Avoiding Blunders while Making Flowcharts

“The proactive approach to a mistake is to acknowledge it instantly, correct and learn from it” – Stephen Covey

The most significant feature and stand out quality of flowcharts is that they afford clarity and provide attention to detail. Flowcharts can capture the simplest process to the most complex ones, in an efficient and comprehensible manner. Even the most proficient creators of flowcharts, can make unintended errors while making flowcharts – which we aim to discuss in this exposition.

  • Not using appropriate symbols

The symbols used when making flowcharts, have some meaning. Creators of these diagrams must understand what each symbol means such that they use symbols appropriately and where required. Inappropriate use of these symbols could end up creating more confusion for those trying to understand a process through this visual aid.

  • Inconsistency in Flowchart Direction

Flow direction when making flowcharts is also extremely critical. There are two ways in which flowcharts progress – left to right or top to bottom. However, these flow progressions are never to be used in the same flowchart, since consistency is one of the crucial features of the essence of these diagrams.

  • Overusing Color Schematics

Overusing color schemes could actually muddle up the message and suffocate its true essence. The very purpose of making flowcharts is to provide lucid and comprehensible solutions to problems – excessive visual noise would defeat this purpose.

  • Inconsistency in the Size of Symbols

Adding to visual noise would be inconsistency in the size of symbols. One of the rules of making flowcharts is that the height and width of symbols must be proportionate in each symbol and in relation to other symbols used. Ensure this consistency of size in the direction used in making flowcharts too – maintain the size of symbols in left to right and up to down diagrams.  Connectors however, do not follow this rule since they meant to be smaller, so as to not use up excessive space.

  • Variation in the Spacing of Symbols

Making flowcharts professionally entails attention to the minutest details. One such detail is even and consistent spacing between the symbols in order to keep the flowchart visually appealing. The spacing must remain even and consistent both vertically and horizontally between the symbols. The space around decision symbols however, is more than others in order to make room for branch labels. These points may seem insignificant however inconsistency goes against the essence of flowcharting.

  • Inconsistent Branch Direction

Branch direction is often overlooked when making these diagrams and this can end up confusing the viewers and users. Branch direction must be kept in mind to ensure that a flowchart is logical in every aspect. As long as creators of these diagrams ensure consistency across, S shaped and multi-column flowcharts would work well too.  

  • No Room to Scale

While it is recommended to fit a flowchart on a single page, highly detailed diagrams would look cramped and blurry, making it difficult to read. When making a detailed flowchart, it would be acceptable to let it run over several pages – which then would be a multi-level flowchart. Creating a high level flowchart would be better for those who wish to see the entire process on a single page – this groups several processes into one, thereby reducing the clutter on the page. Alternatively, it would be better to make extended flowcharts – a single flowchart spread over multiple pages but connected via a circular node. Readability is a critical aspect, and cramming details into a single page to maintain brevity, defeats the aspect of the content being comprehensible.

  • Alternate Paths not Defined

Some processes may divide when being represented in flowcharts. To ensure that users know which branch to follow, it would be better to define and mark the alternate paths. In addition, any excessive or lengthy processes must have adequate documentation, since all the information may not be possible to cram in a flowchart.

  • Forgetting to use Footnotes and Keys

There could be some process steps that would need more details added, and in order to complement the information in the flowcharts, it would be necessary to add footnotes or an additional page to explain. The fact is that the process steps require clear descriptions, but it is not possible to fit in all the details, and hence callouts, footnotes, or even additional pages should be appended to describe the longer process steps. Further, using a ‘key’ to describe and explain the symbols used within the flowchart would further the cause of the diagrams. In addition, when making flowcharts the creators must double check each step in order to uncover any errors and obsolete process stages.

  • Using Different Levels of Detail

As mentioned, flowcharts can be made using various levels of detail, but it must be remembered that the same level must be followed throughout a single flowchart. Do not mix a high-level flowchart with a detailed one – recipe for disaster.

  • Not asking the right questions

Without planning and asking the right questions, making flowcharts could be disastrous. It is important know what would be the next step when depicting the process, whether a decision has been arrived at, or whether the description of the process seems complete, and other such questions.

  • Flow lines that are too long

If flow lines are too long – going from the beginning to the next edge of a flowchart, this could be unwieldy. Experts recommend connector nodes – depicted as circles – meant to leap from one part of the process being represented to another part.

  • Overuse of color

Colors form the essence of flowcharts, adding flair and style. However, overusing color could actually take away from the message, confuse the viewers, and defeat the purpose of simplification of representing a process.

  • Not defining referred processes

Creators of flowcharts, often forget to define the processes and or sub-processes that they may have referred to in the diagram. Not only does this create ambiguity, it could also be a compliance issue if the flowcharting is for some such compliance requirement.

  • Infinite loops

A good process will never run interminably and hence when using loops to connect back, there is a real risk of creating infinite loops. It is important to know and document the mechanism that prevents this interminable process looping.

While flowcharts are a great visual tool and aid, these blunders are very real too and sometimes even the best creators of these diagrams can fall to them. Accuracy and verifiability are important aspects of such diagrams, and it is necessary for the creators to actually check back on the flowchart steps, with the departmental / functional experts. Their inputs are essential since they are the ones with the hands on experience of working with the processes. Another of the best practices when making flowcharts is to use branches instead of decision symbols. The reason experts recommend this is because decision symbols can either have a yes or no / true or false answer. However, not all decisions can be crammed into either of these, and doing so can create flowcharts that are logically and spatially ‘bloated’. Making flowcharts can be a challenging yet exciting experience. Creators must remain aware of the possible blunders and ensure they do not fall prey to them.

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