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ISO 9001 Flowcharts

Any discussion of ISO 9001 documentation inevitably brings up flowcharts. This article shows why flowcharts are such an important part of ISO 9001 documentation, what the benefits are, how they are used, and, most importantly, how to create your own flowcharts.

What Is a Flowchart?

A flowchart is an illustration that is used to represent a workflow, process or system. Flowcharts show the individual process steps (or activities) as boxes of various kinds; connecting arrows between the shapes indicate flow and sequence. Flowcharts are best used to give an easy-to-understand overview of often complex workflows and the interrelation of activities.

Flowcharts have been used to document business processes for about 100 years. In the 1920s, flowcharts were first used by industrial engineers to illustrate how work processes could be made more efficient; later flowcharts were also used to develop computer programs. Initially flowcharts were known as "flow process charts"; nowadays, flowcharts (often spelled as flow charts) are also used in specialized applications were they are referred to as process map, business process mapping, or process flow diagram.

Flowcharts are now the most widely used diagrams. For example, simple, hand-drawn flowcharts are frequently used on white boards during discussions of process design or improvement. Printed flowcharts are frequently used to give an overview before text describes the process in great detail. And there are complicated, computer generated flowcharts depicting interrelated systems with multiple routes.

In ISO 9001 quality management systems, flowcharts are commonly used as part of the ISO 9001 documentation. Particularly since the introduction of the process approach in ISO 9001 (which started with ISO 9001:2000 in December 2000), flowcharts have become the tool of choice to depict ISO 9001 process maps and the interrelation of ISO 9001 activities. Flowcharts are not only used to describe or summarize processes, systems and workflows but also as a tool when designing, reviewing and improving them.

Flowchart Shapes

The following explains how to create and read flowcharts. Though there exist numerous flowchart shapes, the following shapes are sufficient for most flowcharts. Each shape contains a brief description of the shape. Arrows are used to connect the different shapes in the correct order. In some cases, arrows also show a brief description as seen in the case of a decision below.

Process

The following represents the shape used to describe a process (or activity). In this example, the process is called “Check invoice”. The arrows show inputs and outputs of the process and are used to connect with the preceding and following processes.

How to show a process

Decision

This is the shape used to describe a decision. A decision in a flowchart has usually two or more possible outcomes. In this example, the decision is “Is the invoice correct?” and the two possible outcomes are “yes” and “no”. The arrows are labeled with the outcomes.

How to show a decision

Some decisions have several possible outcomes: the decision “From which supplier?” could have either of the outcomes “Supplier A”, “Supplier B”, or “Supplier C”.

How to show another decision

Document

The following shape describes a document. In this example, the document is called “Invoice”. This shape is typically used as the input or the output of a process.

How to show a document

Example of a Flowchart

The following example illustrates how to use all three shapes to define the interaction of processes:

How to use flowcharts

Flowcharting Tips

Though there are more flowchart shapes we highly recommend to keep it simple for the user. Some sophisticated shapes might make much sense to you, but most users will be confused as they won't understand the subtle differences. Unless you are creating a technical flowchart whose intended audience is familiar with specialty flowchart shapes, it's best to limit your shapes to the ones shown above.

On the other hand, feel free to use colors if it makes the flowchart more user-friendly. Colors can be used for various purposes including the following:

Highlight responsibility: An easy way to show the person or function responsible for particular processes in your flowchart is by using distinct colors for each person or function. This approach is particularly useful to describe individual responsibilities. Depending on the intended audience, it may be also useful to use colors to distinguish management processes from staff processes.

Highlight departments: If a flowchart covers more than one department, colors are an excellent tool to differentiate the activities of individual departments.

Color-code shapes: While shapes by themselves are sufficiently different, some people like to color-code each shape in a different color for improved clarity and beauty.

Background coloring: Rather than using colors on individual shapes, it is also possible to use background coloring to indicate groups of shapes that belong together (for example, they fall into the same department or the same person is responsible for them). This approach works best for consecutive shapes though it is also possible to adjust the layout by dragging shapes into "their color area".


Using Flowcharts for ISO 9001

Documentation is the backbone of any ISO 9001 system. The best documentation is also the most user-friendly documentation. For most people, pictures and illustrations work better than text. This is why flowcharts are frequently used for ISO 9001 documentation. However, the simplicity by which the sequence and interrelation of process steps can be depicted makes flowcharts also the ideal tool when designing quality management processes (and other business processes), when reviewing and analyzing processes, and when improving processes. The following shows you how to use flowcharts for ISO 9001:

Document a process

The documentation of processes has become a key requirement in ISO 9001:2015 mainly due to the new emphasis on process management (clause 4.4, Quality management system and its processes) and the requirements revolving around risk-based thinking (clause 6.1, Actions to address risks and opportunities). In fact, the word "process" shows up on about every page of the ISO 9001:2015 standard. While a process could be documented through other means (for example, text only), the easiest and also the most user-friendly way is through flow charts. In fact, it's widely agreed that the organizations process flow should be documented through a flow chart (in this context also called a process map).

Write work instructions

ISO 9001:2015 requires work instructions wherever such detailed instructions add value. Another requirement is that work instructions must be written with the user in mind. In other words, ISO 9001 certified companies utilize user-friendly work instructions. In many cases, pictures and diagrams are ideal when writing work instructions. A good example is the use of a flowchart in the beginning of work instructions. The flowchart serves as an overview or summary of the instructions while the following text then describes each of the activities in more detail (the ISO 9001 Quality Management Manual leverages flowcharts in this way). Work instructions that focus on the order and sequence of process steps but whose activities don't require further explanations may utilize a flowchart without any further, explanatory text.

Analyze a process

Analyzing processes as part of risk management and general improvement efforts is a common feature of ISO 9001 quality management systems. Processes are best analyzed when depicting the individual process steps, the sequence of activities, and how they are inter-connected with other activities. In other words, processes are best analyzed using flowcharts.

Design a process

Designing a new process requires us to figure out which activities are needed and in which sequence to put them. We often start by defining required activities, often further splitting them up at a later planning stage, and then looking for the best ways of connecting the activities into an efficient process flow with low potential for error and other risks. Depicting the activities in various box shapes and connecting them through connecting arrows is the definition of flowcharting.

Plan a new project

ISO 9001:2015 dedicates an entire chapter to the planning of new processes and projects (clause 8.1 Operational planning and control). The planning of a new project includes defining what the outcome should be, determining what inputs are already available, and the activities needed to convert the input into output. Planning is often started on a white board or piece of paper by drawing up boxes depicting activities and arrows connecting the boxe shapes. In other words, flowcharts are an ideal tool to start the planning process.

Create a job description

Job descriptions in ISO 9001 have traditionally been in the form of text. However, certain jobs that require a repetitive sequence of activities could very well be described through flowcharts.

Show document flow

Document flowcharts are flowcharts that show how documents flow through departments and business units and the kind of controls applied. Document flowcharts are particularly useful where a document of high importance needs to change hands in a particular order. In ISO 9001, process owners may utilize a document flowchart as part of risk management.

Create an organizational chart

Organizational charts are commonly used in ISO 9001 to meet the requirements for defining and communicating responsibilities and authorities. Organizational charts are different from flowcharts as there are no interrelated processes and sequences of activities. However, organizational charts utilize box shapes for the various positions and connecting lines (usually without arrows) to indicate reporting relationships. Hierarchie is typically shown by the location of the box shape: looking at two "position" boxes that are connected through a line, we would identify the position higher up in the organizational chart as higher up in the organizational hierarchy.

The above list will give you an idea of the vast use of flowcharts in ISO 9001. You will likely find additional applications for flowcharts that fit your company's individual circumstances, and individual departments may use them for their own purposes. In fact, there are so many applications for flowcharts in ISO 9001 that we can refer to them as ISO 9001 flowcharts.

ISO 9001 Flowchart Software

Using flowcharts on white boards or in notebooks doesn't require more than pen and eraser. For a more professional appearance, any drawing program, word processors like MS Word, and even presentation software like MS PowerPoint can be used to create flowcharts. Is it practical, though? The mentioned programs can be used to create boxes and arrows; it is possible to write into the boxes. Special shapes, like the one representing a document, already become a challenge. Once you are trying to make a change or add an additional step in the middle of a flowchart, you have definitely reached the limits of drawing programs, word processors and presentation software.

Even the practical limitations of planning out a process through hand-drawn flowcharts are quickly reached once the number of activities and the complexity of a flowchart increases. When connecting lines end up crossing each other like spaghetti, your flowchart will become so difficult to read that it quickly looses its usefulness.

A dedicated flowchart software will be much more easy and efficient to use. The benefits of flowcharting software include:

Pre-defined shapes allow you to simply drag and drop any flowcharting box shape into the flowchart.

Pre-defined connectors are used to connect box shapes through simple drag and drop.

"Glued-on" connectors maintain the connection between box shapes no matter how you move the shapes around.

Easy labeling of shapes and connectors by simply typing onto them.


A significant advantage arising from the features of flowchart software is that you can start drawing without planning your flowchart first. Simply start out with an idea, define some activities, connect them, move them around, add or remove activities... Your flowchart can slowly evolve, existing connections stay intact and layout automatically optimizes as you move shapes around. That's one of the beauties of flowchart software.

Conclusion

Flowcharts are commonly used in all aspects of the ISO 9001 quality management system. Flowcharts make ISO 9001 documentation more user-friendly, they are the ideal tool when depicting process flows, and they simplify the design, review, analysis and improvement of business processes. The ideal tool when creating ISO 9001 flowcharts is a dedicated flowchart software. We have carefully researched the different flowchart applications on the market and found MyDraw to be the best ISO 9001 flowcharting software.

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