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 Quality Software

 March 1997

Using Flowcharts

for Performance Improvement

by Gordon Sellers

Click here for a list of 23 flowcharting programs, along with pricing, system compatibility and links to manufacturers' web sites.

From simple task analysis to preparing your organization for ISO 9000 registration, flowcharting helps you visualize and present your process in a way that written descriptions can't begin to approach. But forget about scratching out those diagrams with pencil and paper. Reasonably priced software packages practically draw your flowcharts for you, and many provide the added bonus of process simulation. What do you look for in a flowcharting package? Read on.



W. Edwards Deming is reported to have said: "Draw a flowchart for whatever you do. Until you do, you do not know what you are doing, you just have a job."

The efforts of quality practitioners have driven flowcharting tools vendors to continually enhance the capabilities of their products. There are now literally dozens of flowcharting tools available on the market. Their capabilities range from the very simplistic drawing functions -- little better than paper and pencil-- to advanced process mapping and simulation capabilities more commonly found in high-end manufacturing simulation modeling tools.

The need for process flowcharts is central to gaining an understanding of the activity that you are preparing to undertake. Flowcharts can be used as a guide to the performance of the activity or as a tool to assist you in analyzing the current and future planned performance of the process. They can be as simple as a sketch on a piece of paper that details "what happens next" or as complex as a virtual model of process behavior.

Today, a phenomenal number of companies are involved in some form of performance improvement effort. This means they are looking at their companies from a process perspective.

"A business process is a series of steps designed to produce a product or service," write Geary Rummler and Alan Brache, noted performance consultants who popularized the functionally deployed flowcharting method in their book Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart (Jossey-Bass, 1995)." Some processes (such as programming) may be contained wholly within a function. However, most processes (such as order fulfillment) are cross-functional, spanning the 'white space' between the boxes on the organization chart."

The process flowchart, as a graphical representation of how things get done in the company, can be a valuable tool for quality managers as they seek ways to improve their organization's performance.

What do quality practitioners need?

 At their most basic, all flowcharts consist of shape (the activities), lines (the flow) and text (a description of the activity). All of the flowcharting tools on the market today support these basics. However, there are many additional capabilities that make the flowcharts useful for quality practitioners. Following is a list and brief description of key features:



 Multiple page setup. This is important because most core processes are not conveniently one page in size. The ability to have off-page connectors -- that help you navigate from a point on one page to a point on another page -- and capabilities such as page numbering and headers/footers can be tremendous time savers. Also, being able to choose whether to print a large chart on 8 1/2" x 11" paper or on wall-sized plotter paper is an asset because some situations dictate the use of documentation stored in a binder while others require large display output.



 Shape numbering. In large, complex charts or even when discussing smaller charts with colleagues, finding a particular shape can be challenging. Being able to uniquely identify a particular shape can help you track cost, time or other characteristics of the activity that is associated or represented by the shape. Surprisingly, not all flowcharting software support automated shape-numbering conventions. Instead, they allow you to enter a number as part of your text field. This latter method gives you no unique way to identify the shape and use the software's power to sort and select information by shape number.


 Automatic line routing. Documenting complex process flows can quickly lead to the "spaghetti diagram" effect. This is the effect you get when there are so many overlapping shapes and lines that you can no longer decipher the intended process flow. Fortunately, the addition of several clever capabilities in today's advanced flowcharting software can help ease this trouble. A program's automatic line-routing capability can mean different things depending on the vendor, but the core capabilities include collision avoidance, auto line crossovers, and auto insert and delete.

Collision avoidance simply means that shapes cannot be positioned over other shapes, and shapes cannot be placed over lines so as to obscure the intended meaning of the flow path. If a user attempts to place one shape over another, the software automatically displaces them for clarity. Likewise, when the user places a shape over an existing flow line, the program automatically reroutes the line to accommodate the positioning of the new shape. Auto line crossovers show line-path intersections. This is important in understanding the correct routing of the line so the process steps are not misunderstood.

Auto insert and delete is particularly useful in editing charts where a shape must be removed from or added to the flow. This capability saves the need for tedious deleting and redrawing of the flow lines.



Ability to link other files to the charts. Despite the tremendous advantages of  documenting procedures and processes with the flowchart, there is no question that they do not stand alone. Consider the documentation required for ISO 9000 certification. If you were to use only a flowchart, it is unlikely that all the information necessary could be captured. Even if it could, it is not in a completely useful format for all to access. Many of today's flowcharting software packages will allow you to create a link between a shape or line on the flowchart and the supporting documentation. This documentation could be a procedures manual for the assembly of a subsystem,  the control chart showing the expected process performance or simply an explanatory note about a particular process step.

This linking capability also turns the static flowchart into a dynamic interface to the management of the process. Not only can you see the process and the flow, but you can access important information about its performance and operating characteristics.


Data fields. Data field refers to the ability to associate information, such as cost,  time, duration and utilization, with the shapes that represent each activity on the process flowchart. This data can appear on the flowchart so that you can easily see the relationship between the process step and its cost, cycle time or other process metric. It can also be used in analyzing the process, either with tools built into the flowchart program or as data exported to analysis tools such as SPC charting software.

These data measurements can show problem areas, such as extraordinary amounts of time (including waiting or holding times) and gaps in time that demand a process redesign.

 Analysis tools/reports. Being able to draw pretty pictures is not enough. For any substantive analysis to take place, the information contained in the process flowchart must be formatted to allow for easy reporting or for transfer to analytical tools.

Useful reporting functions such as input, output and metrics reports help show all aspects of data associated with the process flowchart. Some flowcharting tools support internal SPC charts, including Pareto, histograms and control charts. Others support data transfer to external SPC tools. Whichever method is used, this level of inter operability helps track process improvement, reveal problems and maintain process stability.

Some of the more advanced process flowcharting tools support simulation capabilities that can greatly enhance the understanding of the process dynamics. This capability can be used to predict how anew or redesigned process will perform before the company spends large amounts of money and time rolling out the real thing. It also allows the company to gain experience with the new process without using their employees, resources and customers as guinea pigs. In essence, simulations afford the company the luxury of testing their assumptions on a computer before making any changes to their business.

About the author

Gordan Sellers is president of Sellers & Associates Inc., a Dallas analyst firm providing information and consulting services for Fortune 1,000 companies seeking tools for business engineering and software vendors developing these tools.

For more information, contact Sellers at telephone/fax (214)484-1999 or e-mail sellerg@ix.netcom.com.


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March 97 Quality Digest