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What is a Flow Chart?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated May 16, 2024
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A flow chart visually depicts a process or the stages of a project. Frequently used in business, it provides a common reference point for those involved in a project or procedure. It is also a helpful point of reference to find errors in a process or project.

Businesses might use separate flow charts to depict actual processes and best processes, and then compare the two to improve processes. A chart is also an effective method to train employees on a new process. Frequently, one is used to facilitate agreement on the steps of a project or process. Common benefits of flow charting are better understanding of a process, quality improvement, and a clearer understanding of the relationship between customers and suppliers.

The modern flow chart is associated with early depictions of the logic of computer programs; however, it can be used for any purpose, not just for business processes. A chart might depict assembly instructions for a consumer product, a timeline for an organization fundraiser, or directions from one destination to another. Application software might use such a chart of tasks in its user documentation.

A flow chart includes start and end points, with inputs, outputs, possible paths, and decisions along the way. Most use basic symbols; start and end steps are usually oval or rounded rectangles. A rectangle represents a step in the process and a diamond shape indicates a decision. Arrows leading out of a decision diamond have corresponding yes/true or no/false routes.

Circles depict operations and an arrow-shape means transportation. A triangle indicates storage and a square represents inspection or measurement. Other shapes symbolize data input and output, single and multi-page documents, manual operations, delays, and next-page connectors. The symbols contain identifying text.

To indicate a joint process, a flow chart will combine two or more symbols. Arrows between the symbols depict the flow of steps. A simplified one might utilize arrows only to show the flow of action. Not all charts use symbols; some use graphics to indicate a product or process.

When designing a flow chart, a person should first assemble information about the flow of the existing or anticipated process. He or she can then create a trial process chart using the simplest symbols possible. Other people should be asked to look for flaws and make the necessary changes. When developing a flow chart, individuals should be sure to clearly define its boundaries. Many basic office software programs include functions for creating these charts, and there are also specialized programs just for the process.

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Discussion Comments
By anon127176 — On Nov 15, 2010

This is a good explanation of flow charts. I've been looking for an online software to use. Trying out LucidChart right now and so far, so good.

By PurpleSpark — On Jul 25, 2010

@oceanswimmer: The two are similar but not exactly the same. An algorithm is a step by step problem solving procedure for a problem that has many steps. A flowchart can be used to show an algorithm.

A good example would be a cardiac arrest algorithm used in pre-hospital care. A question would present such as: Is the patient breathing? If yes, do one thing and if no, do another thing. Flowcharts could be used to represent each function that you would be doing. A flowchart uses colors and shapes to indicate certain procedures.

By OceanSwimmer — On Jul 25, 2010

Is a flow chart the same thing as an algorithm?

By anon418 — On Apr 24, 2007

what is checklist for supplier visits?

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