Charts and diagrams play an extremely important role in displaying information and assisting reasoning. They help us visualize complex processes, or make explicit the structure of problems and tasks. On this page we introduce some common visual tools.
A flowchart is a diagram constructed from connected shapes representing a process or a plan. Here is an example of a simple flowchart illustrating the process of going to school.
Flowcharts have two main functions. First, a flowchart can be used to analyse a complex process, by breaking down the process into individual steps or components. The diagram can then be used :
- as a basis for further discussion of the process
- to identify points where data can be collected and analysed
- to identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies
- to explain the process to other people
A flowchart can also be used to define a process or project to be implemented. Such a diagram is useful because :
- it spells out clearly the steps that have to be implemented
- it provides the basis for identifying potential problems
- responsibilities for different parts of the process can be clearly defined
The modern flowchart originated in computer science as a tool for representing algorithms and computer programs, but the use of flowcharts has extended to the representation of all other kinds of processes.
In a standard flowchart, different shapes have different conventional meanings. The meanings of some of the more common shapes are as follows:
For further information about standard notation, please refer to :
- International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), ISO 5807 Information processing -- Documentation symbols and conventions; program and system flowcharts.
- American National Standard, ANSI X3.6-1970, Flowchart Symbols and their Usage in Information Processing.
One type of flowchart which is quite useful in project planning is deployment flowchart. A deployment flowchart is just a flowchart drawn inside a table with different columns, e.g.
The table is divided into columns representing the parties responsible for implementing the process. Different parts of the process are placed in the column for which the relevant party is in charge. The diagram reveals clearly how responsibilities for the sub-processes are distributed.
Hints for drawing flowcharts
- Write down the title of the flowchart. Identify the process that is shown.
- Make sure that the starting and ending points of the process can be easily located.
- Avoid crossing flow-lines if possible.
- Use informative labels in your diagram.
- The amount of details in a flowchart depends on the level of analysis required.
In a management context the following considerations should be taken into account in reviewing a flowchart:
- Where are the labor intensive processes?
- Where would possible delays and hiccups most likely occur?
- Are there places particularly suited for quality control?
- Are there duplicated or redundant processes?
- Is it possible to streamline any process or reduce the number of operations?
- Has any process been omitted?
§2. Decision trees
A decision tree diagram is a diagram that represents the possible consequences of a series of decisions in some situation. Here is a simple example :
More sophisticated decision tree diagrams can represent the probabilities of different possible outcomes. Special methods can then be employed to calculate the overall probabilities of possible final outcomes, to help estimate risks and assist decision making.
A decision tree diagram functions not just as a map for making decisions. It is also very useful in laying out the different positions on some complicated theoretical issue. Depending on how one might answer certain crucial questions, a decision tree diagram can help the user identify the theoretical consequences of the assumptions that he or she accepts. For example, here we have a very simple tree diagram on the topic of consciousness.
§3. Cause and effect diagrams
There are two main types of cause and effect diagrams - Bayesian causal nets, and fishbone diagrams. Bayesian causal nets are rather similar to decision tree diagrams. For more details, please visit this page.
It is hard to describe systematically the art of using diagrams to present relevant information accurately and succintly. But here are a few simple reminders on interpreting and presenting charts containing statistical information:
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On a daily basis, we face problems and situations that should be evaluated and solved, and we are challenged to understand different perspectives to think about these situations. Most of us are building our cognitive thinking based on previous similar situations or experiences. However, this may not guarantee a better solution for a problem, as our decision may be affected by emotions, non-prioritized facts, or other external influences that reflect on the final decision. Therefore, critical thinking tends to build a rational, open-mined process that depends on information and empirical evidence.
The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as an “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” The process tends to help us judge and evaluate situations based on understanding the related data, analyze it, build a clear understanding of the problem, choose the proper solution, and take actions based on the established solution.
The critical thinking process prevents our minds from jumping directly to conclusions. Instead, it guides the mind through logical steps that tend to widen the range of perspectives, accept findings, put aside personal biases, and consider reasonable possibilities. This can be achieved through six steps: knowledge, comprehension, application, analyze, synthesis, and take action. Below is a brief description of each step and how to implement them.
Step 1: Knowledge
For every problem, clear vision puts us on the right path to solve it. This step identifies the argument or the problem that needs to be solved. Questions should be asked to acquire a deep understanding about the problem. In some cases, there is no actual problem, thus no need to move forward with other steps in the critical thinking model. The questions in this stage should be open-ended to allow the chance to discuss and explore main reasons. At this stage, two main questions need to be addressed: What is the problem? And why do we need to solve it?
Step 2: Comprehension
Once the problem is identified, the next step is to understand the situation and the facts aligned with it. The data is collected about the problem using any of the research methods that can be adopted depending on the problem, the type of the data available, and the deadline required to solve it.
Step 3: Application
This step continues the previous one to complete the understanding of different facts and resources required to solve the problem by building a linkage between the information and resources. Mind maps can be used to analyze the situation, build a relation between it and the core problem, and determine the best way to move forward.
Step 4: Analyze
Once the information is collected and linkages are built between it the main problems, the situation is analyzed in order to identify the situation, the strong points, the weak points, and the challenges faced while solving the problem. The priorities are set for the main causes and determine how they can be addressed in the solution. One of the commonly used tools that can be deployed to analyze the problem and the circumstances around it is the cause effect diagram, which divides the problem from its causes and aims to identify the different causes and categorize them based on their type and impact on the problem.
Step 5: Synthesis
In this stage, once the problem is fully analyzed and all the related information is considered, a decision should be formed about how to solve the problem and the initial routes to follow to take this decision into action. If there are number of solutions, they should be evaluated and prioritized in order to find the most advantageous solution. One of the tools that contribute choosing the problem solution is the SWOT analysis that tends to identify the solution’s strength, weakness, opportunity, and threats.
Step 6: Take Action
The final step is to build an evaluation about the problem that can be put into action. The result of critical thinking should be transferred into action steps. If the decision involves a specific project or team, a plan of action could be implemented to ensure that the solution is adopted and executed as planned.
The critical thinking method can be adopted to replace emotions and perusal biases when trying to think about a situation or a problem. The time for adopting critical thinking varies based on the problem; it may take few minutes to number of days. The advantage of deploying critical thinking is that it contributes to widening our perspectives about situations and broadening our thinking possibilities. However, these steps should be translated into a plan of action that ensures that the decided resolution is well achieved and integrated between all the involved bodies.