The old adage says that a picture is worth a 1000 words. When talking about business processes and procedures you’d have to say that’s a little on the conservative time. When done correctly a flowchart is an invaluable tool for determining and communicating how a business function is conducted. However, there’s the rub: “when done correctly”. Anyone who’s explored the available stencils in Visio knows it is very easy to complicate any flowchart.
This document collates some guidelines we put together for one project to provide a consistent and simple standard for a variety of drafters.
Note these guidelines pertain to the documenting of procedures, per the Information Mapping definition, and as distinct from processes. However generally the principles apply to any exercise to map a business function.
- Use only a standard, and limited library of shapes. As a starter, most flowcharts need only the following.
Add additional shapes reluctantly, and provide a key to explain their meaning.
- Keep shapes the same size.
- Use a standard, and consistent, font, background colour,shading, etc
- if using shading to highlight specific steps, include a key alongside/with the flowchart to explain the convention adopted.
- Draft the steps so that the flowchart runs vertically, top to bottom. This format is preferable because it fits the page better, both on paper or online.
- Centrally align all shapes, including joining arrows. This helps keep the layout clean and easy to follow.
- Keep a consistent spacing between shapes.
- Write each step or decision as a command (2nd person singular).
- Keep the text brief and simple. Not only does it make the flowchart easy to follow, it also allows the shapes to be smaller and still fit the required content.
- Phrase decision as a question answered by “Yes” or “No” only.
Wherever possible the question should be phrased so that the “Yes” answer is the one most common, expected or otherwise “default” for the process being presented.
- Have only the two possible paths (yes or no) from a decision and clearly label each path as Yes or No.
- Organise your flowchart so that the “Yes” path continues straight down. The “No” path branches to the side (normally the right as we read left to right).
- Where possible continue the branched path using the same alignment (vertical, centred) as for the main path; however if space is limited you can allow the side steps to progress horizontally instead.
- Either layout, stagger the spacing on the main path so that arrows from the branch path rejoin the main path without needing to point up. Arrows should return horizontally or downwards.
- When aligning branch steps:
- branch starts from the side of the decision and joins the side of the first branch step, and
- branch rejoins the main path from the bottom of the final step into the side of the first main step that both paths repeat.
The only exception is when the branch rejoins the main flow at a decision. Obviously the path cannot rejoin on the side as it will be confused with the decision itself. In this instance either:
- add an additional step to rejoin to before the decision is made, or
- have the branch path rejoin into the top of the decision diamond.
- If your process has clearly identifiable phases, consider highlighting them in the process.
Phases provide a useful organising mechanism, particularly for larger processes. They can be based on any aspect:
- time (eg January, February)
- location (eg in the office, on client site), or
- status (eg pre-signoff, post sign-off)
- To identify and separate phases:
- use a horizontal solid line, and
- label every phase (add the label near the line that identifies it)
- Organise the layout of your flowchart to ensure all steps for a particular phase are presented above the line that designates that phase. Doing so may require leaving gaps between steps, particular when including decisions or departments (see next section).
Note depending on your flowcharting tool you may have a function to specify phases and automatically provide the separations around which you can organise your steps.
- If responsibility for completing steps in your process varies between separate, identifiable individuals or groups, consider highlighting them in the process. Organising your process to reflect responsibility helps those who have a role in its completion to quickly and easily identify what steps they need to complete.
- To identify and separate responsibilities use vertical swimlanes:
- organise steps into separate vertical columns, one column for each person, department, etc
- add vertical lines between columns to identify the edges of each swimlane, and
- label each swimlane clearly at the top
- As for phases you may need to be flexible in layout (adding extra space for example) to ensure all steps for a particular group are grouped in the correct swimlane.
- Try not to over-separate your steps into too many columns. Using swimlanes will make your flowchart wider, which has major issues when trying to display on an A4 page, or a computer screen. Consider either “rolling up” into larger groups of responsibility or moving steps for one group to a separate flowchart.
- Follow the same guidelines/preferences for joining shapes (arrows into top or sides of shapes) as for decisions.
- If added manually, extend all swimlane dividers to the same level top and bottom, even if one swimlane is only used for a subset of the end-to-end process.
As for phases your flowcharting tool may have a function to specify responsibilities and automatically provide the separations around which you can organise your steps.
If you’re doing it manually, ensure the vertical seperators are subdued enough to not confuse/distract from the boxes and arrows that form your essential content.