Weekly Working Secret: The Flow Chart

If it is all about FLOW, then this must be an important tool, but before we begin, lets agree on one thing:

You cannot model reality in every detail.


The beauty of the secrets I share are in their simplicity and elegance: only as complicated as is needed and no more.

Simple Flow Charts

Definition:

A flowchart is a drawing of how something flows from from beginning to end, or from where you choose to begin or end it. A simple but powerful visual tool for helping you think about how to do it better. It is one of the first tools turned to when trying to solve recurring problems, problems built into how the process is designed.

As all processes are made up of interrelated steps, a flow chart is a great little tool for understanding the steps, and the interrelations, but, you have to build them from direct observation where the work is done, not based on what people say is being done.

Simple flowcharts show each step in the process in sequence, through doodles, drawings or symbols. They need not be fancy, only effective.

Discussion:​

​Flow charts are a visual representation. Few processes flow smoothly without some help. Chaos has a way of sticking it's little foot into everything. Like with a stream, there are always bends and curves, rocks and tree-trunks that get in the way. In order to become more effective, things that block the flow need to be found, understood, fixed or eliminated. Every step in a process costs money, even the one's that are redundant, unnecessary and wasteful. Flow charts help us make things easier to see, things like:

  • ​Things that slow or stop the flow:
  • Decision points, or forks in the road
  • Overly complicated processes
  • Less than wonderful layout or design
  • Hidden links to the overall system

Luckily for us, the kind people who like to make rules have already laid down some guidelines on making flow charts. (See ISO) Generally, ovals mark beginnings or ends, rectangles steps and diamonds decisions, usually yes or no kind of decisions, or forks in the road. Many processes can be modeled with just these, but people being people, we are forever creating diversions to keep us busy and feel in control. Parallelograms as storage points, as in inventory, knowledge, etc, I have found to be useful every once in a while.

I use post-its® much of the time to create charts. Using post-its®, I skip the ovals, fold in half to make the storage, put up square for steps, and turned 90% to make diamonds, the decision points.

To make them I start with SimplyLooking™, writing down a list of all the steps I can see, then discussing it with the people who are actually doing it, I write each step on a post-it, and with their help, arrange them in order, then talk about it. You can call it a Japanese word if it makes you feel better, but looking at things and talking about them is an old tradition, and there is something wonderful about it.

Examples​

An example of some wonderful people making their own flow charts of their processes, never having made flow charts before, is the featured image of this post.

And here is an example from a flow chart done of a process of how a company decided it wanted choose which project to work on first, on the front cover my book.

If you are interested you can get it from the kindle store by pushing the button.

You'll notice in this case the client didn't even use a diamond for decision points, as he was using a white board. What matters is the insight, not the tool.

​Then you look at the chart, keep an open mind and look for the obvious, the low hanging fruit, things like

  • ​Things that slow or stop the flow:
  • Duplication of work
  • Overly complicated processes
  • Less than wonderful layout or design

And here are two more examples of flow charts, one that looks at a familiar problem, and another that looks at the flow of traffic in an office...

Flow Charts

Flow Chart Examples (Notice the first one uses the parallelogram in an odd way.)

About the Author

Dan Strongin works with medium to small companies, helping them master the art and science of managing.