Saturday, July 12, 2008

Project Quality Planning Tools: Flowcharting

Just as road maps are useful tools for reaching your destinations, flowcharts are the road maps used to reach project quality. A flowchart graphically represents a process and its activities in almost the same way a map represents an area.

Flowcharting is an effective quality planning tool you can use to describe an existing process or a proposed new process. You can use flowcharts when charting work on an object, when charting workers' tasks, when charting an operation or inspection process, and even when brainstorming.

For quality planning, flowcharting can help you identify problems in a process. Flowcharting will also:
  • result in disciplined thinking
  • facilitate communication about problems
  • illustrate how different elements fit together.
Some flowcharts are recorded in a narrative form, like an essay. For example, first you do this, and then you do this, and then you do this, and so forth. However, this method can be vague and hard to follow. Using charts and diagrams to map a process can allow information to be more clearly and easily understood.

There are 12 standard flowcharting symbols that indicate what is done to a product from one step to another. Everyone using this method on a project must understand the meaning of each symbol. Process information is placed inside or beside the symbols. Various symbols indicate an operation or an activity, movement or transportation, decision points, inspection, paper documents, and delay.

Symbols also indicate storage, annotation, direction of flow, transmissions, connectors, and boundaries, which are the beginning or end of a process. It's important to understand these symbols and how they add to the flowcharting process.

Flowcharts do not have to be drawn by specialists. They are researched and drawn by quality improvement teams. However, some training is usually necessary to draw an accurate flowchart.

Drawing a flowchart is drawing a picture of a process. With some training and practice, process flowcharts can be somewhat straightforward to create. To create a flowchart, follow the steps outlined below. Keep in mind, however, that drawing your first process flowchart is not easy. If necessary, quality improvement teams can call on an expert in their field to contribute to the process.
  • Step 1: Define the process steps. As a team, brainstorm to talk through the steps in the process. For an already existing process, examine the process in action. Suggestion: Write the steps on sticky notes.
  • Step 2: Sort the steps in order. Identify what is done at each step. Suggestion: Use the sticky notes from Step 1 and sort them in the proper order.
  • Step 3: Place the steps in the appropriate symbol. Use the standard symbols to sketch the flowchart. Suggestion: Make a rough copy at first. Then rework the graph to fix errors.
  • Step 4: Evaluate the steps. Check for completeness, efficiency, and problems. Review the actual process and then make any necessary revisions to the flowchart.
For every quality effect or problem in a project, a cause must be identified. Cause-and-effect diagrams, also called Ishikawa diagrams or fish-bone diagrams, focus on the causes of problems instead of the problems themselves. Cause-and-effect diagrams are often used in brainstorming sessions because they act as visual displays for breaking large problems into manageable parts. Follow these steps to construct a cause-and-effect diagram.
  • Step 1: Identify the problem or effect. Place a concise statement of the problem or effect in a box at the end of a horizontal line.
  • Step 2: Identify the causes. Identify the causes of a problem or effect in a brainstorming session by focusing on one cause at a time. Discussions usually will focus on methods, materials, people, information, machines, and environment. Identify any subcauses.
  • Step 3: Build the diagram. To build the diagram, organize the causes and subcauses into the diagram layout. Each branch represents cause-types such as materials, machines, and people. The subcauses connect to these branches.
  • Step 4: Analyze the diagram. Identify potential solutions weighing the cost-effectiveness and achievability of each solution.
Drawing a flowchart or diagram involves creating a picture of a process or effect. Both act as visual displays that assist with problem-solving. Once you and your project team become accustomed to using these tools for quality planning, they'll become an automatic part of your processes.

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