What Are the Elements of a Flowchart?

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Designing a flow chart.
Designing a flow chart. (Image: Photokanok/iStock/Getty Images)

Developing or improving a business activity can be a challenging undertaking, whether you are setting up a website, designing a manufacturing operation or organizing your firm’s workforce. Flowcharts are a way to visually represent each step in a process and the sequence in which steps must be performed. By using the elements of a flowchart to create a visual map, you can often represent a process with greater clarity than text descriptions alone can provide.

Flowchart Symbols

Each symbol on a flowchart designates a specific step or action to be performed. A short description within each symbol explains what is to be done. For example, a rectangle on a flowchart of an inventory process might say: “Distribute count sheets.” Symbol shapes are standardized. A rectangle indicates a specific step. Ovals at the beginning and end of the flowchart show where it starts and stops. Rectangles with rounded ends signify that data must be input, retrieved or stored. There are also specialized symbols for specific types of flowcharts such as those used for software design, work process planning, auditing and accounting.

Decision Diamonds

Complex processes always include alternative paths. The path to be followed depends on some condition. For example, the process of doing an inventory includes choices to continue counting an item or move on to the next item when you are done counting the current one. These decision points are indicated by diamond-shaped symbols. The label in the symbol might say: “Done counting?” and include arrows that point to alternative steps depending on the answer.

Order Indicators

The utility of a flowchart lies in the fact that each step is connected to preceding and subsequent steps in a logical order. Arrows are used to point to the next step. Sometimes a decision point requires returning to an earlier step. In this case, an arrow loops back to the appropriate earlier symbol. Other decisions may require skipping or jumping to a task elsewhere in the flowchart. Such jumps are indicated by connectors. A connector symbol is a circle with a label that tells you where to go next.

Creating a Flowchart

A flowchart can be used to diagram any process, but they all use certain standardized symbols such as the rectangles and diamond shapes mentioned earlier. This standardization is important because it allows readers to follow the flowchart easily and accurately. To make a flowchart, start with the process you want to map out and break it down into steps. For an inventory, you might start with this list: distribute count sheets, count the inventory and then collect and total the count sheets. Next, go over each step and break it down into more specific steps. Use standardized symbols and indicate decision points and other special operations. Continue reviewing each step and breaking it down until the entire process is mapped out in a logically connected series of simple actions.

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