It is 7 AM in the morning, and you were supposed to be at the biggest conference that is happening in the country. When you arrive at the conference hall, you look at the crowd, you are nervous. You know what you are going to talk about. You have mastered the topic. You are a brilliant scientist. But you are not good at organizing. You are not good at prioritizing things, or how to present things. But this is a big event. And you have to do the best at presenting your paper, your latest research. And here comes your laptop, complete with files of flow chart. Thanks to your secretary who prepared it for you.
What is a flow chart?
A flow chart is a method of presenting thing in an organized manner. There are many ways of presenting ones ideas. There is a Venn diagram, there is a network diagram, and there is an existential graph, and some others. And there is also a Flow Chart. With the number of methods for organizing ideas in a presentation, how does a flow chart par up to the challenge. While flow chart is just one of the many, a flow chart has it own unique features. But let us go back to how and where it started. And we may also try to study a little about the other kinds of diagram so as to see how they differ.
It was told that the earliest recording of a flow chart was that of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s Process Chart: First Steps in Finding the One Best Way to Do Work. That was in 1921. The said presentation was presented to American Society of Mechanical Engineers or ASME. From then on, the use of a flow chart in mechanical engineering find its way to students professors trying to explain their thoughts and ideas or anything about engineering. Later on, in 1947, the use of flow chart was adapted by ASME as a standard method of doing a presentation.
So you see, a flow chart did not start from an accidental discovery by a child, but from professional engineers. But who is Frank and Lillian Gilbreth? Knowing these two individuals will let us understand the essence, the core of a flow chart. Questions such as how it was created, or invented. Why did the two come up with such an idea? Was it out of necessity?
Who is Frank and Lillian Gilbreth?
These two engineers, Frank and Lilian, were pre occupied with the idea of efficiency. Their idea of efficiency is that of minimizing other workforce, and finding ways that one can do things in the best manner can be. Such that if done correctly, a job that is usually done by two or three individuals, can be done by one person. That is, if the person has done it properly. This is about efficiency, but this is also about management. If one is good at management, managing of time, and managing of all other things, he will be efficient in doing things. But since the two, Frank and Lilian Gilbreth are engineers, their idea of management, as well as efficiency, is unlike our common understanding. Theirs is scientific. The following will let us understand how they think:
Cheaper by the Dozen (1950 Film)
That is, to put it straight, the historical background of a flow chart. And when you consider them all, the two engineers were too focused on the efficiency and management of a job. And there is this film (from a book) based on the Gilbreth family titled, Cheaper by the Dozen. It surrounds the story of the couple Gilbreth with twelve children. And people often ask Gilbreth, while this was in the time of poverty, how come they were able to raised and survived in these challenging times, and the engineer mind of Frank would always answer, “Well, they come cheaper by the dozen.”
We really have no idea what he meant by that, but based on the kind of philosophy that these two engineers were into, it is clear that they were just trying to make ways to streamline the operation of raising a family. While the idea of minimizing the personnel to do the task at hand can be surmised in the minds of the Gilbreth engineers, the fact that they have plenty of children means that it is not what ultimately is their goal. The goal is just to find a mechanism to do the job effectively. At the end of the movie, Cheaper by the Dozen, the narrator tells about how Lilian became the leader in terms of efficiency, worldwide. We wonder how the family was efficient in taking a shower.
Other types of diagram presentation
Venn Diagram is a graphic illustration of things, ideas, in the form of circles, usually overlapping each other. These overlapping methods demonstrate the similarity of the ideas, while at the same time shows how they are also different, in the parts of the circle where they do not overlap. The diagram was introduced by John Venn, in the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, titled On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings.
Network Diagram looks just like a flow chart, and by the looks of it, you can tell it could just be an off shoot of a flow chart. This could just be for convenience use of the term as network diagrams are used to present computer directions, while flow chart for ideas. But we know originally that a flow chart was used for engineering presentation.
Existential Graph (EG) was introduced by the mathematician Charles Sanders Pierce somewhere in 1882. It is interesting to note that while Charles Pierce came earlier than the Gilbreth’s flowchart, his is more complicated, utilizing syntax, semantics, and Latin letters.
There are many other out there, some vary a lot, others just same a little variance. Sometimes the difference lies in the emphasis. The flow chart, taken into consideration how it came out to be, has emphasis on efficiency.
Flow chart symbols
While flow chart may look like just an ordinary, simply way of presentation of concepts, ideas, the symbols they utilized are assigned and have their own meanings.
We may not need to include and list all the symbols here. By now, the number of symbols have gone countless since the start of the creation of the flowchart. But to drive the point, the symbols we see in a flow chart have meanings and not just for eye candy purposes.
Uses of a flow chart
Conference. The flow chart was designed by engineers’ head, which means it can be associated well and can get along with the educated minds.
Classroom Setting. The good thing with a flow chart, or in any other diagrams, is that it can make any thing more intelligible. So even the children can appreciate a very difficult topic or discussion when paired with graphics.
Engineering schematics. This is where a a flow chart shines. Designed by engineers, and intended for engineers, it is not a surprise why flow chart looks like just the ones we saw when we were in a secondary grade learning about electronics. Remember those arrows, lines, triangles, circles, or rectangles? Yes, that is a flow chart.
Intelligible for the common audience
The use of a flow chart has a big impact in many aspects, not just in the field of engineering but in things general. With a flow chart, it is easier for people, or the audience to understand what usually could be difficult for the common people. That is because of the nature of the flow chart where audience are led to see that one item is always connected to another. Unlike an Existential Graph where items may not be connected with lines, a flow chart is usually, if not always, designed with connections. This means that between the two diagrams, flow chart and existential graph, the common people would always prefer the former due to its marking design.
One Glance Understanding
With a flow chart, one can understand immediately what the topic is all about. But it is just not about understanding what the topic is all about, but rather how something is being done. As you can see in many examples, a flow chart is process oriented. It tells you how something has arrived somewhere, and how things are managed to arrive to its destination.
Because things can be visualized, it is easier for everyone to understand, making the process efficient. Instead of understanding a thought in sentences, you can have it in a single phrase or word. Everything is shortened, just like in any other diagrams.
But here is how it is advantageous over any other diagram based presentation, a flow chart has a leaning towards direction. A flow chart is very dynamic, unlike others where you can only see differences of two things, a flow chart will tell you where something is heading. Hence the many arrow symbols in it. One should note that a flow chart is process oriented and less goal oriented, which we will mention later.
With flow charts, audience will be able to learn the topic actively. Actively because he still needs to interpret the symbols and the words just like he does in a narration. The effect is that he is able to explain the subject on his own.
Disadvantages of using a flow chart
The big disadvantage of a flow chart is that, one needs to understand first the symbols that is being employed before he gets to enjoy fully its advantages. Although, one is not required to really understand the meaning of the symbols, such as the square, circle, lines, knowing these designs can smooth the flow of understanding.
Also, there will be cases where in it is difficult to connect one symbol to the next. This calls for a colorful imagination on the part of the one making and presenting the flow chart. If you are imaginative, a flow chart may be easy to do. But if you have no talent for that, then a presentation will be as good as any other presentation.
When connections are not done well, it will just create a confusion to and mislead the audience. The mistake that is written on words is always exaggerated when put in flow chart because in flow chart, things are clearer and will easily be retained in the head of the learner. The errors are always graphic. So when making a flow chart, one must be careful not to make a mistake.
Flawed chart or flow chart
There is no perfect diagram. One diagram is may be good for one thing, but is not in another. That is just how all things work, and that includes diagrams. These are things when you are not supposed to use, or when a flow chart is not ideal to use:
Any subject matter can be handled by the use of a flow chart. But bear in mind that flow charts were designed to make things efficient. If things become more complicated because of the use of a flow chart, then that defeats the purpose. For example, if you were to discuss between the differences of an Apple Macbook Air and a Dell XPS, would you use a flow chart? Or do you not think a Venn diagram will be more effective in delivering your message? Of course, there is a kind of flow chart that can do this kind of presentation, called the Swimlane Flowchart, to be discussed below. But given the said topic of two different computers, a Venn diagram is much easier and effective.
A flow chart is just a tool one to present his ideas. It is like a hammer. A hammer does what a hammer does, just as a nail does what it does, to be hammered by a hammer.
The ways one can design his own flow chart is limitless, to some sense. It is like a lego, you can design things in any way you want it to, given the limits of it. Here are four most common flow chart designs:
So back to the story at the beginning of this article, you presented your research using a flow chart. It was a successful one, it was flawless, smooth. Every one was impressed. It was all clear for all listeners, students and scientists alike. Imagine if your secretary did not come to rescue you. What would you have done? Talk for hours? Show them pictures? Show them video clips? Maybe do some answer and question portion of the whole session? Or how about a class room setting style where in you just have to write keywords in the white board? Or maybe do some slide shows, if you can do it minutes before the start of the show. Well, there is no stopping you from doing the kind of presentation you like. Whatever works, as they say. Depend on the presentor.
After having known a little thing or two about flow charts, do you think it would replace your style of presenting an idea, concept, or topics? Flow charts were designed to make things done in the most efficient way. If it is not working, then this may not be best tool for you. But there may be various reasons why a flow chart may not be effective, or is dragging what you want to achieve, and that is because of not doing it properly. For flow charts to be effective, it must be done properly, just as en engineer would when making a building. It should be done correctly, with each item, always related, and connected to another. Just like in a building, each part is intact, nothing loose. Each part of a building is connected, from glass, to metal, to the concrete. That is what a flow chart is.