Business processes can be quite complicated, and creating process maps enables businesses both to better understand how processes are being performed and to better provide instruction for workers performing a process. Learn the standard process map symbols so you can create and interpret flowcharts.
Common Business Process Map Symbols
Process maps or flow charts provide project teams with a means of visually depicting the steps required for performing a process, as well as any decision points, optional steps, and more sophisticated concepts such as associated documents, equipment, or other resources. Business leaders can use business process maps to clarify an existing process and uncover inefficiencies and bottlenecks, such as in a Six Sigma DMAIC project, or to provide instructions to workers on how to conduct a process.
Business process map symbols are standardized across companies and even industries so that you can typically read any process map and get a basic understanding of the process. While more advanced projects may require the use of dozens of specialized symbols, most of the time you can successfully create a flowchart with just a few of the more commonly used symbols.
The rectangle and the arrow are the most common symbols used in business process maps. Even if no other symbols are incorporated, a simple process map can be created using only those two shapes.
Standard Process Step
The rectangle signifies a single process step, such as "heat water until it boils" or "sales agent answers inbound call". Each rectangle indicates a distinct process step; you should not combine different actions int a single step. for instance, "ask customer which product he is calling about" and "track customer's product in database" should be two separate steps.
The arrow simply indicates the direction in which the process flows, or the order in which the process steps occur. Conventions differ regarding the arrangement of a process map on a page, so the arrows are crucial for clarifying the exact flow of the steps. This is particularly important for more complicated processes that include decision points or incorporate the activities of different groups or individuals.
The rounded rectangle typically signifies the beginning and end of a process. While some people choose to leave them out and just start with a rectangle indicating the first step, this symbol can increase clarity and is especially useful when there are multiple starting or stopping points for a process.
A diamond shape is the standard indication for a decision point or branch in a process. If you ask yourself, "what happens after this step?" and the answer is "it depends", you have a decision point. Use the diamond shape to specify the condition that varies, and then use two or more arrows leading from it to the potential next steps.
For instance, your decision point might be "Is sufficient paper already loaded into copier?" and it may lead either directly to a "press start button" step or may first lead to an intermediate "load sufficient paper into copier" step.
Another symbol often used for more involved processes is the shape shown here, which signifies that the process continues on another page. When process mapping software such as Microsoft Visio is used, clicking on the symbol typically takes the user to that page.
Project teams dealing with a process that is document-intensive, such as a loan application process, may choose to illustrate the handling of specific documents as part of the process map. The symbol shown here is traditionally used to denote a document associated with a specific process step.
Download this cheat sheet showing many of the standard business process map symbols.