What are flowcharts? (definition, uses and implementations)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 22 June 2022

Published 3 January 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.

Flowcharts are very useful for visualising processes and information. They're used in a wide variety of professions and settings, such as project management or logistics planning. Knowing what flowcharts are and what you can do with them can be very useful if you're interested in these roles or similar ones. In this article, we explain what flowcharts are, their different types, what they're used for and how you can develop one yourself.

What are flowcharts?

If you know what flowcharts are, you're going to be able to recognise and use them. It's also quite likely that you've encountered flowcharts before, even if you didn't know that's what they were. A flowchart is a series of shapes or symbols that shows the steps in a process sequentially. Each one can act like a text box within which you can insert particular pieces of information. They're often linked by lines or arrows that show the sequential order of the steps.

For example, you could have five squares in a row. Each of these would depict one step in a five-step process and reaching the final one would indicate the completion of the sequence. Each of these squares is linked to the one before and after it by a horizontal line, except the first and last. Alternatively, you could have a circular flowchart with different shapes to represent different types of steps. For example, one way in which the different steps could indicate different things is as follows:

  • Ovals: These can indicate the start of a process or sequence.

  • Rectangles: These can be used to represent a standard step in the process.

  • Diamonds: These could indicate that the sequence branches into two or more separate sequences.

  • Circles: These might indicate that the process jumps or skips a step.

  • Parallelograms: These are often used to indicate data inputs or outputs.

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What are the different types of flowchart?

Based on your requirements and the nature of your work, you might use different flowcharts to meet your needs. Below are three of the more common types of flowchart that you might encounter or want to use:

Process flow diagram

These are also called process flowcharts and they're commonly used to visually represent how a system functions based on its component processes. It displays the relationships between various components and functions, in addition to how they contribute to a particular objective. These are useful for both designing new processes and improving existing ones. You can make them as simple or intricate as you want. They're also called schematic flow diagrams, top-down flowcharts or system diagrams.

Workflow diagram

These are flowcharts that show how various work processes are organised, who's responsible for which and how these complement each other. This can be useful for simplifying how responsibilities are allocated, clearly delineating their respective boundaries and when these are either combined or split. These are particularly useful in manufacturing settings, like production lines in factories or healthcare.

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Data flow diagram

A data flow diagram is a flowchart that maps how information flows for specific processes. These can be very simple or very intricate. They typically start from a 'level 0' where an outline is given before providing greater detail. These are quite useful for designing computer programmes and conducting business analysis, process engineering or system development.

How to make your own flowchart

If you're interested in knowing how to make your own flowchart, here are some steps that you might consider following:

1. Make a list of the tasks you want to include

Before you design how to represent the information, it's important to prepare all of the information that you want to turn into a flowchart. These could be steps in a process or sequence, necessary inputs and any other such information. You can also sort this information into sections, each of which would correspond to a particular shape.

2. Choose the shapes you want to use

Now that you've got all of the information that you want to include in each section, you can decide on the shapes you want to use for them. It's normal for certain steps to only require the use of a shape once, such as the first or last steps. You can use the system outlined above regarding shapes or develop your own. Remember to retain this information for later so that others can refer to it when interpreting your flowchart.

3. Organise the sequences

You can now start drawing the shapes in the order that you want them. Once you've done this, you can start adding the text that shows more detail within these boxes. You can also add extra information below the chart, as you typically don't want to cram too much text into these shapes. Remember that flowcharts are meant to be clear and easy to understand. Once you've completed your sequence, whether it's linear or circular, you can start adding lines or arrows that show the order of the steps.

You can do this initially with a pencil and paper if you prefer or use some basic drawing software on your device. There are also built-in tools in many standard software programmes that make it easier to design flowcharts, such as dedicated shapes, arrows and other such tools that you might want to use.

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4. Review the information

Once you've completed your flowchart it's important to check it to make sure that all of its information is accurate. It's equally important to check that your sequence is in the right order, which might require checking with anyone else who's involved in the process. For example, if you're a project manager, it can be a good idea to review the flowchart with others who are in charge of implementing the project, such as managers who are going to be in charge of particular processes.

5. Improve your processes

One of the main benefits of a flowchart is that it gives you a clear representation of how the work is going to be done. Once your flowchart is complete, you can use it to identify areas for improvement. For example, it may make it clearer to you that some processes could be simplified, or that there might be a need for greater communication between particular individuals to facilitate the work. This is another opportunity to show your flowchart to the others involved and get their input.

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Where are flowcharts useful?

Flowcharts can be useful in various settings, some of which are listed below:

Project management

Flowcharts can be very useful in project management settings, especially if you're the project manager. This is because they allow you to clearly outline the various inputs, outputs and processes that are necessary to complete a project. Most projects have a predetermined timeline or deadline for completion and you can use this to guide the development of your flowchart, which can also be designed to break down the steps into smaller milestones with their own deadlines.

Computer programming

Given that flowcharts are quite useful for tracking the flow of data and information, they can be used to help you write a computer program and explain it to the people you're working with. This can be used to determine and demonstrate the logic behind a code or program before the actual writing of the code, which is especially useful for automated processes and algorithms. They show how code is going to be executed, how navigating websites can be achieved and display how the code is going to be organised.

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Flowcharts can also be useful in educational settings. Educators may want to develop detailed plans for how to guide their students through a year or semester, especially when advanced courses require prior knowledge of others. This allows educators to design a comprehensive learning path for students from start to finish, including lesson plans, additional support for students who need it and examinations.

Business organisation

Many businesses require the collective work of many employees to contribute to a singular process, such as the provision of goods or services. Since you can modify flowcharts to include processes that branch off, combine or work in parallel, you can use them to visually represent how a business is organised. This can be useful for managers who are looking for ways to improve efficiency, locate the causes of delays or simply introduce how the business works to new staff.

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