What Is Flow Charting?

by Rhonda Campbell

Flow charts allow you to connect the steps in a process so that others can understand what the process entails. A clearly designed flow chart will be easy to follow and understand by people who have no prior knowledge of the process or project that you are working on. Another good way to think of a flow chart is to imagine a building blueprint. When accurately followed, a flow chart can link action steps for large projects and help to bring an ongoing initiative, like an acquisition or merger, to a successful conclusion.

Flow Chart Achievement

Project managers, developers and designers create flow charts at the start of a deliverable. Tasks that require five or more specific action steps are best suited for flow charting. The charts can be drawn using a pencil or using a software application like Smart Draw, Flow Breeze, Flow Chart Maker, Microsoft or Mac Word or Excel. The diagrammatic designs clearly show and explain each step of a project or task briefly yet with enough detail for anyone who reads the chart to know what is required next.

Structure

The initial step involved in designing a flow chart is jotting down in one to eight words the first action items in the project. For example, if you were creating a flow chart on how to write a novel in a year, you could begin with "Create Characters," "Define Setting," or "Finish a Chapter a Week." The next step in creating a flow chart is identifying the people who will start, review and finish each step of the project. Going back to writing a novel in a year, you could assign your sister to create the names and sketches for each character and your mother to pick the location for where the book will be set. Each step should be created in chronological order.

Symbols and Shapes

Action steps and the names of persons or departments responsible for completing the action steps are typed or written inside shapes like triangles, boxes or rectangles. Larger action steps are best framed inside larger shapes. If you create your flow chart using a software application, the shapes might be called "AutoShapes". Microsoft Excel has 27 AutoShapes that you can use to create your flow chart with. Charts that are created with lots of white space between the symbols are typically easier to read and follow. A flow chart crammed with symbols might be a sign that the actions have not been thought out thoroughly enough. In these instances, redefine the action steps so that the project flows easily and with clarity from step to step.

Connecting Lines

After the action steps are identified and symbols or shapes are drawn, connecting lines are added to the chart. Think of a connecting line like a number or a letter in an outline. Below the first action step will be the first connecting line. Generally a downward arrow or a straight line is used as a connector. Each shape is joined to another shape or action step with a connecting line. Arrows are good because they are easy to follow and show the direction that the action steps flow in. Software applications allow you to click and drag connecting lines to the area on the flow chart where you want to join a set of action steps.

Limitations

Flow charts require that you list the details of a project or plan in a small space. Entrepreneurs or project managers who are accustomed to writing out long, detailed action steps may find using a flow chart too limiting. If flow charts are going to be printed and shared with an organization's decision makers, the number of steps and shapes might have to be decreased in order to print the chart on a standard sheet of paper.

Benefits

A flow chart is an excellent tool to use to measure your preparedness to deliver a project. The tool is also effective at surfacing gaps in a process. This alone can prevent a person or a business from spending hundreds, thousands or even millions of dollars before realizing that a project will either not work or even if it does work, that the project will not yield enough return on investment (ROI) to be worthwhile.

About the Author

Rhonda Campbell is an entrepreneur, radio host and author. She has more than 17 years of business, human resources and project management experience and decades of book, newspaper, magazine, radio and business writing experience. Her works have appeared in leading periodicals like "Madame Noire," "Halogen TV," "The Network Journal," "Essence," "Your Church Magazine," "The Trenton Times," "Pittsburgh Quarterly" and "New Citizens Press."

Photo Credits

  • photo_camera http://english.unitecnology.ac.nz/resources/units/pathways/flow_chart.gif