Most small businesses spend far too little effort designing and then documenting key processes and workflows. That’s a shame because so many benefits result from a simple yet well-designed flowchart. Ambiguity disappears. Accountability increases.
A flowchart is symbolic language. With basic shapes and remarkably few words, plus lines and directional arrows, a simple flowchart conveys extraordinary complexity and can become an object of clarity and even beauty. Complex logic and actions which would otherwise require tremendous of time to communicate can literally explain themselves. Training is simplified; confusion is minimized. Everyone can operate from the same page. Imagine that!
In our context a flowchart is a visual tool that helps us design and document business processes, sequences of prescribed actions, decisions, and events which occur in response to some trigger. Any well-crafted process will have these three things:
- Start: a definitive starting point (trigger)
- Process: a series of prescribed actions that result in a desired outcome
- End: a definitive ending point
Outcome. Each flowchart process must satisfy a specific business need or problem. The designed process provides a clear and proven logical path which remedies the problem it was designed to solve in accordance with the firm’s unique business logic and priorities.
Through the discipline of flowcharting, a firm initially captures, then perfects, and finally institutionalizes critical corporate knowledge. The flowchart itself and the resulting business process become a proven and approved ‘how we do things around here’. Key processes which differentiate your firm from your competitors are locked down. The process itself adds company value because you took the time to design it, evaluate it, improve it, document it, and finally deploy it. The process itself made the firm a better company.
A great flowchart is deceptive in appearance. The author distills the business problem the decision points and the actions necessary to achieve the desired outcome. All unnecessary clutter and excess verbiage is stripped away, leaving only the essence of the problem and its approved solution.
It is primarily for this reason (stripping away) that creating a great business process flowchart is remarkably difficult. Our minds continuously process complexity and alternative paths with such speed that we fail to see how many alternatives and options we dismiss without conscious awareness. The process of flowcharting flushes out the countless assumptions and decisions that guide our behavior every day. It forces us to ask very simple, fundamental questions, and stop muddying our thinking and actions with cluttered thinking.
Why mention all this? I have been doing business programming for years but it was never disciplined. Even relatively simple logic statements (if/then/else, do/loop, if not/exit) became confusing to write and difficult to debug. Once I began to use flowcharts, the process, the logic, and the results all improved. Furthermore (and perhaps most importantly), effective flowcharts enable me to communicate complex business ideas with my team of developers.
The image above is a relatively simple business application for sending SMS text messages when a customer’s order is ready. There certain types of customers who don’t get a message, and not all customers have provided the business with a cell phone. The flowchart shows at a glance exactly how the application handles each situation. The logical design accounts for many scenarios, to include spouse cell number, work email, etc.
If the business wants to send “Thanks” messages, the visual logic tells the developers and staff at a glance exactly who will get one, and under what circumstances.
Note that we used only three shapes: ‘start/stop’ ovals, ‘yes/no’ diamonds, and ‘do something’ squares. Not much training required for that, right? I strongly encourage you to add flowcharts to your business process design process. A logical picture really is worth a thousand words.