Visual Mapping Strategies, A Mess of Options

Visual Mapping and Flow Charts

Ever wondered what the differences between things like flow charts and process maps were? Are they actually different at all or are they just different names for more or less the same thing? What problems do each address? When should you use one over the other?

If you have ever been confused by the throwing around of these terms, this quick guide should set you straight in no time flat.

The Basics

In short, both flow charts and process maps are visual mapping strategies, their primary purpose is to let you get a quick, overall view of your business operations from the top down. The idea here is at-a-glance analysis, with some strategies and variations including more data and tools to help with accurate extrapolation and problem area identification.

It is important to note that while the following representations are the way I understand each tool and how they were taught to me, it is far from the only way of classifying these mapping strategies. That said, the definitions included here are largely accepted within the Lean/Six Sigma community and remain perfectly valid (if not the best) classifications for you to use.

The Flow Chart

Visual Mapping Flow ChartsThe flow chart represents the basic building blocks of most any visual mapping process. The flow chart can stand alone, or be converted into other more detailed forms – more on the in a minute.

A basic flow chart is a series of boxes, with each box representing a process or station within your business or production process. As the name implies, your basic gain from this chart is seeing how resources and products “flow” through your system. It is important to note that the scale of a flow chart can be as large or small as you like; while they are typically used to take a ‘step back’ from everything, you can also dissect a smaller process by creating a flow chart that breaks down individual steps within it.

While some practitioners will tell you that flow charts have a specific orientation, it is perfectly fine to represent your flow either vertically or horizontally, and squabbling over such details is hardly relevant to the effectiveness of a chart. Depending on the side-by-side processes you have and the nature of your business, you may find that one makes more sense than the other, or you may find that the choice is completely arbitrary (usually the case) and you can simply choose what works best and makes the most sense for you.

Apart from the boxes, you’ll want to use arrows to show the flow of action or progress from one thing to the next. That’s it. Boxes. Labels. Arrows. Bam.

Process Mapping

Lean Powerpoint Training
Lean Powerpoint Training

For a process map, you’re going to be building upon the flow chart skeleton described above, but with some modifications. Obviously, it’s easy to see with similar structure how some professionals mistake the two for being the same thing, but the difference, as always, is in the details.

Process mapping is actually based in Six Sigma methodology and is designed to help you gain a better understanding of the throughput of your processes. To accomplish this, you’re going to need to enhance your flow chart boxes by filling in a couple of details, namely…

Input:  Everything that goes into a process, and

Output:  What gets produced on the other end.

These are the only true requirements of a process map, but keeping in mind a broader, more holistic definition of input and output is important. Six Sigma is largely concerned with reducing variability – which leads to defects, etc. – and acknowledges that defects are caused by a variety of factors. In creating a process map, think of input and output not as only physical materials and products, but as time, workers required, etc.

In addition, process map details may include various activity steps that further break down each individual process, key decision points within each process (and how they are commonly made), and the goals/functions of each process; just the exercise of having to come up with these can help you better understand your own business. 

In the end, you’ll be using these details to identify problem areas where slowdowns or high rates of defect are occurring, and then be able to better focus improvement efforts and changes.

Bonus: Value Stream Mapping

Vinyl Chart Tape
Visual Vinyl Chart Tape

Another take on visual mapping, value stream mapping is process mapping’s Lean counterpart, and helps to offer different (and sometimes clearer) insights into areas that need to be streamlined. As the name implies, this method is concerned with Lean’s goal of eliminating non-value adding steps, or waste.

Again, you’ll be starting out with a flow chart, but instead of adding inputs and outputs, you’re going to largely be concerned with time here. Label high, low, and average times for each step, then also label the amount of average delay (if any) between various processes. These delays should include time spent transporting between two points, not just delays caused by gaps in supply and demand.

Once you’ve done this, you’ll want to go through and look for steps that are taking away value. Any step which does not add value to the end customer is considered non-valuable and wasteful. These labels of value are what make the value stream mapping a distinctly Lean tool. With the times and values listed out, you’ll be able to quickly pick out areas that need work, and then design a plan to tackle them.

When it comes right down to it, the type of mapping tool you use is largely a personal choice, and most people will simply work with what they learn first or what is easiest for them to grasp. That said, keep in mind the distinctions between their purposes, as this will help you be able to better adapt your mapping strategies for different purposes. When you’re just in need of an overview, go for the flow chart, if more insight is in order, take the time to put together a detailed process or value stream map.

Additional Resources