Flowcharts – What They Are and How to Use Them

Many of us use flowcharts in our daily work – indeed the creation and deployment of a flowchart is one of the most common tasks in business today. But what do we mean by a flowchart, and what is it supposed to do?

Well, flowcharts can be used to analyze, design, document or manage a process in a wide variety of fields. Examples could include a Recruitment or Accounting process, the logical procedure within a piece of software, or a process in an organization such as Health & Safety, Equal Opportunities, Conciliation & Arbitration or Social Services. There are several derivatives of the basic flowchart including the Workflow Diagram,

A flowchart could be defined as a pictorial representation of a process in which the steps are symbolized by shapes – in other words a diagram that explains the steps in a procedure. Each shape should link to its neighbour by a connector line, and often these have arrow heads to describe the direction of flow.

Each flowchart should ideally begin with a Terminator shape, from which the next step should be linked. Each shape should be indicative of a specific stage in the process and there are conventions for each of these, the most common being the rectangular “Process” shape. Many others exist, however, including shapes representing Data, Documents and Decisions. Decision shapes are diamonds, each of the four corners (or nodes) being either a link from the preceding shape or action to be taken in the next stage depending on the decision.

Flowcharts can be quickly created in many computer software programs; even recent versions of Microsoft Word and PowerPoint contain Smart Shapes that allow users to rapidly insert a flowchart into a document of presentation. Specialist Flowchart Diagramming software also exists but for sheer versatility and the ability to connect data to shapes I would put my money on Microsoft Visio. It has a huge range of ready-made stencils containing all the shapes you could possibly need (and the ability to create your own if you wish), and very slick automatic connection features. Visio also allow a flowchart that dexcribes one process to become part of a larger process and to integrate with it via a hyperlink from a button on the drawing page.

Microsoft Office Themes can be applied to the drawing to give a uniform and more professional look, and different colour schemes can be applied to each page of the drawing to distinguish the various sub-processes for clarity. For examples, see our video tutorial at Visio-Tutorial.