Step 3: Flow Chart the Process

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A Process flow chart, or flow diagram , is used to provide a visual representation of the process steps that a product or service follows.

  • To compare the "as is" process against the "should be", 
  • To assess the complexity level of the process, 
  • To identify non-value added operations, possible simplification and standardization opportunities, 
  • Depicts where defects do or may occur, 
  • To define data collection points, etc.

Flow Charts are often the starting point for process improvement. They are graphical displays that help create a common understanding of a process. A simple plot of the steps in a process can usually generate several improvement ideas.

It's a record of where actions are taken, decisions are made, inspections are performed, and approvals are required.  Often it may be the first accurate and complete picture of the process from beginning to end.

Before a team can improve a process, the members must understand how it works. 

To develop an accurate flow chart, a team should assign one or more members to observe the flow of work through the process. It may be necessary for observers to follow the flow of activity through the process several times before they can see what actually occurs.


Process Flow Chart

Reference: Juran's Quality Control Handbook

Flowchart Terminology

A. Terminal symbol (rounded rectangle) used to designate the beginning or end of a process flow. Usually identified as "start", "end", "beginning" or "stop";

B. Activity symbol (rectangle) used to designate an activity. A brief description of the activity is also included within this symbol;

C. Decision symbol (diamond) used to illustrate the point where a decision must be taken. Subsequent activities are dependent upon the decision taken at this point;

D. Flow line (arrow) indicates the direction of the process and connects its elements;

E. Connector symbol (circle) used to illustrate a break and its continuation elsewhere on the same page or another page;

F. Document symbol indicates a printed document pertinent to the process;
G. Delay symbol used to indicate that there is a delay or waiting period in the process.

Flowchart Major Considerations

The Process flow chart should be accurate and reflect the true process and not the "ideal" process.

This is an important tool for continuous process improvement and should not be under utilized. The same level of detail shall be provided for all the steps of the process map.

Teams need to be careful to depict what is really happening in the process. Don’t fall into the trap of flow charting how people think the process is working,how they would like it to work, or how an instruction or manual says it should work. Only an as-is flow chart that displays the process as it is actually working today can reveal the improvements that may be needed.

Teams that work on processes that cross departmental or functional lines must talk to people at the appropriate level  who are involved in or affected by the process they are working on. It is even more important to get an accurate picture of these cross-functional processes than those whose boundaries are inside a work unit or office.

As an example, “designing a new product” is a cross-functional process involving contributing processes performed by mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software engineers, manufacturing engineers, safety personnel, procurement personnel, finance folks, and many others, Each of these contributing processes has to be accurately flow charted and clearly understood before the larger process can be improved.

The goal of the flow charting step is for the team to fully understand the process before making any attempt to change it. Changing a process before it is fully understood can cause more problems than already exist.

Flowchart Application Cookbook

1. Determine the limits of the process to map.

  • Clearly define where the process begins and ends;
  • Agree on the level of detail to show in the process map.

2. Determine the steps in the process.

  • In a brainstorm session, list major activities, inputs, outputs and decisions.

3. Identify the sequence of the steps.

  • Draw the steps in the same order as they are carried out without any arrows;
  • Define what "is" and not what "should be" (By comparing these, two probable causes of problems may be identified and solved).

4. Draw the Process Flow Diagram using the standard symbols presented herein.

  • Label each process step using words that are understandable by everyone;
  • Add arrows to show the direction in which the process flows;
  • Identify the process map with its name, date, and names of the team members.

5. Test the Process Flow Diagram to ensure that it is complete.

  • Are the symbols used correctly?
  • Are the process steps clearly identified?
  • Is every feedback loop closed?
  • Does every continuation point have a corresponding point elsewhere in the process map?
  • Do all activity boxes have only one arrow coming out of them? (If not, a decision diamond may be needed instead of an activity box);
  • Validate the process map with colleagues that are not part of the team and who carry out the activities depicted in the process map. Highlight their comments to the team and incorporate their comments as applicable.

6. Finalize the Process Flow Diagram.

  • Is this process being run the way it should be?
  • Are people/departments following the process as mapped?
  • Are there obvious redundancies or complexities that can be reduced or eliminated?

7. How different is the current process map from an ideal one? Draw an ideal process map. Compare the two to identify discrepancies and opportunities for improvement.

Creating a Flow Chart

flow chart process

Process for creating a Flow Chart.

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Quality Improvement Process

Step 1: Select the process to be improved and establish a well-defined process improvement objective. The objective can be established by the team or come from management.

Step 2: Organize a team to improve the process. This involves selecting the “right” people to serve on the team; identifying the resources available for the improvement effort, such as people, time, money, and materials; setting reporting requirements; and determining the team’s level of authority. These elements should be formalized in a written charter.

Step 3: Define the current process using a flow chart. This will generate a step-by-step map of the activities, actions, and decisions which occur between the starting and stopping points of the process.

Step 4: Simplify the process by removing redundant or unnecessary activities. It's likely that people may be seeing the process on paper in its entirety for the first time from Step 3. This can be a real "eye-opener" which will prepare them to take the first steps in improving the process.

Step 5: Develop a plan for collecting data and collect baseline data if it's not already being collected. This baseline data will be used as a "yardstick" later in the quality improvement process. This begins the
evaluation of the process against the process improvement objective established in Step 1. The flowchart in Step 3 is used to help determine who should collect data and where in the process data should be collected.

Step 6: Assess whether the process is stable. Create a control chart or run chart out of the data collected in Step 5 to gain a better understanding of what is happening in the process. Future actions of the team are dictated by whether special cause variation is found in the process.

Step 7: Assess whether the process is capable. Create a histogram to
compare the data collected in Step 5 against the process improvement objective established in Step 1. Usually the process simplification actions in Step 4 are not enough to make the process capable of meeting the objective and the team will have to continue on to Step 8 in search of root causes. Even if the data indicate that the process is meeting the objective, the team should consider whether it is feasible to improve the process further before going on to Step 14.

Step 8: Identify the root causes which prevent the process from meeting the objective. Use a cause-and-effect diagram or brainstorming to generate possible reasons why the process fails to meet the desired objective.

Step 9: Develop a plan for implementing a process change based on the possible reasons for the process’s inability to meet the objective set for it. These root causes were identified in Step 8. The planned quality improvement involves revising the steps in the simplified flowchart created after changes were made in Step 4.

Step 10: Modify the data collection plan developed in Step 5, if necessary.

Step 11: Test the changed process and collect data.

Step 12: Assess whether the changed process is stable . Same as Step 6, use a control chart or run chart to determine process stability. If the process is stable, the team can move on to Step 13; if not, you should return the process to its former state and plan another change.

Step 13: Assess whether the change improved the process. Using the data collected in Step 11 and a histogram, the team determines whether the process is closer to meeting the process improvement objective established in Step 1. If the objective is met, the team can progress to Step 14; if not, the team must decide whether to keep or discard the change.

Step 14: Determine whether additional process improvements are feasible. The team is faced with this decision following process simplification in Step 7 and again after initiating an improvement in Steps 8 through 13. In Step 14, the team has the choice of embarking on continuous process improvement by reentering the model at Step 9, or simply monitoring the performance of the process until
further improvement is feasible.

14 Step Quality Improvement Roadmap

Quality Improvement Process Roadmap

From Flow Chart to Six Sigma Tools.

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