Importance of a Cross-functional Flowchart

“Profit is the most global aspect of a business, and it is cross-functional” – Carlos Ghosn

Flowcharts are significantly in use to describe processes – varying in complexity. However, even when using a flowchart to illustrate a process where several people, functions, departments or teams are involved, understanding and tracking responsibilities is sometimes a tough call. It would therefore, make sense to use a tool that would help in analyzing the number of times a certain process transitions from one person to another, and hence using columns in a flowchart is a recommended technique. A cross-functional flowchart is valuable and an important tool to illustrate the relationship between ‘functional units’ with the business process, and to clearly depict the responsibility of each unit within the process.

Every business and or its subdivisions would follow some process or another, and a cross-functional flowchart is a significant tool to visualize these processes, and understand them with the aim of making them more efficient, seamless, and speedy. Traditional flowcharts do not suffice to depict or understand the reliance and interdependence of cross-functional teams, especially when there are several stakeholders providing innumerable inputs, spread across the various stages of the process. This is when a cross-functional flowchart, also called a swim lane diagram, would prove to be the most effective method of visualization and process improvement. The enhanced visualization and information gathering capabilities through a cross-functional flowchart enable dramatic levels of process improvements – leading to several benefits for any business, some of which are enlisted below.                                                           

A cross-functional flowchart enables enhanced clarity to even complex processes by helping to clearly define specific roles and responsibilities. The individual ‘swim lanes’ represent individuals, teams, or functional units, thereby clearly indicating responsibilities for a specified stage of a process. Clarity especially in terms of roles and responsibilities of each individual / functional unit is essential to ensure smooth execution and elimination of uncertainties and risk of tasks ‘falling through the cracks’.

One of the most critical factors in the market today is timing. Poorly timed messages and or delayed release of products can prove costly for a company, and unless there is clear and free communication between all those responsible, these costly errors would be inevitable. Using a cross-functional flowchart will help to clearly define dependencies between each of those involved in a process, ensuring that each unit / person timely delivers on her / his share of responsibilities. Unambiguous expectations and clarity in communication not only enhances the quality of a process, they also reduce turnaround time.

Each swim lane in a cross-functional flowchart is a clear visualization of the process, making it easier to spot duplication of steps, overlaps, and ambiguity in responsibilities. This clarity helps to remove the inefficiencies and bottlenecks of the process, and also helps to identify any potential problems within the process. Being able to root out the defects early in the process ensures better utilization of time, and resources, leading to improved efficiency of the process.

Given the clarity possible with a cross-functional flowchart, even complex processes become simpler and easy for all to understand. Using software it is possible to share this flowchart with anyone who would potentially be part of the process, thereby allowing them sufficient time to gain in-depth understanding of the process and confidence of being able to handle their required role within. Members of the leadership team would be able to plan resource utilization better, and provide a realistic budget for the successful implementation of the project.

The good news is that a cross-functional flowchart can be used across industries, and to illustrate any process. Financial services, IT, Healthcare, retail, and others successfully use this type of flowchart to simplify and visualize the complex processes that exist within their businesses. Aiming for process improvement is necessary to keep abreast with the fast pace of the markets, both domestic and global.

A cross-functional flowchart is part of certain process mapping tools, used to help simplify and improve business processes, each having their strengths and shortcomings. The tools include top down flowchart, decision trees or block diagram, flow process chart, work flow diagram, process map, and state change chart. The process map is what we will focus on, since it is another name for the cross-functional flowchart. Without understanding responsibilities, potential points of breakdown and failure, repeated and unnecessary steps, and possible delays, improving a process would be impossible. While it is relatively simple to build a process map, the results may seem complicated in the event of too many stages and persons involved in the process. It would help to seek the guidance of an expert to help with creating a cross-functional flowchart for the first time. Once the chart if created, it becomes simpler to analyze and improve this visual representation, which in turn would simplify the process.

When projects are discussed, the entire process is usually not given as much thought, and hence when the time for implementing the project arrives, most stakeholders would scramble around to understand their role and expectations from the process. This can be both a shocking and exciting revelation, depending on the person. The fact is that with so many aspects changing constantly, processes too, do not remain static or same over time. Business requirements change, people involved in the process may leave the company or the project, and many other such changes could bring the process to a grinding halt, if it is not clearly demonstrated and easily updated. A cross-functional flowchart rids a business of the stressful layers of complexity, the uncertainty of the presence of individuals. Once a process is clearly defined through a visual tool such as a cross-functional flowchart, anyone can become part of the process and the chart maybe updated as per requirement to be used in the future as well.

A well drafted cross-functional flowchart will ensure that members of the process would be able to eliminate, combine or simplify any tasks / steps that do not add value. This in turn would add the much needed confidence from the leadership in the process and persons responsible for it. We spoke about transitions for example – that is the point where a process is ‘handed over’ to the next person in the chain. This particular time offers a huge potential for delay, misrepresentation, and miscommunication, and being able to identify these possible hassles will reduce the complexity during the transition, and in the overall process.

In addition, one of the better ways to enhance the quality of a process would be to encourage specialization of tasks. This would make the flow of information and knowledge faster, better grasp on the actual deliverables of the project, and result in a marked improvement both in terms of the quality and speed of assigned tasks. Task specialists could also help to consolidate similar tasks, thereby reducing the number of steps within a process. A cross-functional flowchart scores on several counts, as we have seen. Traditional / basic flowcharts are usually one dimensional and hence do not delve into the details with regard to the various features and aspects of a process. A cross-functional flowchart pushes the limitations of the basic flowcharts, expanding them to multidimensional range, thereby increasing the depth of detail, while still increasing simplicity of understanding. In the fast paced business scenario of today, any tool that can enhance speed and simplicity, is a sure winner.

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