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Flowchart 101: Symbols, types, and how to create them

Team Asana contributor imageTeam Asana
May 17th, 2024
7 min read
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A flowchart is the perfect way to visualize a complex process for your team. There are over 30 standardized symbols you can use to create a flowchart. These symbols can indicate anything from a process to a document or decisions that need to be made. In this article, you’ll learn what the different shapes mean, when a flowchart can be useful, and what types of flowcharts you can implement at work.

Whether you're a business owner looking to streamline operations, a project manager aiming to keep your team on track, or a software developer designing a new application, flowcharts can be an invaluable tool. By breaking down complex processes into clear, logical steps, flowcharts help you identify potential bottlenecks, optimize workflows, and communicate ideas effectively. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the fundamentals of flowcharts, including their symbols, types, and practical applications.

What is a flowchart?

A flowchart is a diagram that illustrates the steps, sequences, and decisions of a process or workflow. While there are many different types of flowcharts, a basic flowchart is the simplest form of a process map. It’s a powerful tool that can be used in multiple fields for planning, visualizing, documenting, and improving processes.

Industrial engineers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth introduced the flowchart concept for the first time in 1921 when they presented it to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). Since then, flowcharts have been refined and standardized to optimize processes across various industries.

If you want to learn more about the variety of different types of flowcharts and flowchart symbols, you’ve come to the right place. We’re also going to cover how you can create flowchart diagrams and provide a few examples for inspiration.

Download a flowchart infographic

When to use flowcharts

Flowcharts can be helpful in a variety of scenarios, including when you need to:

[inline illustration] When to use flowcharts (infographic)

1. Documenting and standardizing processes

A flowchart is a wonderful way to map out and document a collaborative project or process. Once your flowchart is done, you can reuse it for similar projects and processes. This can save you and your team time—and stress—in the long run.

2. Visualizing complex ideas and systems

Not everyone on your team will have the time (or resources) to read through a complicated and lengthy process document. A flowchart allows everyone to follow the workflow, understand the tasks, and analyze the individual steps quickly and easily.

Read: What are workflows? 7 simple steps to get started

3. Organizing teams and assigning tasks

Visually representing a process can make it easier for you to assign tasks to team members and organize your team’s work so it all flows better.

4. Making data-driven decisions

Decisions often look way less intimidating and complicated when they’re mapped out in a flowchart. A flowchart can also help you see the consequences of your decisions, which makes it easier to anticipate and justify next steps.

5. Identifying and preventing bottlenecks

Flowcharts help you uncover bottlenecks or problems before they become issues. By mapping out the entire process with this visual guide, you can follow each step and ensure that you allocate enough time and resources to every task.

Read: If you like maximizing team impact, you’ll love resource allocation

6. Planning and tracking project progress

Since it’s so easy to follow the steps in your flowchart, you can always pinpoint where your team is currently at in the project or process. This makes tracking progress very easy and also gives you a great overview of the tasks that still need to be completed.

Read: 4 types of concept maps (with free templates)

Flowchart symbols and definitions

Flowcharts vary from quickly hand-drawn visualizations to help document or plan a process to comprehensive workflow diagrams created with a designated software. To make it easier for you to understand flowcharts across teams, departments, and even industries, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) set official standards in the 1960s, which were adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1970 and are continuously updated and improved. The latest version of this standard was confirmed in 2019.

When reading a flowchart, follow the Western standard, meaning you’ll read it from the top to the bottom and from the left to the right. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly used flowchart shapes, symbols, names, and meanings.

[inline illustration] Flowchart symbols: flowline, terminator, process + comment (infographic)
  • Flowline: The flowline shows the process’s direction by connecting two blocks with one another.

  • Termina or Terminator: The terminal or terminator represents the start or end points of a flowchart process.

  • Process: The process symbol is the most common component of a flowchart and indicates a step in the process.

  • Comment or Annotation: You can indicate additional information about a step with a comment or annotation.

[inline illustration] Flowchart symbols: decision, stored data, or symbol + input/output (infographic)
  • Decision: This symbol represents a decision you or your team need to make to get to the next step of the process. Typically, it’s a true or false decision or a yes or no question that you need to answer.

  • Stored data: This symbolizes a data file or database.

  • “Or” symbol: This indicates that the process flow continues in three or more branches.

  • Input/Output: The input/output symbol represents the process of inputting or outputting external data.

[inline illustration] Flowchart symbols: display, document, delay + manual input (infographic)
  • Display: This indicates a step that displays relevant information.

  • Document: This symbol represents a single document.

  • Delay: This symbol allows you to plan and represent any delay periods that will be part of the process.

  • Manual input: This symbol represents data or information that needs to be manually entered into a system.

[inline illustration] Flowchart symbols: manual operation, off-page connector, on-page connector + summoning junction symbol (infographic)
  • Manual operation: This symbolizes a manual operation or adjustment to the process.

  • Off-page connector: This symbol is used to connect two symbols that are on different pages.

  • On-page connector: This dot can connect two symbols and replace long lines, which allows for a cleaner flowchart.

  • Summoning junction symbol: This symbol is used to converge multiple branches back into a single process.

[inline illustration] Flowchart symbols: alternate process, predefined process, multiple documents + preparation/initialization (infographic)
  • Alternate process: The lines to this symbol are usually dotted. The symbol itself stands for an alternative to the normal process step, in case one is needed.

  • Predefined process: This symbol indicates a process that is already defined elsewhere.

  • Multiple documents: This symbolizes multiple documents.

  • Preparation or initialization: This symbol indicates a preparation or initialization step in the process.

Once you’ve learned what the symbols represent, you can read—or create—pretty much any type of flowchart and gain a better understanding of the visualized process. When you create a flowchart that needs different shapes or symbols, include a legend so it’s still accessible to your teammates.

Common types of flowcharts

Flowcharts come in various types, each serving a specific purpose in visualizing and analyzing different aspects of a process or system. Understanding the common types of flowcharts can help you choose the right one for your needs, whether you're documenting a workflow, designing an algorithm, or managing a complex project. Here are some of the most widely used types of flowcharts:

[inline illustration] Types of business flowcharts (infographic)

Decision flowchart

A decision flowchart focuses on the decision-making process, outlining the different paths and outcomes based on specific conditions or criteria. It helps teams evaluate and improve their decision-making strategies.

Process flowchart

Also known as a process flow diagram or process map, a process flowchart provides a step-by-step representation of a process, showcasing the sequence of tasks, decision points, and endpoints. It is useful for documenting, analyzing, and optimizing business processes.

Workflow diagram

A workflow diagram illustrates the flow of work and information between people, departments, or systems. It helps streamline processes, identify bottlenecks, and ensure efficient collaboration among team members.

Swimlane flowchart

Also called a cross-functional flowchart or swimlane diagram, this type of flowchart separates the process steps into lanes representing different actors, such as departments or roles. It is ideal for visualizing complex processes that involve multiple stakeholders.

Data flow diagram (DFD)

A data flow diagram (DFD) maps out the flow of data within a system, showcasing how data is processed, stored, and transmitted. DFDs are commonly used in computer programming and systems analysis to design and document information systems.

Program flowchart

A program flowchart represents the sequence of steps and decisions in a computer program or algorithm. It helps programmers design, document, and debug software applications using standard flowchart symbols and shapes.

System flowchart

A system flowchart represents the architecture and components of a system, including hardware, software, and their interactions. It is useful for designing, documenting, and troubleshooting complex systems.

Process flow diagram (PFD)

Similar to a process flowchart, a process flow diagram (PFD) provides a high-level overview of a process, focusing on the major equipment, material flows, and control loops. This type of diagram is commonly used in chemical engineering and industrial processes.

Event-Driven Process Chain (EPC) flowchart

An event-driven process chain (EPC) flowchart is a specialized type of flowchart used to model business processes in terms of events, functions, and logical connectors. EPCs are often used in conjunction with other process modeling methodologies, such as BPMN (Business Process Model and Notation).

Specification and Description Language (SDL) flowchart

SDL flowcharts are used in the design and documentation of real-time systems, particularly in the telecommunications industry. They provide a graphical representation of a system's behavior, including states, transitions, and actions.

By understanding these common types of flowcharts and their applications, you can select the most appropriate one for your project, whether you're using a flowchart template, a flowchart maker, or creating one from scratch.

Tip: You can find a process document flowchart in our article on process documentation and check out PERT charts for another common flowchart example.

Read: Incident management: How to create a plan (plus 7 best practices)

How to create a flowchart: Step-by-step guide

Creating a flowchart may seem daunting at first, but by following these simple steps, you can easily visualize your processes, workflows, or algorithms using a flowchart maker or software. Whether you're creating process charts, a decision flowchart, or a swimlane diagram, this guide will help you get started.

[inline illustration] Types of business flowcharts (infographic)

1. Define your purpose and scope.

Before you begin creating your flowchart, clearly define its purpose and scope. Are you documenting a business process, designing an algorithm, or visualizing a complex workflow? Understanding your goal will help you choose the right type of flowchart and determine the level of detail required.

2. Identify and organize tasks

Gather information about the process, workflow, or system you want to visualize. Brainstorm with team members and stakeholders to identify the key steps, decision points, inputs, and outputs. Use a whiteboard or sticky notes to organize your ideas and create a rough draft of your flowchart, outlining the main steps and structure.

3. Select the right flowchart symbols

Familiarize yourself with the standard flowchart symbols and shapes, including connectors, decision points, and end points. Choose the most appropriate symbols based on the type of flowchart you're creating, such as a process flowchart, data flow diagram (DFD), or swimlane diagram. Consistency in symbol usage ensures clarity and readability.

4. Draw and refine your flowchart

Use a flowchart maker or software like Microsoft Visio or Lucidchart to create a polished, digital version of your flowchart. These tools offer a wide range of templates, shapes, and connectors, making it easy to create professional-looking flowcharts for various use cases. Arrange the steps and decision points in a logical order, and use connectors to show the flow between them. Add annotations and labels to provide additional context and clarity.

5. Implement and optimize

Share your completed flowchart with your team members and stakeholders, and encourage feedback. Collaborate to ensure that everyone understands the process or workflow represented in the flowchart. Implement the flowchart in your organization and monitor its effectiveness. Continuously review and optimize your flowchart based on real-world experience and feedback, making adjustments as needed to improve efficiency and productivity.

By following these steps and leveraging the power of flowchart software and templates, you can create clear, effective flowcharts that help streamline your processes, workflows, and decision-making.

Download a flowchart infographic

Use flowchart templates to maximize your productivity

A flowchart is supposed to make your life easier, so utilize computer programs or app integrations like Lucidchart to create them. The Lucidchart + Asana integration seamlessly embeds diagrams, flowcharts, and process maps into your Asana project. Choose from thousands of templates to create all the flowcharts you need.

Download a flowchart infographic

FAQ: Flowchart

What is the difference between a flowchart and a process map?

Flowcharts focus on the sequence of steps and decisions in a process, using simple shapes and symbols. Process maps provide a more detailed view, including inputs, outputs, relationships between steps, and additional information like time and resources required.

How do I choose the right type of flowchart for my project?

Choose a flowchart type based on the purpose and complexity of your project. Basic flowcharts work for simple, linear processes. Swimlane diagrams or cross-functional flowcharts are better for processes with multiple stakeholders or parallel steps. Program flowcharts or data flow diagrams (DFDs), suit technical projects.

Can flowcharts be used for non-technical processes?

Yes, flowcharts can visualize and optimize processes in any industry or domain, such as customer service, marketing, or creative projects. By breaking down complex processes into clear steps, flowcharts help identify bottlenecks and improve efficiency in any field.

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