10 Tips for Creating Great Process Flowcharts

Here are some tips for building great flowcharts in Visio. The last three are specific to Visio 2007, but the rest are relevant to any version of Visio.

  1. Creating sub-processes and linked processes using hyperlinks. When you have a complex process or one that shares some sub-processes with other processes within your company, it makes sense to break out some pieces and connect them together. To do that right now in Visio, use hyperlinking. There are two ways to add a hyperlink in to a flowchart. For existing sub-processes, select a shape to represent or point to the sub-process and go to “Insert>Hyperlinks…”. Complete the dialog, leaving the Address field blank if you are linking to the same document. If you want to continue the process on another page, use the “Off-page reference” shape in the Basic Flowchart stencil to automatically create a new page.
  2. Work with page sizes. Real world processes get huge, so fitting all of the steps on a single 8.5x11 or A4 page can be a challenge. Rather than muck about with different sized shapes, you are best off changing the page size to fit the diagram. One thing that can confuse people is that Visio keeps track of two different “page” sizes – the first is the size of the paper on which to print the diagram (the Printer Paper section of the Print Setup tab in the Page Setup dialog) while the second is the actual drawing page that you see in the window (the Page Size tab in the Page Setup dialog). When you create a diagram, they usually start off the same, but you can adjust them to be different. If the drawing page is larger than the paper size, when you print Visio will break the diagram across multiple pages. I like to adjust the page first using “Size to fit drawing contents” on the Page Size tab, then use print zoom to fit the diagram on to a particular paper size.
  3. Create or use a custom stencil and template. Sometimes you need to work with a particular process notation that is not included in Visio out of the box. For example, your company may have a corporate standard or you may want to use a new industry standard. There are a ton of templates out on the web that you can use. If nothing fits your needs, create a new stencil by going to “File>Shapes>New Stencil” then dragging any shapes you want on the stencil. There is a little more detailed information about how to work with your own stencil here.
  4. Update all your shapes at once using the document stencil. If you have dropped a bunch of shapes from the same master out on the page, but then decide that you want to change all of them at once, you have a few options. If you have Visio 2007, you can use the Themes feature (covered below) to change how they look, but what if you need to add an field of Shape Data? The easiest way to do this is to edit the local master for that shape on the document stencil. To open the document stencil, go to “File>Shapes>Show Document Stencil…”. Find the master for the shapes you want to change, then right click on it and select “Edit Master>Edit Master Shape”. Add the Shape Data field then close the window, answering yes to the dialog asking whether you want to update all of the instances of that shape.
  5. Think carefully about how you want to visually encode your data. Process steps have a lot of information associated with them. This includes numerical information like how much a step costs or how long it takes and classifying information like which department performs a step. There are a host of different ways to visually show this information in your diagram. I started to talk about visualizing information here and will return to this topic in more detail soon.
  6. Dealing with jagged lines. This is a big pet peeve for a lot of people. Mai-lan covered this topic in this post.
  7. Use a third party solution. When Visio doesn’t provide the functionality that you need out of the box (like simulation) you can work with one of our many partners. There is a listing of global partners here.
  8. Visio 2007: Use Data Link and Data Graphics. Given the data intensity of most flowcharts, these features are a natural fit.
  9. Visio 2007: Use Themes. If you are trying to improve your companies processes, one of the most important steps is to sell the ideas to management. Part of this process involves making the diagrams look good. This was historically difficult, but with the new themes feature it is a snap.
  10. Visio 2007: Use AutoConnect. Auto Connect is a feature that works across many diagram types in Visio, but it is perhaps best suited for flowcharts. There is no faster way to get a flowchart built than this new feature.