The Manager's Toolkit - Part 5: Go with the flow
By visually interpreting a procedure in a flow chart, complex processes can be made easy to understand at a glance. A flow chart is simply a diagram or a picture of a procedure that is to be carried out. It is nothing exotic or special and everybody should them at some stage in their work. The old saying that 'a picture paints a thousand words' is never truer than when you are trying to write out a procedure to be followed. This procedure may be for anything from how to process an order to how to install a window or even the more formal procedures such as those used for ISO 9000. Any process that needs to be carried out in a definite order should be capable of being described and simplified by the use of flow charts.
Flow charts enable everybody to see how the process works. Temporary or new staff can be trained to do things your way rather than how they feel like it at the time. Training time is reduced, errors are reduced, everybody knows what is happening and your life improves.
A flow chart is used to break a process down into the simple component steps and to give an exact picture of the process. Flow charts are used extensively in computer programming to decide the logical way for building up a computer programme for small blocks of code.
This idea may seem simple but it is often difficult because all the process steps have to be evaluated and every response given in terms of 'yes' or 'no' answers. If it is difficult for you to draw the flow chart when you understand the system then consider how difficult it is for your employees to understand how it all works. If you have difficulty drawing a flow chart at any point then it is at this very point that your employees will have difficulty in knowing exactly what to do, they will make up their own minds, be inconsistent and costly mistakes will occur. The black and white decisions are easy to describe on a flow chart but the grey areas that are difficult to chart are the ones that you need to concentrate on for systems changes, staff training or even new systems and controls.
Example 1: A Sample Flow Chart
If a procedure cannot be described in terms of a flow chart then the procedure will not work.
The basic principle is to draw a flow chart of the actual process (with the operators or users) and then to draw a flow chart of the steps that the process should follow if everything worked right. The two charts can then be compared to find out where they are different. This is usually the source of a problem.
A flow chart will highlight the need for clear, unambiguous procedures (also necessary for quality control) that fully define everybody's responsibilities. Difficulties may be encountered because the process is not understood, there have been changes to the process which have not been recorded or because there really is no common process, i.e. everybody does it a different way. The discipline of drawing a flow chart can solve all of these problems.
Flow charts often make very complex written procedures easy to understand at a glance. The logic and clarity of flow charts make them appropriate for many operations. Rather than write a long detailed procedure first, why not try making a flow chart and put it on the wall. You will be amused at the clarity of decision-making it produces.
A special type of flow chart is the organisation diagram and these are used to show the reporting relationship in the company. You may say that you are too small to have a formal organisation chart but if you ever get left off the circulation list for a vital piece of information or have difficulty figuring out who is responsible for something then you probably need one.
"The Manager' Toolkit" series is designed to give Managers and other staff an insight into the use and application of a new set of thinking tools. The series is:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: The Pareto Principle
Part 3: Cause and Effect Charts
Part 4: Scatter Charts
Part 5: Flow Charts (This Section)
Part 6: Histograms
Part 7: Capability Studies
Part 8: Mind Mapping
Last edited: 11/03/10
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