Understanding Flowcharts for Continuous Process Improvement

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.” – William A. Foster

Making consistent changes for the better is always a good sign in both the personal and professional lives. As per the quote, achieving top quality is only possible with consistent efforts, and for a business ensuring continuous process improvement is a sign of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution and the wise choice of many alternatives”.  The good news is that are innumerable tools to achieve process improvement but which tools a company chooses depends on the needs and nature of its business. Experts recommend choosing a tool that is simple yet effective and easy to grasp, and flowcharts rule the roost.  It is however, critical that there is a sound understanding of flowcharts in the realm of continuous process improvement, without which the flowchart tool may not be effective. Getting a grasp on flowchart operation and the symbols in detail is essential before it can be used for any purpose – in this case continuous process improvement.

Flowcharts, simply put are graphical representations / charts / plans of a process. There are several variations, and a number of symbols that are possible and used, but experts say that are 3 main variations that work for most processes and situations.  The high-level flowcharts highlight and capture on the main / chief stages of continuous process improvement in a business. This type of flowcharts provides a brief yet explanatory overview of the process in question – easy to understand and familiarize oneself with the essence of the process.

The next type of flowcharts for continuous process improvement is a detailed one – a precise stage by stage mapping of every incident, action, and decision required and made in a process. As the name suggests, it has more information and details than a high-level flowchart, thereby providing better insights into the process in question. This includes any problem areas and or obsolete steps in a process. The third and final type of flowchart is the deployment flowchart that is organized in columns, with each of the columns representative of persons and or teams responsible for various part of a process.

In a bid to understand flowcharts for continuous process improvement, it is necessary to know under what conditions / situations to use this tool. Before the beginning of the process improvement exercise, it is important to first define the process by putting in details of the actions and decisions required, and a flowchart helps immensely with this portion of the continuous process improvement. Flowcharts also help to identify the potential problem areas within the process, as also analyzing and monitoring the actual performance of the process. Once the creators are able to sort out all these issues, and make a thorough assessment, it would be easier to use flowcharts for continuous process improvement, including for communicating and as training material.

The important things to understand about flowcharts is that show a clear correlation between each of the steps in the process, and how they fit together to reach a decision / conclusion. It elucidates the relationship between each process, person / team, and how the smooth flow between all these ‘elements’ will contribute towards continuous process improvement. The simplicity and visually explicit format makes it easier to uncover process flaws and potential breaking points, which therefore helps to put in remedial measures before the process begins or breaks down. A flowchart clearly shows what a process should be as opposed to what it may be currently or as it may be perceived by those who may be involved in the process.

To meet the aim of continuous process improvement, flowcharts help all those involved to clearly understand all the activities and the role they would essay in the success of the overall exercise to make and improve a process. As a document, flowcharts find a place in quality manuals and in training guides, as means to help current and future members to understand the activities and decisions, enabling them to perform their tasks properly and in the order they appear on the flowchart diagram. Within the realm of automated testing of the software testing industry, developers can use flowcharts to map processes, and for continuous process improvement, which in turn ensures top quality software.

Continuous process improvement includes problem solving, and by constructing and understanding process flowcharts, the teams / persons involved in the process would be better equipped to eliminate and solve problems as the case may be. By understanding flowcharts, the actual continuous process improvement teams can further simplify their tasks, bring down cycle times, effectively trouble shoot issues, and consistently improve and even redesign an existing process. Creating a flowchart enables continuous process improvement since it would help to reveal process inefficiencies such as complex procedures, steps that cause excessive delays, obstacles, an inefficient resource, and other such issues, making resolution easier.

While there is not specified or ‘typical’ format for a flowchart, the important thing to understand is that they flow from left to right. They can be drawn using several types of shapes, arrows, and colors, but these must be used in a consistent manner, which can be decided based on the standards and requirements of the company that seeks continuous process improvement. A rectangle typically is used to denote an activity within a particular step in a process – hence it would be the most used shape. A diamond shape expresses a decision point, and will have a yes or no response written within. Ovals represent the beginning and end of the process, while arrows are used to connect these shapes and clearly show the flow of a process.

There is no ‘right way’ to draw a flowchart diagram, and the only way to understand a flowchart is that it must be able to assist those involved, to understand and grasp the process. Wherever possible, experts suggest that in order to understand flowcharts better for continuous process improvement it is good idea to involve all the stakeholders in the creation of the flowchart. Those who will actually be involved with and ‘run’ the process should be the people creating the flowchart. Use technical expertise and or software only as a guide or help.

By understanding flowcharts, it would be easier to ensure continuous process improvement – first decide on the objective of the expected improvement. There could be issues with quality and it would help to make an observation of the steps, read any materials available, and then figure out the root cause of the lowered quality. If there seems to be a problem with the productivity of the persons involved, either new team members may be required, or additional resources may need to be deployed. This would also help to reduce the lead time, thereby speeding up the process, which can be a major deal maker or breaker in several lines of business, such as processing a customer order, responding to customer queries, transactions, and more.

The flowchart is a simple yet powerful means to communicate the operation of a process, and offers several benefits in several areas including continuous process improvement. Even when representing very complex processes, understanding flowcharts and their use can prove extremely beneficial. Does your company use flowcharts for continuous process improvement or otherwise?

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