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How to Create a Basic Flowchart

Joshua earned an MBA from USF and he writes mostly about software and technology.

How to Plan a Flowchart

Creating a flowchart for a process can be easier than you think. You just have to have the right tools and a little imagination. To download a spreadsheet with flowchart tools, click here. The file contains all of the basic symbols that most professionals will be able to read and understand. There are over 80 symbols that you could use, but there's no use in learning them if your viewers don't know what they stand for. So having said that, the file contains the most popular symbols.

Before starting, you just have to know how descriptive you want to be. Charting large processes with a lot of details can be painstaking. Drawing a chart a few times by hand before using electronic tools is recommended.

Flowcharts are diagrams that represent the start to finish of how a workflow, process, or algorithm works. These charts are used for documenting, designing, and analyzing in all areas of business.

Flowcharts are diagrams that represent the start to finish of how a workflow, process, or algorithm works. These charts are used for documenting, designing, and analyzing in all areas of business.

Step 1: Consider the Direction of Flow

When you start a process there is a rounded rectangle called a terminal that gives your user a queue. The best place to start your process is by placing your start terminal in the upper left-hand corner of your chart. There aren't any real rules of how you have to create flowcharts, but I have found it best to start a process in the upper left-hand corner and ending the process in the bottom right-hand corner of the chart area.

Starting from the top left area and moving to the right bottom area shows a clear flow for the activity. Some people use a top-down approach and that's okay as long as it's consistent.

Starting from the top left area and moving to the right bottom area shows a clear flow for the activity. Some people use a top-down approach and that's okay as long as it's consistent.

Step 2: Add Flowchart Lanes

When creating a flowchart you don't want your data to be all over the place. Items within your process are going to be easier to understand if you group them. Below is an example of a flowchart being separated by "lanes." While it's not mandatory, and at times will be tough to follow, using the lanes will keep your chart organized.

Generally, when using lanes like this in a flowchart the chart name is usually name a swim lane flowchart.

Generally, when using lanes like this in a flowchart the chart name is usually name a swim lane flowchart.

Step 3: Use Start, Stop, and Transition Symbols

To start a flowchart you need to have a terminal. This symbol starts the flow process as well as stops it. There are no other reasons to have more than two terminals.

You may get to a point where you can't fit any more charting data on one page. At this point, you would use an off-page connector. So instead of using a terminal to end the process, you use an off-page connector and a reference to it like "a". When you start on your next page, reference an off-page connector with an "a". The reference will help you identify where to pick up again.

An on-page connector works the same but is used when there is not enough room on one page to draw an arrow to another part of the process. In this case, you skip the arrow and use an on-page connector reference to get you closer to the other part of the process. One example is if you have several processes that save to a disk, but the disk is located at the top of the page when your processes that need saving are all on the bottom of the page. In this situation, it may be a good idea to use the on-page connector to keep lines from confusing other parts of your processes.

Under general flowcharting guidelines, these shapes are the only symbols that represent a start or endpoint within a flowchart.

Under general flowcharting guidelines, these shapes are the only symbols that represent a start or endpoint within a flowchart.

Step 4: Connect Symbols With Lines

The lines are what you use to connect your symbols. A straight line represents going from one part of the process to another. A straight line only moves in one direction and never implies back flowing through the process. →

There is also a bi-directional line and communications link and they both have two arrows. The bi-directional line shows a process that can go in either direction or back and forth. You may use a bidirectional line to save a computer program to disk, but point back to where you were so the process can be continued. The communications link shows a line of communication whether from computer to computer, computer to server. phone to phone, fax to phone, or even person to person.

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Flowcharts are not restricted to the use of the lines above. More lines are available for more advanced flowcharting.

Flowcharts are not restricted to the use of the lines above. More lines are available for more advanced flowcharting.

Step 5: Add Storage Symbols

Below are the symbols that represent some type of storage. The disk is used when you are saving some type of computer process as stated earlier.

Another storage symbol is the tape and mostly referred to as the sequential data symbol. This is used for backing up a server. Usually, the tape is considered a backup disc that is removed for safe storage or a disk that is used to recover information. You could reference a flash drive with this symbol.

The triangle symbol with the flat side up is for manual file storage. You would indicate inside the triangle how the files are sorted (eg. "A" for alphabetically, "N" by name).

Storage symbols

Storage symbols

Step 6: Add Process Symbols

A rectangle symbol laying on the long side represents a computerized process. You would want to use this symbol when any type of program-driven task is used. If that task involves saving, then the computer process should be updating a disk. The trapezoid serves as a manual process. This could be any physical activity such as an inspection or task that requires movement. The diamond shape is for decision-making. You must make sure that you place your yes/no and arrows in the proper positions.

Process symbols

Process symbols

Step 7: Add Input Output Symbols

Lastly, we have symbols that represent input and output data. You have the opportunity to move a single document or multiple documents through the process. The trapezium represents a keyed input. This does take the shape of a keyboard and represent any keyed data entries.

Input output symbols

Input output symbols

Example Chart 1: Explanation

The example below shows a process that represents the life of an order in a company distributing plastic resin. As you can see, the lane that was discussed earlier keeps the process organized by letting the user of the document know where they are in the process.

Flowchart

Example 1 Flowchart. This process was written for plastic resin distribution order processing.  When problems arise and the process does not meet an endpoint, it remains reciprocal until an order is completed.

Example 1 Flowchart. This process was written for plastic resin distribution order processing. When problems arise and the process does not meet an endpoint, it remains reciprocal until an order is completed.

Example Chart 2: Explanation

Example 2 shows a process from the same company. In more detail, this chart shows the exact steps taken to start a custom quote within the CRM system. As you can see the process is continued on another page with an off-page connector.

Example 2 Flowchart

Example 2 Flowchart

In Conclusion

I hope you were able to benefit from this short tutorial. I didn't want to give too many of my rules because flowcharting shouldn't have too many restrictions. Your job is to make the process apparent on paper so your audience knows what's going on in your head. Having said that, keep your flowcharts simple unless people need more details. There is nothing worse than employees spending time on charts that nobody will take the time to learn. Okay, there is worse.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Joshua Crowder

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