Organizations employ a number of formulas to improve their business operations
and get more "bang for their buck". Effective programs invariable get down to an
examination, analysis and improvement of the business processes. Using a process
flowchart to define the existing system is an essential first step to
improvement that is often overlooked or addressed superficially. This article
takes a look at a couple of common flowcharting methods being applied today
with a focus on the detail process charting methodology that was introduced over sixty
Organizations are continually reminded of the need to understand their business processes.
Governments demand it. Certification Agencies demand it. Auditors demand it. Competition demands it.
People recognize that there is value in understanding the details of the work
they do. They know they should understand the mechanics of their processes .
They know that understanding their processes will enable them to do a
better job. But most people have not been exposed to proven tools and methods
and have not learned HOW to study their work. Conscientious people will dig into
the details of their work, apply the tools that are available to them and try to
figure out how to improve their lot. When a work process is completed by one
person, that person may have sufficient understanding of the work to make
significant improvements to the way the work is done. On the other hand, when
the work a person does is just a part of a larger process, their understanding
of their own work and attempts to streamline their piece of the process in a
vacuum (without considering the rest of the process) may create more problems
than they solve. Over the past twenty-some years, a number of process-focused
programs have emerged (Reengineering, BPI, Six Sigma, lean) and evolved. Government
mandates (Sarbanes-Oxley, PIPEDA) and Certification Organizations (ISO) have focused
on process as well. All of these programs, mandates, certifications suggest process
documentation as a starting point.
For nearly a century, people in a position to study work have recognized that a
picture of the work flow is an invaluable tool for understanding the work. The
first method developed specifically for flowcharting work flow was developed in
the early 1900s. It was unveiled to the world in a paper presented the American
Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 1921. In 1947, ASME adopted an evolved
version of the flowcharting symbols and method for applying them as a national
standard for Process Charting. Since that time, several techniques have been
developed or adapted specifically for charting the flow of business or
Tool or Method?
General Diagramming Packages
There are a lot of tools available that provide symbol sets. But if the
symbols are not wrapped in a methodology, then the charter has to invent one.
(Collecting the data, stringing the symbols together, handling rework…unusual
situations…) The most common tool for drawing flowcharts is the general purpose
drawing package. Unfortunately, principal features of these packages, “free form
drawing style and many, many symbols” are precisely what make them less suited
to documenting business processes. In general, they do not provide the structure
to support a specific technique. They typically do provide the symbol sets for
various techniques – but no instruction or built-in structure to ensure a
technique is applied correctly. Good charts can be prepared with these
applications, but it requires an understanding of a flowcharting method along
with the discipline to adhere to the method. A lack of consistency in method
will usually mean a short life. Many of today's process maps are as much a
blueprint for building and understanding procedures and processes as a
photograph is a blueprint for developing an automobile. They look clean and
streamlined… because they are missing something… the detail of how to get the
The most recognizable flowcharting method (which includes many variations)
is derived from the System & Program Flowcharting method promoted by IBM in the 1960s.
This methodology was originally developed
to document program flow – a task suited to a single-line flow. It is not
well-suited to the documentation of business processes that include many
interrelated flows. A common variation of this approach is called a swimlane
diagram or a multi-column chart1. Swimlane diagrams divide the
flowchart into rows that represent the locations or people involved in the
process. When the process flows to a different area, the flowline moved to a
While this methodology provides high-level
visibility over the areas (or people) involved, it is still limited to a single-line flow,
which by its nature is high level. It doesn’t provide visibility over multiple
items and it and doesn’t readily handle parallel processing. How often do we use
parallel processing? How often do you use multi-part forms? How often do you
make copies of documents that go to different people? If your organization has a
copier, there is likely parallel processing. How often do you send an email to
more than one person? Does your organization distribute copies of reports to
more than one person? These activities are not likely to be apparent on a single
IDEF is a process modeling standard developed by the USAF in the 1970’s and
standardized by the Federal Government in 1993. An IDEF0 model consists of a
hierarchical series of diagrams, text, and glossary cross-referenced to each other.
The two primary modeling components are functions (represented on a diagram by
boxes) and the data and objects that relate to those functions (represented by arrows).
IDEF0 introduces greater levels of detail by drilling down through hierarchical levels to new diagrams.
Each diagram includes just a few boxes.
Because the fundamental element of an IDEF process chart is a function, it does
not provide clear visibility over delays, it doesn’t provide clear visibility
over relationships between documents, it is difficult to see how a piece of the
process really fits into the big picture (how a change in one function will
impact other areas in the process).
Detail Process Charts3
Information processes include flows of numerous documents, forms, email,
systems, parts, people… that are all tied together to accomplish a process
objective. Understanding the steps along EACH flow and the relationships between
the items is crucial to understanding a process - detail process charts show
the steps and the relationships.
The Detail Process Charting methodology (also known as Graham Process Mapping)
was developed by Ben S Graham Sr in the
1940s and is derived from the work simplification Flow Process Charting methodology.
The work simplification charting method includes a small, well thought out
symbol set and methodology that provides elegant structure to the task of
process charting. The fact that the work simplification symbol set was adopted
as the ANSI and ASME standards for Process Charting over fifty years ago is testimony
to its fundamental simplicity. It has flowed through a half century of new
technologies and constantly changing processes with the grace of an
alphabet…because it is fundamental. It is basic. It breaks the work down into individual
elements to get to the root of our processes. It speaks the language of process.
It is unfortunate that this symbol set (and many others) are included in a number of
diagramming packages with little or no instruction on how to apply them correctly.
Four basic symbols represent doing work, checking work, moving work from one
location to another and nothing happening.
Four additional symbols represent variations of doing work. The four variations
of doing work include three variations of value-added work and a symbol
representing destruction or termination. The value-added symbols are the Do
symbol for manufacturing processes and the Originate and Add/Alter symbols for
information processes. That’s it! Eight symbols.
The beauty of this method is its inherent problem-solving format. It breaks down the work to
INDIVIDUAL elements. The processing of each item (document, form, letter, log, record, file, email…) is
represented as a horizontal line. Charts flow left to right. The name of the
item is identified in a label at the beginning of the line and the activities
(AND periods of non-activity) that occur are represented with symbols laid along
the line in sequence.
Most information processes include the processing of several items. A relationship between two
items is displayed with a vee-shape line that points from the item providing information (the open
end of the vee) into a symbol that represents the activity that happens to the other item.
These relationships between items are what tie many items together as a single process.
With a multi-flow chart, when the work divides or separates, the chart
separates. What had previously been a single flow line becomes multiple flow lines.
This takes us back to our fundamental concept of breaking the work down into individual elements.
Even at a bird’s-eye view, the number of items in this simple process stands
out. Every horizontal line is a different item. Each is identified in the Label
at the left end of the line.
The Advantage of Detail Process Charts
Simple, high-level charts can appeal to people who do not want to get into
the detail. But, the detail does not go away because it is ignored. If we want
to engineer our processes we need the detail. Here are some of the advantages
that detailed process charts provide.
The Chart Items
With Detail Process Charts, every item in the process is represented as
horizontal line beginning with a label. The processing steps occur in sequence
along each line. The activities that are represented by the steps are happening
TO the item named in the label. This avoids a great deal of confusion and
protects us against loose ends that have not been thought through. Single-flow
process maps necessarily group many items together in a single step (activity)
thereby obscuring the flow and relationships of individual items.
Horizontal Flow - Left to Right
A breakthrough (in the 1940s) that led to our current ability to chart
large, complex processes was keeping the lines horizontal, flowing from left to
right. Charts that wander make sequence hard to follow. This is the typical
nature of single flow process maps. Also, horizontal charts are easy to display,
regardless of their size. It is easier to read a chart, whether it is three feet
or twenty-three feet in length, if it is horizontal rather than vertical.
Charts Show Actual Work, Not Theory
What is recorded is what actually happens, not what theoretically could or
should happen. The data is assembled empirically and the fact that each item has
its own line assures that the process will be thought through. An open end of a
line begs the question, what happens next.
Non-Value Added Work is Apparent
When people think through a work process without dealing with individual
items they tend to focus on the major actions. These are invariably the
value-added steps, the things that move the process along to completion.
Meanwhile, real world processes usually have eight or ten non-value-added steps
(that account for over 90% of the processing time) for every one that adds
value. Most other methods don’t distinguish value-added steps or steps of
Consistent Knowledge of Location
The arrow symbol identifies every time the location changes. Therefore, it
is simple for a person to determine location for every item throughout all of
the steps of a workflow. All that is needed is to trace backwards from the step
in question to the last arrow.
Document Redundancy is Obvious
When you display the items, redundancy becomes obvious. Where the individual
items are not displayed, redundancy is buried in the flow.
Controls Points are Identified
The inspection symbol identifies each time an item is checked to see if it
is right. Careful study of Graham Process Maps sometimes reveals costly omissions
where inspections that should be conducted are not. Detail Maps also reveal
inspections that are completely redundant and unnecessary.
Records Storage and Disposal
Because each item in the process has its own line, the final disposition of
each item is apparent. This is a major advantage when it comes to making
decisions as to which records must be retained and which can be disposed of.
Each item line that displays a record ends with symbols and words that identify disposition.
Detailed Charts Provide a Vehicle for Harnessing Detailed Experience
When experienced people read through a process chart that includes their
work, they have no difficulty recognizing their portions and seeing how they fit
into the bigger picture. When these people are assembled as a team, they have
the appropriate collective knowledge to make informed decisions about the whole
process. A by-product of this teamwork is improved cooperation.
When teams of people from different areas work together, the team members
develop improved understandings of each others work. This tends to diminish
interdepartmental disagreements and establishes a forum for creating
organizational rather than departmental solutions.
Good people who understand parts of the process may get some value using
high-level charts for improvement. Some modify the method to incorporate genuine
detail process symbols (or steps) to denote delay, transportation… This is a
testimony to capable people who manage to be successful despite having
inadequate or inferior tools. High-level charts may provide enough structure to
help an analysis team stay focused on the process and challenge the process
blocks in sequence. HOWEVER, the team will have
to dig into details to make good decisions about the process. Those same good people
would do a better job, more easily with detail process charts.
Detail charts may be intimidating at first glance. However, the chart is a
reflection of the process. If the chart is complicated, the process is
complicated. If it is a challenge to understand complicated detail process
charts, how else will we understand the more complicated processes they represent?
We need to instill into our organizations a discipline to become masters of our
processes and not slaves to them. Learning the language of process – detail
process charting – will help us get there.
Process Charting: It’s use in procedural analysis
(Management Bulletin, Executive Office of the President, Bureau of the Budget, November 1945)
Draft Federal Information Processing Standards Publication 183
(1993 December 21)
Announcing the Standard for INTEGRATION DEFINITION FOR FUNCTION MODELING (IDEF0)
3Ben B Graham,
Detail Process Charting: Speaking the Language of Process
(John Wiley & Sons, 2004)