How flowcharts may hurt more than help

Flowcharts, along with their slightly more complex swim lane and BPMN derivatives, are the most common process modeling formats in use by far. A survey of the current top 10 process management software products found that each document processes in one of these flowchart-based formats. Why? Primarily, because they give users the ability to visualize work as a simple series of logical steps. As such, they establish an elementary way to reference and convey how things are done.

However, creating and managing these models come with significant levels of hidden effort, issues and opportunity costs that often outweigh the value gained by their maintenance. As a result, many firms half-heartedly invest in process documentation as a commonly accepted component of good business practice, but lack awareness of the potential or means to benefit from process analysis and improvement. Here are some of the reasons why flowchart-based formats often fall short of expectations.

1) Users underestimate the time and effort needed to create and alter flowchart-based models

The use of symbols, lines and specialized syntax require careful attention to logic, alignment and spacing to ensure two-dimensional models are readable and correct. As a result, revisions or corrections generally result in the need to completely reconfigure and redraw models.

2) The consistently of model accuracy and readability is difficult to maintain

Lack of proficiency and the abuse or interpretation of symbols and conventions often result in inaccurate, confusing models. This is exacerbated when the modelers face unfamiliar context areas or complex processes.

3) Flowchart-based models are generally not suited for long, complicated processes

Readability issues arise when flowchart-based processes are complex, lengthy or have a multitude of participants. Standard dimensions place limits on the amount of information that can be documented on any one page. Most modelers try to document processes within two to three printable pages. However, lengthy or complex processes may result in models that scroll out towards 10 pages. Similar issues exist when swim lane diagrams need to document more participants than room allows.

To compensate for dimensional restrictions, many flowcharts are subtly over-simplified to fit. On the other hand, if processes are extremely complex, some modelers will attempt to condense and cram to the point where readability suffers. Either adjustment may result in the loss of technical details.

4) The lack of comprehensive data makes processes difficult to understand, analyze and convey

Flowchart-based models are basically pictures that lack the data needed to fully analyze management parameters like cost, utilization or efficiency. Swim lanes add a bit more insight into ‘who’, but still generally lack facilitated support for ‘when’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and the more critical aspects of ‘how’. As a result, usability suffers when models need to be supplemented by additional references, such as operating procedures, architecture diagrams and organization charts to gain an integrated understanding of the process.

The current state of flowchart-based models continues to provide a basic format for management review and discussion, but lack the capabilities needed for effective, facilitated analysis and improvement. To meet those requirements, users need to look for software products that, a) support the capture of comprehensive, integrated data, b) utilize spatial dimensions and internal algorithms to automate the creation of compact, accurate models, and c) provide access and advanced analytical capabilities to benefit from standardized process data.

TOPO is a software-as-a-service, business analysis engine developed by Partisan Consulting, Ltd. Users are given the means to fully interact, understand and work within a touch-enabled environment of 3D process models, integrated operational data, facilitated analysis, auto-generated standard operating procedures and references. To learn more, please visit our website at TOPO page, or the TOPO Business Analysis Engine page on Facebook.

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