December 11, 2019

What is a Flowchart? Your Guide to the Most Common Types of Flowcharts

Diagrams for Businesses
Project Management

Want to dive straight in to diagramming? You can start a free trial of Gliffy for Confluence or Gliffy Online and learn how to make a flowchart in just a few clicks. Otherwise, jump ahead to one of the following sections or read on to learn more about common types of flowcharts:


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What Is a Flowchart?

A flowchart is visually shows the separate steps or progression of a process in sequential order. It uses lines to indicate directional flow and a standard set of symbols to describe the step-by-step procedures, inputs, and decisions in the process. 

A well-made flowchart can be used to break big ideas into small, bite-sized pieces that are expressed visually, so knowing how to make one is sort of like having a universal language.

Flowcharting makes it possible to communicate with any stakeholder or audience, because visuals are typically easier to understand than words. For this reason, flowcharts are a valuable type of business diagram but can also be used for more technical fields like manufacturing or software engineering.

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4 Most Common Types of Flowcharts

While the variations and versions of flowcharts are endless, four flowchart types are particularly popular and very versatile — the process flowchart, the workflow chart, the swimlane flowchart, and the data flowchart. 

These four common types are great for describing business, manufacturing, or administrative processes, how an organization functions, or how different departments work together. Keep reading to learn more about the function of each one and how to create them.

1. The Process Flowchart or Communication Flow Chart

Illustrate How a Process Works or Plan a Project with a Process Flowchart

A process flowchart or process flow diagram is probably the most versatile of the four commonly used flowchart types because it can be applied to virtually anything, from ITSM processes to approval processes. Process flowcharts or process mapping can help quickly explain how something gets done in your organization. Sometimes, these types use a standard language or notation, like Business Process Modeling and Notation. Use a process flow diagram to:

  • Map out roles and responsibilities within an organization to gain clarity.
  • Describe the manufacturing process or inputs that go into creating a finished product.
  • Explain how information is communicated throughout an organization or process.
  • Draw up a proposal for a new process or project to understand its scope and steps.
  • Show the way you wake up in the morning, as shown below.

Learn more in our blog about Process Flow Diagrams >>

Process Flowchart Example


2. The Workflow Chart or Workflow Diagram

Understand How Data and Documents Flow Within Your Organization

A workflow flowchart shows the way a business or process functions. The below example illustrates the steps required for a potential customer to renew a policy through a company website. This type of workflow diagram can be used to:

  • train new employees
  • discover potential problem areas
  • create or organize your team around a new standard operating procedure
  • clarify business operations by showing a high-level overview
Example of a Workflow Chart


3. The Swimlane Flowchart

Describe How Separate Departments, Processes or Employees Interact

The swimlane flowchart comes in handy when you need to show multiple flows of information side by side. Swimlane diagrams might sound really similar to a workflow diagram, but the key here is that it allows you to create different categories where activity takes place. 

A swimlane flowchart or diagram is great for documenting a whole process that interacts with different segments of an organization or requires collaboration among different teams. The below example illustrates the way an internal-facing department runs parallel with an external-facing one and at what times in the process they interact with each other.

More complicated diagrams could include five, six, or even more swimlanes, like for each department within an organization or each role on a cross-functional team. The goal of swimlanes is to clarify and simplify a flowchart, though, so avoid adding too many lanes and keep things simple!

Learn more about swimlane diagrams with our resource videos, What is a Swimlane Diagram? and How to Make a Swimlane Diagram.

Swimlane Flowchart Example


4. The Data Flowchart

See Where Data Flows In and Out of an Information System with a Data Flow Diagram

A data flowchart or data flow diagram shows the way data is processed. It comes in handy when you want to design or analyze a system. Although most often used for software development and design, it can be used to analyze any type of information flow, like how information moves through a business. The below example shows a typical sales funnel. In this case the “data” is consumer behavior.

Data Flowchart Example


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Why Are Flowcharts Important? 

All of the four most common flowchart types listed above — and other flowchart variations — do one thing really well: they visually capture a step-by-step process.

In any field, flow diagrams or flowcharts document a process and give their users the ability to optimize that process through process analysis. They also make it easier for new employees or users to understand the process as they learn. All this means that having clear documentation is a key way to increase team productivity.

To learn more about flowchart use cases, check out our guide to what a flowchart is used for, but here are a few main applications:

Flowcharts for Sales & Marketing

In sales, flowcharts can be used to:

  • Show the sales process and chart an opportunity's movement through that process
  • Help identify opportunities based on data
  • Guide sales representatives' decisions on pricing packages or quotes to customers
  • Document policies or communications plans

Flowcharts in Manufacturing

Visualizing process flows is extremely valuable in manufacturing, where standardization and uniformity are important. In manufacturing, they're used to:

  • Show the ingredients, chemicals, or other inputs that go into the creation of a product
  • Clearly illustrate the manufacturing process to show dependencies and bottlenecks
  • Create a consistent quality assurance or evaluation process

Flowcharts for Business Operations

Visualizing your operations will help your team perform consistently. A flow diagram can:

  • Help onboard employees by describing tasks or routines
  • Document order and fulfillment processes
  • Describe a project and identify milestones for its completion

Flowcharts for Software Engineering or Programming

These charts can describe highly technical information in a clearer way. While coding or working in software, diagrams can: 

  • Show how users navigate a page or use an application
  • Describe how code is structured or organized
  • Explain the flow of data through a system or a program
  • Visualize an algorithm
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Try Flowcharting With Gliffy

Because flowcharts work for expressing so many different types of information, you can bet these four common flow diagrams are just the tip of the iceberg. The good news: with Gliffy, you get access to over 200 flowchart templates, so building your diagram is a lot easier than starting from scratch. For even more help, check out our blog post on How to Make a Flowchart.

If you're interested in using flowcharts or other types of diagrams to improve your work, check out our on-demand webinar, How to Diagram Your Way to Better Work.

Start your free trial of Gliffy now and learn how to make a flowchart of your own.

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