What Are Flow Charts, How To Use Them, Symbols, Types, Tools And Examples

Flowcharts are important in various fields and industries, including software development, business process management, engineering, project management, and more. Here are some of the key reasons why flowcharts are essential:

  1. Visual Representation: Flowcharts visually represent a process or system, making complex ideas or procedures easier to understand. They use symbols, shapes, and arrows to illustrate the flow of information or activities.
  2. Clarity and Communication: Flowcharts help communicate complex ideas or processes to a broad audience, including team members, stakeholders, and clients. They provide a common language and visual reference that everyone can understand.
  3. Problem Solving: Flowcharts are valuable tools for identifying and solving problems in processes or systems. Visualizing the steps and decision points makes it easier to pinpoint bottlenecks, errors, or inefficiencies.
  4. Process Improvement: Flowcharts are used in process-improving techniques like Lean and Six Sigma. They enable organizations to analyze current processes, identify areas for improvement, and design more efficient workflows.
  5. Standardization: Flowcharts can be used to standardize organizational procedures. They serve as a reference document for employees, ensuring that tasks are followed consistently and according to established guidelines.
  6. Documentation: Flowcharts serve as documentation for processes or systems. They provide a detailed record of how a particular task or workflow should work, which can be valuable for training new employees or auditing purposes.
  7. Decision-Making: Flowcharts often include decision points that help users choose based on specific criteria. This can guide decision-making processes and ensure that actions are taken logically and consistently.
  8. Planning and Design: Flowcharts are useful during project planning and design phases. They help project managers and designers outline the steps needed to achieve a goal and anticipate potential challenges.
  9. Risk Assessment: Flowcharts can be used to assess risks within a process. Organizations can create strategies and tactics to mitigate risks and ensure business continuity by visualizing the steps and potential points of failure.
  10. Compliance and Regulation: In regulated industries, flowcharts are often used to demonstrate compliance with specific standards or regulations. They provide a straightforward way to show that processes adhere to established guidelines.
  11. Cross-Functional Collaboration: Flowcharts are particularly helpful in cross-functional teams where individuals from different departments or specialties need to understand and collaborate on a complex process.
  12. Training and Education: Flowcharts are valuable teaching tools. They simplify complex concepts and processes, making it easier for students or trainees to grasp and remember information.

If you're interested in discovering how to use flowcharts, the common symbols, or how to create a flowchart, or check some examples, read on.

What is a Flowchart?

A flowchart is a diagram that visually represents a process or workflow. It uses various symbols and shapes to depict the step-by-step actions, choices available, and roles involved in the process, with arrows showing the sequence and direction of these steps.

When to Use Flowcharts?

Flowcharts are used when:

  1. Understanding a process: Flowcharts can help visualize the steps in a process, making it easier to understand.
  2. Analyzing a process: They can reveal bottlenecks, redundancies, or unnecessary steps in a process.
  3. Planning a process: They are useful in preparing the steps and sequence of a new approach.
  4. Documenting a process: Flowcharts can serve as a reference for those involved in the process.

Basic Procedure to Use Flowcharts

When using flowcharts, experts recommend that you should follow the following steps:

  1. Identify the process: Define the process you want to map out.
  2. Understand the process: Talk to participants, observe the process, and gather all necessary information.
  3. Start from a top-level view: Begin with a broad overview of the process.
  4. Break down into details: Break down each step into more detailed tasks.
  5. Use symbols: Use standard flowchart symbols to represent different steps and decisions.
  6. Review and refine: Review the flowchart, adjust as necessary, and validate with those familiar with the process.

Flowchart Symbols

Flowchart symbols are graphical representations used to depict various elements and actions within a flowchart. These symbols (or shapes) help convey information about processes, decisions, inputs, outputs, and the flow of a system or procedure. Several standard flowchart symbols are commonly used in flowcharting, each serving a specific purpose. Here are some of the most common flowchart symbols:

  1. Terminator/Start-End Symbol: This symbol represents the beginning or end of a process. It is usually depicted as an oval or rounded rectangle with the word "Start" or "End" inside.
  2. Process Symbol: The process symbol represents a specific action or task within the process. It is typically depicted as a rectangle describing the task or activity inside.
  3. Decision Symbol: This symbol represents a decision point where a choice must be made. It is usually depicted as a diamond shape. The flow splits into two or more paths based on the decision outcome.
  4. Input/Output Symbol: The input/output symbol indicates where data or information is either provided as input to the process or generated as output from the process. It is often represented as a parallelogram shape.
  5. Connector Symbol: Connector symbols connect different parts of a flowchart located on other pages or areas. They help maintain the flow of the chart and indicate that it continues elsewhere.
  6. Flowline/Arrow: Flowlines or arrows connect symbols and show the flow direction in the process. They connect from one symbol to another, indicating the sequence of actions.
  7. Document Symbol: This symbol represents a document or report within the process. It is typically depicted as a rectangle with a wavy bottom line.
  8. Predefined Process Symbol: The predefined process symbol is used when a portion of the process is defined in another location, such as a separate document or subroutine. It is depicted as a rectangle with double vertical lines on both sides.
  9. Delay Symbol: The delay symbol represents a pause or waiting period in the process. It is depicted as a rectangle with a wave-like symbol inside.
  10. Data Symbol: This symbol represents the storage of data or information in a database or storage device. It is typically depicted as a cylinder.
  11. On-Page Reference Symbol: On-page reference symbols connect different parts of the same flowchart on the same page. They help maintain the flow of the chart.
  12. Off-Page Reference Symbol: Off-page reference symbols indicate that a particular process step or sub-process is detailed on another page. They are connected to the corresponding page or symbol by lines.
  13. Annotation Symbol: Annotation symbols add explanatory notes or comments to the flowchart. They are often depicted as rectangles with a wavy line at the top.
  14. Or Symbol: The "or" symbol is used within decision points to indicate alternative paths or conditions. It is typically a small circle inside the diamond decision symbol.
  15. Summing Junction Symbol: The summing junction symbol is used in control flow to show the merging of two or more paths into one.
  16. Merge Symbol: The merge symbol shows the merging of multiple paths into one path in the flowchart.

Using these symbols consistently and following established conventions is essential when creating flowcharts to ensure clarity and understanding. Different industries or organizations may have slight variations in their flowchart symbols, but the core symbols mentioned here are widely recognized and accepted.

Top Flowcharts Types

Flowcharts can be used for a wide variety of use cases. Among the most common and valuable, we would like to highlight the following: 

  1. Process Flowchart: Describes the order of steps in a process. 
  2. Decision Flowchart: Illustrates decision-making and its outcomes.
  3. Workflow Chart: Depicts how tasks, information, or documents flow between individuals or departments.
  4. Data Flowchart: This shows how data flows through a system.
  5. Swimlane Flowchart: Divides process steps into categories to show who is responsible for each step.

Tip: Process, decision, and workflow flowcharts are most commonly used in business and software development.

How to Make a Flowchart?

Creating a flowchart involves systematically visually representing a process or system using standard symbols and connecting lines. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to make a flowchart:

1. Define the Purpose:

Determine the purpose of creating the flowchart. What process or system are you trying to document or represent? Clarify the scope and objectives.

2. Identify the Steps:

List the key steps or activities involved in the process. Start with the initial step and identify subsequent steps in sequential order.

3. Gather Information:

Collect all the necessary information about each step, including decisions, inputs, outputs, and any applicable conditions or rules.

4. Choose Flowchart Symbols:

Select the appropriate flowchart symbols to represent different elements of the process. Common symbols include:

  • Terminator/Start-End: Represent the beginning or end of the process.
  • Process: Indicate a specific task or action.
  • Decision: Represent a decision point with branching paths.
  • Input/Output: Denote data input or output.
  • Connector: Show where lines connect when the flowchart spans multiple pages.
  • Flowlines/Arrows: Connect symbols to show the flow of the process.

5. Arrange Symbols:

Begin by placing the terminator symbol (start or end) on the page.

Arrange the process symbols and decision symbols in a logical sequence, connecting them with flowlines or arrows.

Ensure the flowchart is organized from top to bottom or left to right for readability.

6. Define Decision Points:

At decision, symbols indicate the conditions or criteria that determine the flow of the process. Label the arrows leaving the decision symbol with the choices (e.g., yes or no) or relevant conditions.

7. Add Input/Output:

Include symbols for data input and output where necessary in the process. Label these symbols with the type of data or information being used or produced.

8. Connect Symbols:

Use arrows or flowlines to connect the symbols and show the sequence of actions and decisions.

9. Test the Flowchart:

Review the flowchart to ensure it accurately represents the process. Verify that it follows a logical sequence and that all decision points and conditions are clear.

10. Add Annotations:

Include text labels and annotations to provide additional details, explanations, or notes where needed.

11. Finalize and Format:

Clean up the flowchart by adjusting the layout, spacing, and alignment for clarity and aesthetics.

Use drawing tools to create a digital version of the flowchart for easy sharing and editing.

12. Review and Validate:

Share the flowchart with stakeholders or team members for review and validation. Make any necessary revisions based on feedback.

14. Save and Share:

Save the flowchart in a suitable format (e.g., PDF, PNG, or a flowchart-specific file format).

Distribute the flowchart to relevant parties and consider integrating it into documentation or presentations.

Remember that the specific symbols and conventions of flowcharts may vary depending on the industry or context. Be consistent with your chosen symbols and labels, and ensure that your flowchart effectively communicates the intended process or system.

Using Flowcharts in the HR Department

HR can use flowcharts for processes like recruitment, onboarding, performance review, and offboarding. For instance, a recruitment flowchart might start with a job opening, followed by steps like resume screening, initial interview, secondary interview, job offer, and induction.

Another example we want to provide is an absence management system flowchart.

How do Businesses Use Flowcharts?

Businesses use flowcharts to visualize and analyze processes, identify inefficiencies, and plan improvements. They are used in various areas like operations, quality control, project management, and IT.

Top Free Flowcharting Software

Among the flowcharting tools available, we would like to highlight the following flow chart makers:

  1. Lucidchart
  2. Draw.io
  3. Google Drawings
  4. Microsoft Visio (free with Office 365)
  5. Miro
  6. Canva's Flowchart Maker.

Key Takeaways 

  • Flowcharts are visual tools for representing processes.
  • They use standard symbols to represent different steps, tasks, and decisions.
  • Flowcharts are helpful for understanding, analyzing, planning, and documenting processes.
  • They are used in various fields, including business, software development, and HR.
  • Various free tools are available to create flowcharts.

Automate your remote work requests and tracking with the easy to use online HR software.

Easy set-up ● No contracts required ● No credit cards