Tag: Process Documentation

Eating My Own Dog food

Why it took me ten years to use my own product to draw a flowchart

I wrote the first version of SmartDraw in 1994 and I’ve been the sole author, or one of the small team of authors, on every version since. Yet I only began to use my own product to help me think through designs by drawing flowcharts since 2007. Why? There were three obstacles to overcome, but first let me explain why I use flowcharts at all.

How I use flowcharts in software design

If I have to design a solution to a reasonably complex problem, I use a flowchart to help me think through all of the cases my code is going to have to deal with. For example, when I designed the multiple page feature of SmartDraw Cloud, I had to think through how the usual mechanism for loading and saving a one page document would be modified to handle a document with multiple “one-page” documents stored in it: How navigating between pages would work, when changes had been made to the page (or not) and so on.

Creating a flowchart of the steps and cases helps me understand the issues before I start coding and this is the main reason I use it, but it also creates documentation that can be used later to understand what the code I wrote is trying to do (often by me).  You can look at my flowchart by clicking on the preview below.


This is the real one I did at the time. No cosmetic or grammatical clean up has been applied. [We try for authenticity here at SmartDraw].

However this only works if I can create the flowchart at the speed of thought. If I have to futz around trying to get my ideas into a diagram, it slows me down and it’s not worth the effort.  This brings us back to the three obstacles that I had to overcome to make this workable.

Obstacle 1: Drawing Flowcharts is a Pain!

Before 2007 drawing a flowchart with SmartDraw was pretty much the same process as drawing one with MacDraw, Visio or any of the other programs used to draw diagrams: You drag shapes onto the page and join them up with lines. Rearranging the shapes and the flow as your mental model evolved was tedious and slow. Trying to use a diagram to help you think made it harder not easier.

What changed this was SmartDraw’s introduction of automatic formatting. With automatic formatting I could drag shapes around to new locations, add new ones and delete them and SmartDraw did all the work of reformatting the flowchart. I could finally draw and think at the same speed.

Obstacle 2: Flowcharts are incomprehensible.

Flowcharts are often literally a joke. Take a look at this one:


The culprit is this innocent looking symbol:


The decision symbol is a diamond and is used to direct the flow from a decision in perpendicular directions. This is how flowcharts quickly end up as spaghetti messes. Imagine if you wrote text this way: I’m reading the instruction and then suddenly I have to turn the page on its side!

The way to fix this and make your flowcharts useful to you and your audience is to:

  1. draw them from left to right like you do when you write text, and
  2. use a fork in the road to indicate a decision


A fork in the road (or a split path) lets you see results of the decision, without looking in perpendicular directions. Later decisions make additional forks.


This is much more readable, so why is the perpendicular flow of the traditional decision symbol so popular? Because of obstacle number three.

Obstacle 3: The tyranny of the printed page.

The reason why flowcharts use perpendicular flow is so that they will more easily fit on a printed page. Flowcharts date from 1921 when they were used to document processes. They were drawn by hand onto a piece of paper using a stencil.

We are way beyond this now. (Although I think it’s telling that Visio still calls its shape libraries “stencils”). There is no need to print my design flowcharts. Ever! This gives me the freedom to draw them for readability and clarity without worrying how they will fit onto a page.

Until recently, when I wanted to share my diagram with my co-authors, I’d store it in a common location and send them a link. They’d view in it in SmartDraw.  Now I use SmartDraw Cloud and just send them a link.

In 2016 there is no need to even consider sacrificing clarity to make your diagram easy to print. Just don’t print them! Share them.

Flowcharts can help you think and communicate

Once you can draw as fast as you can think, and you can create easy to follow flowcharts by abandoning the decision symbol, flowcharts can be a great tool for helping you design algorithms. Sharing them with a link also makes them an effective vehicle for communicating with your co-workers.


Business Lessons Learned from Pop Warner Football

https://pixabay.com/en/football-coach-coaching-american-1658151/“Individual commitment to a group effort–that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” -Vince Lombardi

Business and life lessons can be found in most group activities–and especially in sports. We all know that to win the game it takes a team (along with its coaches) working together toward the same common goal. A football team’s success, perhaps more so than any other team sport, is predicated on this. There are many different tasks being performed correctly at the same time by all of its members on virtually every play. Therefore, every position and how it’s performed are vital to the success of the team.

If you’ve ever watched a Pop Warner football team practice, then you know that there’s a lot of drilling, studying, repetition and refining. In order for each position to be performed well it must be mastered. This requires the right player with the right skill set and attitude at every position.

It’s no different in business. You hire skillful people to perform tasks in order for the organization to grow and become stronger. But to achieve organization-wide success, the mere hiring of the individuals that comprise your team is only the starting point. Here are a few lessons I learned coaching Pop Warner football that can be applied in your business to encourage your team to succeed.

Develop a Team Focused Winning Mindset

Before every Pop Warner football practice and game, the team stretches, warms up, and huddles together. The pre-game routine usually ends with some form of rousing team chant. In fact, at every level of football from Pop Warner to the NFL, you’ll find teams performing these rituals on the field prior to practices and games.


Because they value the constant instillation and reinforcement of an attitude and culture of winning before they do anything on the field. Every practice and every game, the team is focused on the team goals first and the individual goals only as they pertain to the team’s objective. And when the team wins, so do the individuals who comprise it.

Now businesses often preach about teamwork and a positive mindset, but more often than not these are simply corporate buzzwords from the executive, human resources or training departments. Beyond orally suggesting a positive mindset to your team, is your organization honestly set up to encourage team success?

If not, here are some ideas that will help. Begin first by moving beyond the empty motivational bulletin board stuff. Model the behavior you want emanating throughout the organization and reward those that exhibit it. Get buy-in from your employees towards the team goal and have a system of positive reinforcement and team accountability on the path toward achieving it. Encourage your team members to get involved in every aspect of this process and give them the freedom to openly do so.

The result is a well-focused and motivated team that is prepared to work together to create an environment of winning.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Pop Warner players have to do many of the same drills over and over again. So do the pros. The reason is that it’s the culmination of doing all the little things correctly that will lead to the overall success of the team. The quarterback cannot consistently complete passes by himself. He needs the proper mechanics, footwork, blocking, receiving, and communication to execute each play.

Business, just like football, has a lot of moving parts with people directing and carrying them out. But even the most competent people have flaws and occasionally make mistakes. So it’s imperative that your team works in an environment that is geared toward rallying and forging ahead together when setbacks occur.  Furthermore, grant your team members the time and resources to work on developing their skills. This will help reduce mistakes and allow your team to improve. Encourage them to document their processes and find ways to refine them. Have them mentor and train others to reinforce a culture of teamwork and pride. As the old football adage goes, leaders are not born – they are made.

In the end, applying lessons learned in Pop Warner football—practice, teamwork, and a winning mindset—will help your team succeed in business, too.

Why Businesses Need Processes

Processes are essential to preparing your organization for growth. No large organizations would exist without them, and there’s no reason why your small organization shouldn’t convert all of its work into processes. Your work should consists of processes where possible.

But why do businesses need processes? This post is my answer to that question.

Processes Eliminate Two Key HR Issues

The biggest benefit of processes, in my mind, is that they can drive a stake through the heart of two major HR problems:

  • The Key Employee Problem
  • The Specialized Knowledge Problem (Reinventing the Wheel)

The Key Employee Problem is a major concern for small organizations.  What happens when Joe, a key employee in one area of your organization, departs suddenly? Joe was the one person who knew exactly how to handle his responsibilities and no one else in the organization knows exactly how he did it. How do you possibly fill that void?

Office circus scene with caption: Productivity is down but everyone is busy; maybe we just need to hire more people.To answer this question, I’m going to borrow a metaphor from Jim Collins’ Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies:

Joe is a time-teller. Once Joe is gone, no one else knows how to tell time, and this leaves your organization vulnerable to the key employee problem. Rather than have Joe tell time until the day he decides to leave, have him build a clock instead. This is where processes come into play.  Processes are one crucial part of building a clock for your business-they explain how Joe did his job. If Joe builds a clock, everyone will still be able to tell time if Joe leaves.

The Specialized Knowledge Problem is a training/exodus issue similar to the key employee problem. Two jobs with identical job descriptions in two different companies might be vastly different due to the different markets, company culture and millions of other variables-in essence, your current employees have acquired all of the specialized knowledge needed to make your business work.

It can take years, even for experienced professionals, to take hold of all the specialized, organization-specific knowledge required to do the job well. Many companies accidentally let specialized knowledge go to waste when employees leave and they simply expect new hires to “pick it up” along the way. We call this “reinventing the wheel”-businesses lose a lot of utility and productivity from new hires because they have to rediscover all of the knowledge that was lost when the predecessor departed.

Processes can help alleviate this problem-each documented business process is one more piece of knowledge that doesn’t need to be reinvented whenever turnover occurs in your organization.

Processes Make Measurable Quality Possible

Here’s a quick theoretical for you: you have a team with two employees assigned to identical tasks. At the end of each day, the outcomes of each employee’s tasks are completely different from the others; how do you measure the quality of that team’s performance?

If the two outcomes differ by a wide margin, it’s almost impossible to measure the quality of your organization’s results-it’s only possible to measure quality of results when the outcomes are predictably similar, and that’s where processes shine. Processes standardize routines and tasks.  When organizations have their employees conform to identical processes for business, the outcomes of those routines become predictably similar-this establishes a reasonable baseline by which organizations can reasonably begin to measure quality.

Processes Can Help Identify Operational Inefficiencies

The act of capturing business processes itself has an additional benefit: they help you identify inefficiencies in your operations. If you inspected every major operation in your business and formalized those operations into processes, you’d undoubtedly come across a number of inefficiencies.  Correcting those inefficiencies can obviously help to improve the level of output and quality of those procedures, with little additional cost.

Note: This post was written by Aaron Stannard for the SmartDraw blog.