTS / SYMBOLS

Flowchart is a very intuitive method to describe processes. As such, in most cases, you don’t need to worry too much about the standards and rules of all the flowchart symbols. In fact, a simple flowchart, constructed with just rectangular blocks and flowlines, can already get most jobs done.

However, if you want to get technical and precise, there are preset rules and standards you can follow. Specifically, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) set standards for flowcharts and their symbols in the 1960s. Afterwards, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted the ANSI symbols in 1970. In general, flowcharts flow from top to bottom and left to right.

Shape Name Description
Flowchart Symbol - Flowline Flowline Shows the process’ direction. Each flowline connects two blocks.
Flowchart Symbol - Terminal Terminal Shows the process’ direction. Each flowline connects two blocks.
Flowchart Symbol - Process Process Represent a step in a process. This is the most common component of a flowchart.
Flowchart Symbol - Decision Decision Shows a step that decides the next step in a process. This is commonly a yes/no or true/false question.
Flowchart Symbol - Input Output Input/Output Indicates the process of inputting or outputting external data.
Flowchart Symbol - Annotation Annotation / Comment Indicates additional information regarding a step in a process.
Predefined Process Predefined Process Shows named process which is defined elsewhere.
On-page Connector On-page Connector Pairs of on-page connecter are used to replace long lines on a flowchart page.
Off-page Connector Off-page Connector An off-page connector is used when the target is on another page.
Flowchart Symbol - Delay Delay Any delay period that is part of a process
Flowchart Symbol - Alternate Process Alternate process An alternate to the normal process step. Flow lines to an alternate process block is usually dashed.
Flowchart Symbol - Data Data Data input or output
Flowchart Symbol - Document Document A document
Multi-document Symbol Multi-document Multiple documents
Flowchart Symbol - Preparation Preparation A preparation step
Symbol Display Display A machine display
Symbol Manual Input Manual input Manually input data or information into a system
Flowchart Symbol - Manual Operation Manual operation A process step that isn’t automated

HOW TO CREATE A FLOWCHART

1. Map out major steps

Start drawing several major blocks that represent the most important steps in your process. Don’t worry about the details for now. Flowchart is actually a great tool for brainstorming, which means you don’t need to have every detail of the chart worked out before drawing the diagram. In most cases, you can start with the starting block, and continue working your way through the end of the process. Because flowcharts are read left to right and top to bottom, start your first node at the top left corner of your workspace.

2. Key in details

Fill in the remaining steps. We recommend working in the natural order of the process. An optional step here is to style your chart with different shapes and color to make it easier to follow.

3. Test your result

Work through all the steps in your chart to make sure they are clear and exhaustive, and that there is no open-ended node remained. When there is a decision point, make sure the options cover all possible scenarios.

4. Gather feedback

Share a draft of the flowchart and get feedback from the intended users. If the chart is meant just for yourself then you can skip this step. But if the chart is meant for a team or a group of people, then it’s important to get their feedback to make sure that your flowchart is accurate and helpful.

5. Publish the flowchart

Flowcharts should be made easily accessible to all parties involved. So make sure you publish your work in the right place. Our flowchart software Zen Flowchart has a handy publishing feature, which allows you to publish and share your flowcharts. Any future updates you make to the document will automatically be updated.

TYPES OF FLOWCHART

From the basic flowchart, we have seen its proliferation into other variations to serve specific functions and industries. Here are some types of flowchart you may come across:

  • Process Flowchart
  • Process Map
  • A Process Flow Diagram
  • Workflow Chart
  • Workflow Diagram

Data Flow Diagram

A type of diagram that represents the flow of data in a process or system.

Swimlane Flowchart

A flowchart with the addition of swimlane component, which helps organize the nodes of a chart into the appropriate party or team. Each lane will only contains the steps involving a single party. For example, for a hiring process that involves multiple teams, a standard flowchart may be reorganized into different lanes involving different teams to better view the division of task and handover points in a process.

swimlane flowchart

EPC Diagram

EPC diagrams, or event-driven process chain diagrams, are used to document or plan business processes. This standard was developed within the framework of Architecture of Integrated Information Systems (ARIS) by August-Wilhelm Scheer.

SDL Diagram

SDL diagrams, or specification and description language diagrams are used to describe specifications of a system. In comparison to UML, SDL diagrams deal with the detailed aspects of a system, whereas UML deals with a more abstract level.

UML activity diagrams / Activity Diagrams

UML is a standardized modeling language used to visualize the design of a system. It is often used in the field of software engineering. You can view full specification here.

TOOLS TO CREATE FLOWCHARTS

You can use just some pen and paper to start drawing a flowchart. However, these days, there are many flowchart maker software available to create flowcharts effortlessly. Here’s a full list of flowchart tools which may help serve your needs:

FLOWCHART EXAMPLES & TEMPLATES

Flowchart Example - System Flowchart

Git Branches System Flowchart


Flowchart Example - Process Flowchart

Hiring Process Flowchart


Flowchart Example - Sales Process Map

Simple Sales Process Map


Flowchart Example - Org Chart

Org Chart


Flowchart Example - Algorithm Flow

Algorithm Flow Chart

OUR APPROACH TO FLOWCHART

At Zen Flowchart, we believe that flowchart is a powerful tool which can help people and teams design and document their processes.

We also think that current flowchart makers can have a high learning curve which prevent new users from accessing it. So in designing our tool, we wanted to create a tool that is highly intuitive and can be used without training. To do that, we made some radical changes to our product:

  • Firstly, we start with a single rectangular shape. We believe that in most flowchart use cases, having one type of shape is enough.
  • Boundless workspace: as we leap into the digital age, we did away with the concept of page and page size. So you’re free to design your chart in whichever way you prefer.
  • Focus on Publish feature: flowcharts are often meant to be shared among teams, so we designed the Publish feature so you can easily share your work. The published document update any changes you make, so you don’t need to reshare.

Zen Flowchart is the simplest tool to create flowcharts.