A guide to flow process charts and their applications

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 8 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In fields of work like project management and industrial processes, a flow process chart, or flowchart, can be quite useful for organising and conceptualising work. These graphical aids allow you to display how the process is going to look and function and thereby assign tasks and anticipate challenges. If you're interested in project management or industrial work, understanding the uses and benefits of flowcharts could be quite useful. In this article, we explain what flow process means, what these charts look like, the applications of these charts and their various advantages and disadvantages.

What is a flow process?

A flow process is one where actions follow each other sequentially. You start with an initial process or processes and these transition into others until you produce the desired output or outputs. These can split into parallel processes that serve different functions or combine at certain points when their outputs come together.

This is usually applicable where several functions are necessary within a larger process, which also includes multiple people working together. This is different from a process where only a single function is necessary or where only one individual performs all the tasks. A good example of this is something like an industrial process that produces multiple outputs from raw materials.

What does a flowchart look like?

A flowchart is simply a way of visually representing a flow process. Project managers and others use these to communicate workflows to their teams or clients prior to commencing work. Once the work has begun, these are also useful for guiding the professionals involved and can help reduce inadvertent misunderstandings regarding responsibilities and boundaries.

Different steps in the process are represented by shapes or colours and connected with lines and arrows. For example, the beginning of the process might be a square box. A horizontal arrow then connects it to a circular box, which represents a particular step in the process. Combined steps and those that split into more than one might have different shapes or colours until you reach the end result. A small phrase or single word usually occupies each box to communicate what happens, with additional information shown elsewhere, often below the chart.

Related: A guide to the different types of charts and graphs

The uses of flowcharts

Because they're easy to apply to a multitude of tasks, these charts are useful in various industries. Some of the common use cases of these charts are as follows:

Project management

A project manager often has multiple processes and factors to consider. These are the various complementary and supplementary functions that are necessary for the successful completion of the project. For example, a project manager might be in charge of a waste cleanup project. They might therefore require inputs from engineers, biologists, geologists, volunteers, legal professionals and local government representatives.

A flowchart would make this easier to plan. For instance, the project manager may decide to use a colour code. Green might represent the physical cleanup activities, yellow the legal work and red could be publicity and volunteer work. They could all use the same shapes, whereby a hexagon represents the start of a process, a circle a step in the process and a diamond a decision.

Related: What are project management tools (with 15 examples)

Industrial processes

In an industrial process, you might encounter the term 'process flow diagram' or PFD instead. This is how engineers and others represent the various steps involved in an industrial process and can become quite complex. For example, an engineer responsible for setting up a fractional distillation plant for crude oil might use such a chart to map the various processes. Physical activities like these are a common use of flowcharts.

The first step might be the delivery of crude oil, which represents the start of the process and might be a hexagon. After that, it's heated to the appropriate temperature, which could be the second step and represented by an oval to represent a process. Outputs could be squares, so the next step would be a square representing the mix of gaseous and liquid products of the heating. The next step is the fractional distillation itself, which would be another oval. Each output of this would then be another square, such as diesel, naphtha and paraffin.

Software development

These charts are also useful for planning software development processes. This is because they often involve multiple processes that work together and interact at different stages. For instance, you could have several colour-coded process lines, like one for coding and programming, one for interface design and another for quality assurance. This representation would be useful for both organising your own work or that of your team and for showing your client what to expect.

Related: What is software development? A comprehensive guide

Logistics management

Another application would be logistics management, as this is also typically a complex process involving various complementary functions. Moreover, these often function sequentially. For example, different shapes could represent different steps, like transport, storage or registration. Different colours could represent different means of transport, such as rail, shipping and air freight.

Decision making

A good use of sequential charts is for decision making. This can be useful for training managers or other decision-makers or simply for establishing the criteria and protocols for their own decision-making processes. You can do this by splitting the chart elements into questions, answers and conclusions. This is quite similar to the logic that's often found in programming languages. The individual in question can start by locating the most relevant question and then going through the predetermined steps until they reach the right conclusion.

Related: Decision-making skills: definition and examples

Advantages of flowcharts

Some of the advantages of using flowcharts are as follows:

Communicating

A flowchart can help you to communicate your processes with others. This could be for educational purposes, such as showing engineering students how industrial flow processes function. Alternatively, it could be for informing a client, such as a development team that's producing software. When you're managing and instructing others, it's also useful to have a visual representation of workflows to communicate this.

Problem solving and improvements

A clear representation of flow processes can make it easier to solve problems and improve your processes. You can do this by looking at each of the individual steps and then speaking with responsible individuals to determine how you could improve each so that they can support related functions. The chart itself helps by breaking down the entire process into individual parts that you can analyse and investigate separately.

Related: 7 common problem-solving strategies (and how they work)

Assigning responsibility

Unclear assignment of responsibilities can be detrimental to workflows and cause inefficiencies. The clarity that these charts provide can make it much easier to determine who's responsible for which functions and steps. You can also use this structure to organise documentation and working hierarchies.

Disadvantages of flowcharts

Below are some of the key disadvantages of charting processes in this manner:

Complexity

Although visually representing a complex process can make it simpler and easier to explain, the opposite can also happen. This is more likely when you're trying to map very intricate processes. In this case, instead of a clear sequence, you may have too many interrelated functions and the chart itself might become visually cluttered and hard to understand. In this case, you might want to use multiple charts to divide the various functions, although this can reduce their ease of use.

Difficult to change

If you change a function that's within a sequence, this often has repercussions for subsequent steps. This can make it difficult or at least time-consuming to make any alterations to your chart. The problem increases when the step you want to alter is closer to the beginning of the overall process, as you'd then require alterations to every subsequent step that's changed as a result.

Time-consuming to make

Flowcharts use a combination of text and symbols, which means that you cannot simply type what you want. Common software applications like word processors and spreadsheets can be useful for making flowcharts, but the process of adding and colour coding the shapes can take a lot of time. This becomes even more difficult when the chart is quite long or complex. An alternative would be to use dedicated software packages, although even these can still require some time to use and may involve fees for acquisition or use.

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