Flow Charts – Chae York

March 2, 2011

The first structured method for documenting process flow, the "Flow Process Chart", was introduced by Frank Gilbreth to members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1921 in the presentation “Process Charts—First Steps in Finding the One Best Way” (1). These process tools quickly found their way into many types of curriculum, mainly Industrial Engineering. In the early 1930s, an Industrial Engineer, Allan H. Mogensen began using these processes and training business people in the use of some of the tools at many of his conferences.

The flowchart is a type of diagram that represents an algorithm or process, showing the steps as boxes of various kinds of processes and their order by connecting them by lines or arrows to show their movement. This diagrammatic representation can give a step-by-step solution to a given problem. Process operations are represented in these boxes, and arrows connecting them represent flow of control. Data flows are not typically represented in a flowchart, in contrast with data flow diagrams; rather they are implied by the sequencing of operations. Flowcharts are used in analyzing, designing, documenting or managing a process or program in various fields.

Flowcharts used to be a popular means for describing computer algorithms and are still used for this purpose, but they are heavily used in Business modeling. Modern techniques such as UML activity diagrams can be considered to be extensions of the flowchart. In the 1970s the popularity of flowcharts as an own method decreased when interactive computer terminals and programming languages became the common tools of the trade, since algorithms can be expressed much more concisely and readably as source code in such a language, and also because designing algorithms using flowcharts was more likely to result in spaghetti code because of the need to describe arbitrary jumps in control flow. Often pseudo-code is used, which uses the common idioms of such languages without strictly adhering to the details of a particular one (4).

Unlike data flow diagrams which are used to describe data flow within a system, flow charts are typically used to describe the detailed logic of a business process or business rule. In the past it was quite common to use flow charts to model the logic of large software modules, such as a 30,000 line COBOL program. However, because object methods are much smaller (a 30 line method would be considered quite large) flowcharts have dropped out of favor with programmers in recent years. That’s okay though because they’re still useful for process modeling. It is important to note that although the flowchart is much more detailed than the Data Flow Diagram you could just as easily gone to the same level of detail with both diagrams (2).

Unfortunately, the world of flow charting hasn’t come to an agreement on what to call flow charts. There are many titles for flowcharts and you will often hear them referred to as the following: flowchart, process flow chart, process map, process chart, business process model, process model, process flow diagram, work flow diagram, business flow diagram, or just flow diagram.

Another process flow diagram or Swim lane, visually groups processes or decisions in lanes. Swim lane Process maps are very similar to flow charts except they very explicitly show the organization structure. They differ only because they arrange the map on a table where the rows indicate the “who” does the process step. Where the “who” can be specified as an individual, a department, or an organization (5).

Flowcharts depict certain aspects of processes and they are usually complemented by other types of a diagram. In Business Process Modeling the use of a Flow Chart can greatly increase your success by helping you map out the workflow before you invest too much money going down the wrong path. Flow Charts also help identify why certain aspects of your business aren’t functioning properly. Flow Charts are not a fix all for process modeling, but can definitely can give you the “what if” I do this.

References:

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowchart

2. http://www.agilemodeling.com/artifacts/flowChart.htm

3. http://blogs.catapultsystems.com/BA/archive/2010/08/06/business-process-modeling-going-with-the-flow.aspx

4. Bohl, Rynn: "Tools for Structured and Object-Oriented Design", Prentice Hall, 2007

5. http://facultyweb.berry.edu/jgrout/processmapping/swim_lane/swim_lane.html

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