Tag: productivity

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.


Increase Productivity: 5 Ways to Get Your Business More Organized

Purchased ImageOrganization is key to running any business effectively; regardless of size or industry. It’s the most fundamental aspect in starting or managing a business. Everything is effected either positively or negatively based on the scope of organization employed.

But let’s be real for a moment – organization, if not done right, can be time consuming and distracting. Which is why so many business owners, executives and managers neglect it.  The solution is to keep it all simple, straightforward and seamless with the rest of your business making it painless for everyone involved. Here are five strategies to improve your company’s organization.

#1.  Organize Ideas and Information

Brainstorming sessions and planning meetings can get wildly out of control. Some of the best ideas can be lost or not prioritized properly. Begin by capturing all of the ideas during the brainstorming session using mind maps. When the ideas have all been captured, you are then able to organize and prioritize them based on the needs of your business and team. After creating the mind map, be sure to share it with your team and have a specific person responsible for its evolution and continued importance in future planning discussions.

To sharpen your meeting management skills, read Make Your Meeting Matter: 6 Tips to Run Effective Meetings.

Organize Your Ideas Using Mind Maps


#2.  Organize Projects and Teams

The great thing about creating mind maps via software is that they can be instantly leveraged for your projects and teams – which also have to be closely organized to meet deadlines and customer expectations. Traditional project managers typically leverage the power of Gantt charts and timelines to do this, however, you do not have to be a professional project manager to employ them. In fact, Gantt charts, timelines and other project charts can be used for large and small projects – regardless of your role in the company.

So once you have built out your mind map of ideas, convert it into a project chart and begin assigning teams and people responsible for specific tasks as well as dates, times, and other pertinent information keeping your idea (now project) on schedule for completion. You will be able to see from a high level the progress made and where potential log-jams may occur.

Using SmartDraw, Convert Your Mind Maps Into Project Charts…with Just One Click!


#3.  Organize Processes and Systems

Once you and your team are working on specific projects and tasks, how you and your team members proceed will be critical for efficiency and productivity. The documentation of the various processes involved is vital – but can be time consuming. The easiest way to accomplish this is to create a set of process flowcharts that illustrate the various systems within your tasks and projects. Flowcharts are easily created, consumed and understood. They can be updated and shared quickly as well for easy organization.

Like your idea mind maps and projects, be sure to delegate someone specific to manage the upkeep and collection of your processes and systems so that the information can be updated and shared regularly.

#4.  Organize Communications

Communications between team members, customers, vendors and partners in this modern age can be in countless forms. In order to keep your business hedging forward, it’s important to organize, archive and document the various forms.  By using a repository such as Dropbox or SharePoint, you’ll ensure that you and your team meeting deadlines, manage customer expectations, as well as maintain any other critical operation within your business.

To learn how to increase the effectiveness of your email communications, read 5 Email Tips That Will Transform How You Communicate.

#5.  Organize Stakeholders

The larger the business, the greater the ability to involve your team members for greater collective strength. Organizing stakeholders on different projects empowers your team.  It provides each member the opportunity to broaden their skill set and grow with a deeper comprehension of the inner workings of your business.  This cross-pollination of teams is a technique that we will often use at SmartDraw.  In order to ensure the success of this approach, it is important to clearly define each individual’s roles and responsibilities.  Thus allowing the individual to prioritize tasks and decision-making more efficiently should any conflicts arise with their current role within the organization.

The overall benefits of employing these organizational strategies are greater involvement from team members, improved productivity and efficiency of projects, tasks, processes and systems, as well as an improved employee and customer satisfaction level.

4 Steps to Improving Processes By Reducing Waste

Purchased Image

In the process improvement world, waste is the enemy. If you remove it, odds are you will improve the results of your process. That could mean something goes faster, consumption is reduced, errors are prevented, and so forth. At a high level, anyone can get started improving processes just by reducing waste. I’ll break it down into four easy to follow steps and relate it to my own experience reducing water consumption to help California deal with our drought:

  1. Maintaining Awareness
  2. Documenting Current State
  3. Developing a Future State
  4. Analyzing the Results


The first step is to identify what is waste and be aware of it so you can spot it. In California, we are dealing with a record setting drought. State mandates have come down asking every household to reduce water consumption by 36%. I wanted to do my part and see how much water I could save, using 36% as my goal. For me, excessive water use is the waste. Obviously, I need water to live and my house needs water to maintain weekly routines like landscaping, laundry, and dishes. The challenge would be to analyze where I use water and come up with a plan to reduce how much I consume.


The first step in reducing waste is to understand the current situation or process. In process improvement, this is usually referred to as the current state. Most people assume a flowchart is the easiest way to document your current state, and while that may be true, there are other ways you can do this. As Scott Masich explains in a recent post, Capital Cost Avoidance: Thinking Creatively Before You Spend, a floor plan can also be used to document your current state. For me, I used a mind map. My objective was to brainstorm the possible ways I consume water at home. A mind map made it easy for me to visualize my thoughts in real time. It will also serve as the base for my future state map down the road.



Now that I have my current state mapped, it’s time to develop a plan to attack it. I used the same mind map used earlier, and expanded on it by adding steps I could take to help reduce water waste.


Once completed, it was time to put the plan in action and follow my future state plan. This is when awareness really comes into play. I realized I had developed years of bad habits and as they say, old habits die hard. The first few weeks, I caught myself leaving the water on when I was washing hands or brushing my teeth, but since I was making an effort to be aware of my water usage, I caught myself and eventually self-corrected over the next few weeks. I have to admit, I was excited to get my next water bill to see if my plan paid off.


I moved into my house in August of 2014. I implemented my process improvement plan in June of 2015. Immediately my usage dropped from 10 Hundred Cubic Feet (HCF, 1 HCF = 748 gallons) to 5 HCF. I have been able to maintain an average of 6 HCF over the past 4 months compared to 10.5 HCF over the same time a year earlier. By continuing to be aware of my water consumption and following the guidelines in my future state plan, I exceeded my goal of 36% and lowered my water consumption by 42.8%.

Water_Consumption_ChartThe chart above makes it easy to see how I am saving water this year and also compared to the prior year. Reducing waste can be as easy as this if you follow these four simple steps!

About the Author As Director of Sales Operations at SmartDraw, Steve Peterson helps our customers use SmartDraw to communicate more effectively with visuals. At home, he spends most of his free time entertaining his 4 year old daughter. A Minnesota native, he is an avid sports fan, rooting for his Alma mater, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Project Management and Homebrewing


Have you ever thought of yourself as a project manager? Most don’t, but the reality is we are all project managers to some extent. If you ever find yourself collaborating with others, creatively using your resources, defining and meeting financial objectives, and accomplishing your goals, you might be a project manager. To illustrate this idea, I want to introduce you to homebrewing.

As the wife of a homebrewer I have had the pleasure of consuming the end result of the homebrewing process, as well as seeing parallels with project management. I interviewed my husband Brandon, and his brew partner, Stuart about their brewing process, and I think you’ll see how they are project managers without knowing it.

Stuart and Brandon began as good friends who liked to drink beer together. They eventually decided to venture into homebrewing, and found that there was a meticulous process to follow for their beer to turn out as deliciously as possible.

 There are stages to the process- it is both technical and artsy.”  -Stuart

The Stages of Homebrewing

In the days that Stuart and Brandon brewed together, they became very creative with the tools that were used to make their beer. Fly fishing nets, crab pot buckets, and bathtubs full of ice were common to their weekend brew-scene.  Being creative with their resources allowed them to focus their budget dollars on better beer ingredients, as they were typically drawn toward the more expensive beers that they had recently consumed.

Getting creative with resources!

 “The smoky porter we made was probably the hardest and most interesting beer to produce. It took many more grains, and included many different types of grains.” -Brandon

As with any process, there were times that environmental errors (such as consuming too many beers on brew day) crept in and were potentially harmful to their finished product. But they didn’t let those factors drag them down- they took it as an opportunity to brew again, ultimately refining their process.

We both screw up. The consequence is that the beer doesn’t turn out as good and we get to make another batch.” -Stuart

Brewing beer alone does not satisfy these guys- they also participate in brew festivals, bring their beer to barbecues and family gatherings, and enjoy reading articles about up-and-coming breweries around the globe.

“I like to read online articles and watch YouTube videos about brewing or breweries.” -Brandon

Brandon and Stuart are Project Managers while brewing. Their comprehensive process of collaborating, using resources, strategizing, budgeting, and continuous learning are key to any project being managed.


#1. Utilizing your resources is key. Use what you have to be successful with your project, and think creatively. Like the fly fishing net and crab pots, resources can be utilized in multiple ways.

#2. Planning and implementing a procedural strategy is vital to your project, as is preparing for risks and outlining corrective actions to take, if (when) those risks occur. Why is all of this important? Because it affects your bottom line- profit. In homebrewing, the risk is a change in the taste of your beer, or at the very worst, the need to make another batch. Unfortunately, the risks can be much higher in business. Learn from homebrewing to follow a process, assign tasks or assign teams, and reduce the risk of error while ultimately increasing your profits.

#4. Meet your financial objectives by following your forecasted budget. If you plan for a $50 batch of homebrew, spend $50. Likewise,if you plan for an employee resource of $50,000, spend only that.

#5. When it comes to furthering the knowledge of your project or company, be like Stuart and Brandon in the way they research and learn. Increase your personal value proposition by participating in professional networking events and educational opportunities related to your business scope.

Homebrewing is both a technical and creative process, just like Project Management. And while there are many business objectives to take away from the art of homebrewing, quite possibly the best part about it is the end – having a great beer to consume. Cheers to that!

Accomplishing Tasks in Less Time: Efficiency in the Workplace

Purchased ImageI got my first real job at a car wash during my freshman year of high school. I still remember eyeing the place for years, seeing similar-aged kids working there, all wearing this super cool red sweatshirt. Of course the reality of working there was something less dreamy. There were lessons learned there and at other stops along my career that revealed one truth to me: efficiency in the workplace is important.

But knowing that is only half the battle. How can we be efficient?

I think efficiency in the workplace is accomplished with 3 keys: setting goals, making plans, and establishing a routine. As full as my schedule became, these habits never let me down.

Goal Setting

My simple definition of goal setting is to identify something that you would like to accomplish.

Setting goals is best done each morning. You might run a report or organize your to-do list. The key is to do this early. At one of my prior jobs I would run a report first thing in the morning that informed me of the new inpatients in the hospital. Then my goal for the rest of the day was clear and simple: visit all of the new inpatients before lunch.

You might be thinking spending time time setting up goals in the morning like this is a waste. You could just get to work. Setting goals to increase efficiency works because it helps you focus, and depending on your personality it can trigger your competitive nature or provide comfort in there being a “plan”. Your goals do not have to be complicated- they do not have to extend over the next few months or years. In fact, to get started, try setting a short term goal- get a task done in a few hours, or even minutes.


Once you start setting goals, you’ll run into the inevitable first road block. What to do when more than one goal is required? That is where the next key to efficiency comes in. Make a plan. I set up a calendar system to keep me on track. I input task details, meetings, and important deadlines. When I have a project to complete, I block out times of the day to specifically focus on that. Planning time in this way keeps us focused on the goals we set, and become efficient, regardless of what gets thrown our way.
Benjamin Franklin imparted these words of wisdom unto us long ago: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”

I could not agree more. If efficiency at work is important to you, you need to learn how to make a plan.

When it comes to efficiency, planning is key. Planning suggests that you are coordinating your time with the tasks that must be done. A plan, much like a goal, can be short or long-term, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. I recommend starting with something as simple as a calendar, or perhaps a tool that can be incorporated into your communication channels at work. However you choose to do it, remember to always plan. Your efficiency depends on it.

Establishing a Routine

Setting goals and making plans are only effective if they become a habit. A habit is formed when a behavior is performed regularly, or routinely, and that makes establishing a routine the final key to being efficient. As per scienceonce a habit has formed, your brain works less strenuously because it can now devote its mental activity to new behaviors. While it seems boring and kind of lame to establish a routine at work, I can tell you that it is worth it because it produces high efficiency in task completion.

Going back to my time as a Patient Advocate, I can recall my morning routine exactly:

Flowchart from Patient Advocate ScheduleWhen I stayed within this routine, I found that not only did I accomplish tasks more quickly over time, but also, I had ample time in the afternoon for anything that presented itself and required immediate attention.

I recommend starting a routine. Maybe it doesn’t look anything like this example, but I guarantee that you can structure at least a portion of your day into a routine. Your brain will thank you by allowing more room to think creatively and productively, and your efficiency levels will increase.

Goal setting, planning, and establishing a routine are vital to your success in workplace efficiency. You don’t need some special skill or inherited trait to get good at setting goals, making plans, or even establishing a routine, all you need is practice, and the desire to be efficient.

Write Better Reports, Faster

https://pixabay.com/en/blogging-blogger-office-business-336375/Reports, whether oral or written, are part of life for many busy professionals. But there is a surefire way to make them work better for your audience while saving everyone valuable time.  That way is with graphics.

Why? Because graphics condense text, clarify relationships, and highlight patterns. They allow you to easily show your data to the reader in a clear and concise way.

What’s more, creating graphics can save you time in preparing your report because they can efficiently replace substantial amounts of text.

Graphics Condense Text

Graphics are useful for reducing complex text into a picture. Visuals such as this are far easier for the reader to follow than a narrative explanation.

For example, this diagram of an accident scene makes it very easy for anyone to understand the facts of the incident very quickly.

Graphics 01-1

Graphics Clarify Relationships

A table of data can be useful for presenting information that needs to be displayed factually. But converting the data into a graphic, such as this bar chart, makes the relationships between the data very clear.

Graphics 01-2

Graphics Highlight Patterns

Sometimes, data produce patterns that can be more dramatically displayed in a graphic. The line chart below, showing trends in worldwide population, is a good example of this.

Graphics 01-3

Graphics Save You Time and Effort

Creating smart, compelling graphics like these is a win-win. You save time creating a report while also giving your readers or audience a result they’ll appreciate and enjoy.

Top 10 Reading List for the Visual Thinker in You

https://www.pexels.com/photo/women-asian-ipad-apple-28456/Wondering what other Visual Thinkers are reading?  We surveyed members of our SmartDraw community and created this list of the top 10 must reads.

The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam

Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin has inspired many to cover their white boards in doodles with meaning. Whether you believe your artistic or not, this book will give you a new set of communication tools for your next meeting. It might even enhance your dictionary skills.

Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes & Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity by David Sibbet

In this book you’ll see meetings as David Sibbet sees them, eye-opening opportunities to discover what people really think.  The ability to visually record and facilitate meeting will enhance your role as a meeting leader and participant.  After reading it you’ll see a whole new side of business.

Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics by Nathan Yau

Data must be presented in a way that enables us to analyze, apply, and interpret.  The best way to achieve this is visually. In this book you’ll discover innovative and creative ways to telling a story with data presented visually.

The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently by Sunni Brown

Countless breakthroughs in science, technology, medicine, architecture, literature, and art have been made based on a doodle. In this inspiring, empowering book, Brown guides you from the basic Doodle all the way to the formidable “Infodoodle.”  You’ll discover how to transform boring text into diagrams that can engage any audience.

Design for Information by Isabel Mierelles

Isabel Mirerlle’s book Design for Information critically examines both current and historic other design solutions enabling you to gain a larger understanding of how to solve specific problems. This book will teach you the ins and outs of data visualization through the use of examining a series of current visualization case studies.

The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: The Dos and Don’ts of presenting data, facts, and figures by Dona M. Wong

Dona M. Wong, a student of the information graphics pioneer Edward Tufte, has essentially created “the” handbook of how to create information graphics.  In this book, you will learn all there is to know from how to choose the best chart that fits your data to the most effective way to communicate with decision makers when you have five minutes of their time to using color effectively.

Everything Explained Through Flowcharts by Doogie Horner

According to Doogie Horner, book designer and stand-up comic, everything in the seemingly random universe can be connected, charted, comprehended, and ultimately conquered. This entertaining book is your one-stop decision-making handbook that will bring clarity to life’s greatest mysteries.

Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison

In this book you’ll learn about a proven program for enhancing students’ comprehension and thinking abilities that begun at Harvard’s Project Zero. Rather than a set of fixed lessons, Visible Thinking is a varied collection of practices. These practices helps direct student thinking and structure classroom discussion promoting engagement and understanding.

Visual Thinking Strategies by Philip Yenawine

The Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) teaching methodology provides an open-ended yet highly structured discussions of visual art that significantly increases students critical thinking, language, and literacy skills.  Philip Yenawine, former education director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and co-creator of the VTS curriculum, shows how VTS can be easily and effectively integrated into the classroom curriculum in just ten hours of a school year resulting in a learner-centered environment.

The Sketchnote Handbook Author: Mike Rohde

Regardless of your artistic abilities, Rohde shows you how to incorporate sketchnoting techniques into your note-taking process.  He also addresses most people’s fear of drawing by showing, step-by-step, how to quickly draw people, faces, type, and simple objects for effective and fast sketchnoting. You’ll be able to increase your ability to process the information that you are hearing and seeing through drawing.

Maximize Time, Minimize Effort with Custom Categories

https://www.pexels.com/photo/numbers-time-watch-white-1778/How Does Creating a Custom Category Maximize Time and Minimize Effort?

SmartDraw has so many features, that sometimes even our own employees forget some of what it can do. This week’s spotlight is about one such feature: Custom Categories. In our previous post titled, “How to Increase Productivity Using Custom Template,” we took a look at customizing at the template level.  In addition you are able to customize SmartDraw at the highest level – the Category level.  You can add templates and documents that you create into a Custom Category. By creating Custom Categories you have direct access to what you need when you need it.

Benefits of Custom Categories

  • Organize groups of template types or specific documents based on any topic or project you’re working on
  • Add a new category called “Custom Categories” in the Home Screen for easy access (like a bookmark)
  • Increase collaboration and consistency by sharing your Custom Category with colleagues
  • Limit the time spent searching for the templates or documents you use most
  • SmartDraw saves your Custom Categories until you decide to delete them

Custom Categories Based on Frequency

spotlight_custom categories sphere

There are activities or tasks that you are accountable for on a regular basis such as status reports and presentations.  On the other hand, you have infrequent responsibilities such as completing performance reviews and submitting annual reports.  Regardless of frequency, you can easily create Custom Categories that are tailored to your daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual business needs.  Taking the time upfront to create Custom Categories will maximize your time and minimize the efforts of you and your colleagues.

Custom Categories Based on Your Role

Another approach you may want to take is to design Custom Categories based on your roles and responsibilities.  Let’s take a look at a manager’s role as depicted in the venn diagram (below).  We could easily organize templates and documents under the major topics or areas of responsibility that a manager is held accountable for.  The mind map (below) is an example of Custom Categories that an individual in a management role may want to create.

spotlight_custom categories vennspotlight_custom categories mindmap

Create a New Category


  1. In the Left Panel of the Home Screen, click Add Category.
  2. Select Create New Category.
  3. Enter the appropriate name in the Enter name for the new custom category field.  Click OK. Note: A new category titled “Custom Categories” appears near the top of the Left Panel.

Add a Template to a Custom Category


  1. Locate the appropriate template you’d like to add to your Custom Category. Right-click, then hover over Add to Custom Category.
  2. In the sub-menu, select the appropriate Custom Category.  Note: You also have the option to create a new custom category if the existing options do not meet your business needs.

Export or Share a Custom Category


  1. In the Left Panel, navigate to the Custom Categories.
  2. Right-click, select Export Category.  Click Save. Note: You will be saving a Custom Category Archive (.STZ) opposed to a standard (.SDR) file type.
  3. Prompt a new email and attach the .STZ file.

Import a Category


  1. Navigate to the appropriate email (sample email show above).
  2. Double-click on the attached .STZ file.  Click Open.  A new instance of SmartDraw launches.   Note: The imported Custom Category will automatically appear in your Custom Categories.


  1. Save the .STZ file to your computer.
  2. Navigate to the bottom of the Left Panel of the Home Screen.  Click Add Category.
  3. Select Import Category. Locate the .STZ file. Click Open. Note: The Custom Category will be saved in your Custom Categories.

Delete a Custom Category


  1. In the Left Panel, navigate to the Custom Categories.
  2. Right-click, select Delete Category. Click OK.  Note: You are only able to delete custom categories that you create or import.

CLICK HERE for a pdf of the instructions above: SmartDraw Custom Categories Job Aide