Organizational Structure

What is a Process Flow?

By Matt Hallowes

Last updated: Feb 15, 2023

    Table of contents

Process flows are most helpful for identifying inefficiencies or simplifying complex systems and in this we provide a step-by-step guide for creating one.

Organizations use process flows to simplify systems, protocols, and procedures. These graphical representations help humans visualize systems or processes, making them easier to understand.

Process flows are most helpful for identifying inefficiencies or simplifying complex systems, like a software application. This article explores various process flows, a step-by-step guide for creating one, and best practices.

What is a Process Flow?

A process flow is a visual representation of the sequential steps in a business process. The idea is a common engineering practice, but many tech companies use process flows to standardize and optimize their operations.

Workflow can often be confused with process flow. The main difference between a workflow diagram and a process flow diagram is that workflows set out the steps required to accomplish a task, and process flow is used to accomplish an organizational goal.

What is a Process Flow Diagram?

A process flow diagram (PFD) shows each step using symbols; the most commonly used for business include the following:

  • Start or end (elongated circle)
  • Decision (diamond)
  • Activity/task (square)
  • Time delay (half square/circle)
  • Direction (arrow)
  • Document

What is the Purpose of Process Flow?

The primary reason for a process flow is to help organizations standardize processes and protocols with a step-by-step visual map. Some other purposes and benefits of process flows include:

  • Quality control
  • Resource allocation and planning
  • Creating alerts and reminders
  • Triggering automation sequences
  • Optimizing and improving processes
  • Identifying bottlenecks and other inefficiencies
  • Risk management
  • Streamline onboarding
  • Improve communication and collaboration

What are the Different Types of Process Flows?

Here are some of the most common types of process flows.

  • Process Flowchart: Commonly used to map a new project. Designers and developers often use process flowcharts to map new product or feature rollouts.
  • Swimline Flowchart: Often used to map internal or external process documentation requirements to comply with standards reporting or government regulations.
  • Workflow Diagram: Step-by-step systems and protocols for managing workflows to ensure teams follow standard operating procedures.
  • Data Flow Diagram (DFD): Shows how a system processes the flow of data, including inputs and outputs. System developers often use DFDs to map user journeys—like an eCommerce checkout flow.
  • EPC Diagram: An event-driven process chain (EPC) is a flowchart for modeling business processes using specialized symbols.
  • SDL Diagram: Companies often use SDL (Specification and Description) diagrams for mapping algorithms and network design. SDLs are fantastic for visualizing complex processes, allowing software engineers to problem-solve quicker.
  • Process Map: Organizations often use process maps to diagnose problems and troubleshoot. A process map breaks processes into small steps so troubleshooters can identify inefficiencies and improvement opportunities.
  • Process Flow Diagram (PFD): Also known as a flowsheet, PFDs are commonly used for chemical and process engineering processes. Complex PFDs that incorporate multiple processes are called block diagrams or schematic flow diagrams.

How do you Make a Process Flow?

Here is a 6-step process for mapping a process flow. This example is best for modeling a typical business process like an EPC diagram, but you can apply these principles to most process flows. We'll use a procurement process flow to provide examples and context.

Step 1 - Define the Process Flow's Goal

The first step is to define the process flow's goal. What is the purpose of this process? What do you want to achieve? Try to be specific.

For example, an organization might have different procurement processes for physical goods, services, suppliers, international suppliers, etc. For physical goods, your goal might be A procurement process for ordering IT equipment within the United States.

Step 2 - Name the Process Flow

Once you have a goal, you can name your process flow. Organizations often employ standardized naming conventions to help organize and categorize process flows.

Step 3 - Define the Process Scope

Defining the process scope will help identify the start or trigger and end of your flow and the steps you must include.

For example, the start and end for a procurement process flow for physical goods might look like this:

  • Start: Identify a need for the product
  • End: A signed delivery note from the Goods Receiving department

The scope also lists the steps you want team members to follow. You might include relevant department representatives who know internal processes and their required steps.

For example, the accounts department might require a signed purchase order and invoice displaying the relevant PO number before they're allowed to process a payment.

For our procurement process, your list might include:

  • Identify a need for the product
  • Request for Quotation (RFQ)
  • Source quotations
  • Generate purchase order
  • Authorization signatures (department lead, procurement officer, accounts payable, goods receiving)
  • Place order
  • Send invoice to accounts
  • Pay the supplier
  • Receive the goods The scope doesn't have to outline each point in detail, just the most important steps or milestones.

Step 4 - Document the Process in Sequence

With your goal and scope, it's time to work through the process, mapping each decision and activity to reach the end goal. Documenting the process should be a team effort where representatives from relevant departments meet to discuss each step in detail.

It's best to use a whiteboard and sticky notes so the whole team can visualize the process and make quick changes. You can also use a free tool like Google Jamboard to collaborate in a remote environment.

Step 5 - Assign Roles & Responsibilities

Where possible, it's important to assign a specific team member responsible for decisions and activities to optimize the process while creating transparency and accountability.

Step 6 - Build the Process Flow Diagram

The last step is to create the process flow diagram to share with team members and stakeholders. It's critical to follow industry-standard symbols and best practices to ensure everyone can read and understand the diagram.

Process Flow Tips and Best Practices

These tips and best practices will help you create and optimize your process flow diagrams.

Gather Research

Whether you're optimizing an existing process or designing a new one, it's crucial to research the process and gather insights before you attempt creating the diagram.

One Task or Action per Step

Each step in your process flow diagram must only represent a single task or action. Multiple actions within a step often lead to confusion or team members skipping tasks. Think of each step in your diagram as a single milestone team members must complete to reach the end goal.

For complex activities, consider creating a child flow diagram or sub-process team members must complete before proceeding to the next step on your primary chart.

Make Decision Diamonds Explicit

The arrows from your decision diamonds must use explicit labels, preferably with a question for team members to answer yes or no so they know which branch to follow. For example, Approved? or Denied?

Create Space

Create space between your diagram's symbols and never allow arrows to cross over each other, especially for dangerous process flows. Overlapping elements could confuse people and lead to costly mistakes.

Be Consistent

Always use the same symbols, layout, and spacing for process flow diagrams. This consistency will eliminate confusion while ensuring team members can read and follow every chart.

Use a Diagram Key

Including a key makes your process flows accessible to those who might be unfamiliar with flow diagrams or how to read them.

Implement Controls

Controls or roadblocks are essential for dangerous, high-value, or sensitive activities. These controls prevent costly errors with checks and balances.

For example, in our procurement example, you might introduce a decision diamond for purchases over $10,000. If no?, proceed as normal; if yes?, you must get CFO sign-off.

Process Flow Tools

You can create process flows using a pen and paper, but there are many helpful flowchart tools to build professional diagrams. Here are some recommendations:

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