BACK TO BASICS
Flowcharts for a Smooth Ride
by Andy Turner, contributing editor
A flowchart might be one of the more basic of the seven tools of quality, but it is a very useful one. Flowcharts, also known as process maps, help paint a picture of a process to sort out steps and missteps.
According to ASQ’s Foundations in Quality Self-Directed Learning Series, flowcharts are useful to:
- Provide a common reference point when discussing and analyzing a process.
- Facilitate understanding of a common process or one that appears disordered.
- Facilitate the understanding of relationships and time sequences within a process.
- Help diagnose problems.
- Generate theories about potential root causes of problems.
- Document procedures.1
Pictures, engineering symbols or squares and rectangles all can be used to draw a flowchart. The basic flowchart symbols are explained in the key within Figure 1.
In a 1990 Quality Progress article on developing flowcharts, John T. Burr stresses the importance of having the right personnel involved and enough time allotted and making sure everyone in the group participates, sees the necessary data at all times and asks lots of questions.2 The retired assistant professor at the Center for Quality and Applied Statistics at the Rochester Institute of Technology offers several specific questions to consider when making a flowchart:
- Where does the service or material come from?
- How does it get to the process?
- Who makes the decision (if one is needed)?
- What happens if the decision is yes?
- What happens if the decision is no?
- Must anything else be done at this point?
- Where does the product or service of this operation go?
- What tests are performed on the process?
- What happens if the test is out of tolerance?
In the article, Burr adds that “why” generally should not be asked except in very specific situations because asking it might make team members defensive.3
Real Life Example
I serve as ASQ’s newsletter editor, responsible for the growing number of print and electronic newsletters the organization sends to members and non-members. Guiding the newsletters through delivery requires communication with internal and external representatives. An established pro-cess to prevent errors and ensure promptness and consistency is needed to make life easier for all involved.
Figure 1 shows the process I follow for the mailing of an electronic newsletter. The starting point of the process, symbolized with a circle, is sending the finalized layout I get from our production services workgroup and a work request to our Web offerings workgroup. The end of the process, also indicated by a circle, is the newsletter e-mailed by production services.
Four workgroups are involved in the process, and the path the process takes is clearly defined. Throughout the process, it must be determined whether information and links are correct before the next step can be taken. What happens if a decision is yes or no and who makes that decision is detailed in Figure 1.
Nancy R. Tague’s The Quality Toolbox suggests several methods to analyze your flowcharts.4
Flowcharts can be used for any number of processes by any organization and can help start a new process or refine an old one. Most important, they help ensure a process is sound and each person involved in the process knows what is expected.
- ASQ and the Holmes Corp., ASQ’s Foundations in Quality Self-Directed Learning Series, ASQ Quality Press, 2001.
- John T. Burr, “The Tools of Quality—Part I: Going With the Flow(chart),” Quality Progress, June 1990, pp. 64-67.
- Nancy R. Tague, The Quality Toolbox, ASQ Quality Press, 1995.