Understanding Complex Processes:
Flowcharts and Lists of Periodic Events
Farrokh Alemi, Ph.D.
Ashraf Ismail, M.D.
Thinking Person’s Weight Loss and Exercise Program”
chapter describes two methods used to describe life processes—(1)
flowcharting sequences of events and (2) making a list of periodic
events—and gives examples of how individuals have used these tools to
describe their lives.
Before a problem is solved it must be
understood; before an improvement is made, the current process must be
examined. If people need to change their behavior, they need to
understand how they maintain existing habits. Without understanding,
change is a shot-in-the-dark, a wild guess at what might work. With
understanding, by contrast, solutions can be tailored to one's needs—and
chances of success can be improved. A person may want to change a
simple behavior (for instance, being late for appointments) or a very
complex one (failing to lose weight). But no matter how complex or how
trivial the task, improvement starts from understanding. This chapter
shows how one gets on the right path for that—by describing a life
process and gaining more in-depth understanding of oneself.
As noted above, people can use either
flowcharting or lists to describe their life processes. Some may prefer
to use the former because it is a visual diagram that emphasizes the
temporal nature of how one event leads to another. Others may find
flowcharting too complex and prefer to make a list of periodic life
events. Both tools help individuals understand their lifestyles. Both
help us gain new insights into how we can improve. The choice between
the two tools depends on individual preferences. This chapter discusses
both approaches so that you can decide what is best for you.
Why Construct a Flowchart or a List of
- Understand that
there is a process. Often people think that their behavior
is a function of their own personal decisions and actions—not
influenced by an external process. To help them focus on external
processes and triggers in the environment, it is helpful to ask people
to draw a flowchart or list periodic events in their lives. Doing so
helps them see how external influences affect their behavior. It
reveals the underlying process and helps them get away from a
dysfunctional focus on motivation and effort.
- Gain insight into
our lives. We are not always aware of our own habits and life
processes. When we chart our lives or list periodic events, we gain
better insight into our own behavior. We often know what we are doing
but not why we are doing it. Charting helps clarify how
various events affect our behavior.
- Determine whether
the process meets current resolutions. In many instances, we make
resolutions but fail to follow through in our day-to-day lives.
Flowcharting current lifestyles or listing periodic events helps one
see the discrepancy between one's intentions or claims and actual
- Redesign the
process. The performance improvement team (see Chapter 4) may
decide to modify the process to achieve a desired behavior. To reach
this goal, certain tasks may be added or deleted from existing
processes. Steps within tasks may need to be changed or executed in a
different sequence. All the proposed new changes need to be
graphically represented in a flowchart or may be listed as periodic
lifestyle events. These representations help the team as well as the
clinicians understand the new process. In designing new life
processes, flowcharting and making lists of periodic events are the
starting point for planning a lasting new habit.
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Making a Flowchart
A flowchart is a map of a process. It
helps us understand the sequence of events that occur in a person’s
life. It is a visual representation that is easy to understand and
interpret. It shows how one event leads to another. Once drawn it
creates a common understanding on how the person’s life is organized.
Individuals have different backgrounds, cultures, and ways of thinking.
Two people may have entirely different processes for a simple act such
as eating breakfast. The sequence of the steps may be different (one
may have coffee first, followed by toast; another may skip coffee); the
importance of a step may vary (one may eat at a relaxed slow pace while
the other eats in a car while hurrying to work); and the resources used
may differ (cheese versus butter, for instance).
How to Construct a
constructing a flowchart we need to learn about a series of symbols
typically used in flowcharts. Figure 1 shows these symbols.
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The steps in constructing
flowcharts is as follows:
- Determine the
boundaries. It is important for the team to define the process
that will be flowcharted and the level of detail to be recorded. A
consensus should be reached at the beginning on the boundaries of this
process, that is, the starting point ("What activity do I do
first?") and ending point (“What is the very last thing that
happens?"). The latter in most cases corresponds to the
- List the events.
On a shared piece of paper or flip chart, individuals and their
team members should list the major events in the process.
Brainstorming—a process in which ideas are sought without evaluation
until all ideas are collected—should be used. Ask all team members to
participate, for two reasons: first, everyone should have at least
some knowledge of all pieces of the process, and second, everyone's
contribution is potentially valuable since he or she may have a unique
perspective on the sequence of events that leads to the desired
behavior. Make sure that events that lead to the desired behavior and
those that lead to unwanted behavior are both listed. Make sure the
list includes and marks all relevant events. Some participants list
so few events that the tool's usefulness is limited. If the list is
too general—citing, for example, "I gain weight because I eat"—it is
of little use. On the flip side, providing excessive detail—for
example, providing details of how one sets the dining table—may also
be prohibitive and counterproductive. It is important to list a
sufficient number of events that would help everyone get a
comprehensive picture; while postponing the inclusion of some
- Sequence the
events. Order the events from independent activities (activities
over which you have little control) to dependent activities (usually
the desired behavior). In the team's listing of the major events,
find out what happens after the initial starting point. Place this
step below or next to the starting point. Find and agree on the second
event in the process. Place the step below or next to the previous
activity. Continue using the same technique until you reach the step
that leads to the final event. If multiple activities follow an
event, draw multiple lines from that event to the events that follow
- Draw appropriate
symbols. Now, after listing all the steps, use the symbols shown
in Figure 1 as appropriate to build your flowchart. Show the flow
with arrows. Arrows are better than just lines connecting the
symbols because they clearly lead you to the next step. Do not forget
to label the arrows at the decision diamonds.
- Discuss the chart.
Allow sufficient time for discussion around the steps and their
sequencing. This allows team members to learn from one another and
better understand the process and its complexities, producing better
end results when the team improves the process later.
- Test for
completeness. It is important before finalizing the flowchart to
check for its completeness. This is often done by using the chart to
analyze the events of a few days. If all major events that are
relevant to the final outcome are included in the chart, it is
complete. If a step needs more details, you can add them as
appropriate. Spend enough time with the team to ensure that each
member has the same level of understanding of the process.
How to Use the Flowchart
Here are some ways you can
use a flowchart:
- Analyze the flowchart,
looking for process "glitches": inefficiencies, omissions/gaps,
redundancies, barriers, delays, etc.
- Compare the current
process against the ideal process for discrepancies. See if
the events in the flowchart agree with your resolutions.
- Look for what works to
use as "best practices."
- Decide whether events
within the current process can be influenced by noting the precedents
to these events.
- Decide whether events
within a process can be instrumental in changing other events by
following where they lead.
A Sample Flowchart
The chart in Figure 2 is an example of
a flowchart developed by a person trying to understand his daily
2: A Simple Flowchart of One Person’s Weekday Routines
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Making Lists of Periodic Events
If you find
flowcharts too hard to make, an alternative is to make a list of
periodic events. Such lists are simpler to make but do not have
information on sequence among the events. Despite this shortcoming,
these lists may be just as useful in understanding a process. They are
especially helpful in highlighting the link between daily living
activities and the desired behavior change.
Periodic lists are based on the principle
that any system or process is best understood in terms of its “steady
states”—that is, in terms of recurring events. Life is not a random
heap of events. Some events recur, and they are referred to as
routines, or as system analysts put it, “steady states” of the system.
Steady states or routines are situations to which a system left to its
own means will tend to return. These events are the organizing
principles of our lives. By listing them, a person can see the steady
states for his or her system of life. Behavioral tendencies, e.g., lack
of exercise or overeating, are often expressed in or affected by these
routines (e.g., shopping affects eating). Examination of the routines
reveals an individual's direction independent of his or her expressed
wishes or desires. By listing the various periodic activities, it shows
the structure of one’s life.
There are many recurring events in a
person’s life. Most people sleep and awake according to a routine
schedule. Many eat at more or less regular times. Others work regular
hours. Even end-of-week socialization and partying follow certain
routines. A close look at anyone’s life reveals that many events happen
periodically—some daily, others weekly, still others with longer
periods. The first step here is to list these periodic events. It is
not that non-routine events do not matter; they do, but the impact of
routine events is by definition more frequent. By understanding routine
events we can comprehend a big part of life processes.
The exercise of listing routines can be
more difficult than it appears. Some activities, like getting up and
going to work, seem to follow a clear enough pattern. Other activities,
however, like disputes with a spouse, are not so typical and may not
necessarily recur with a clear frequency. It is important to include
all periodic events, even if they do not always occur at the same
frequency. For activities with variable periods, the average time of
recurrence should be recorded. This exercise is difficult because the
variability in a person’s activities must be distilled and ignored. We
acknowledge that life events do not necessarily occur at fixed
intervals, which makes the task of recognizing what is routine and what
is a rare, one-time event difficult. Even more difficult is identifying
events that occur with irregular frequencies. When the exercise is
finished, however, the hard work should pay off and you should be able
to understand your life much better. The steps in constructing a list of
periodic events are as follows:
- Make a list of
daily events. One way to examine a person’s routine activities is
to make a daily calendar, such as the one shown in Table 1. The
calendar should include all activities from morning to night for one
week. It is important to include as many activities as possible.
Special emphasis should be given to activities that might affect diet
and exercise. A list of near-daily (weekday) activities may include
waking up, preparing breakfast, brushing teeth, taking a shower,
getting the children ready for school, preparing lunch, commuting,
working, eating lunch, meetings, coffee breaks, commuting back home,
preparing dinner, eating dinner, looking over the children's homework,
watching television, and sleeping.
exercise & diet
Late meals make it difficult to fall asleep.
Late wakeup times makes it difficult to eat breakfast
Sedentary. Opportunity to exercise lost
Carrying vacuum cleaner upstairs is a modest
Usually going to restaurants. Drinking more
than my diet allows
Fights with spouse
Overeating because of frustrations
Overeating at parents house
- Make a list of less
frequent but periodic events. The next step with the activity
calendar is to list the activities that a person may not engage in
every week, but are nevertheless recurring events. A list of
near-weekly activity may include washing clothes, taking the garbage
out, cutting grass, going to friends’ houses, calling parents, eating
out, playing on a team, listening to music, and so on. A list of
less-frequent-than-weekly periodic events may include having a dispute
with your spouse, having stress at work, experiencing road rage,
visiting a doctor, traveling, visiting parents, reading a book, and so
on. It is crucial that you move away from daily living activities to
include social and work-related activities that may affect your
- Check the depth of
the list. It is not helpful to list events in extremely broad
terms (for example, "I wake up and go to work and come home and
sleep"); nor is it helpful to list everything that occurs. You need
to make a choice regarding what level of detail is useful. Enough
details should be present that could help you understand what leads to
behavior that you want to change. Enough events should be listed that
could articulate what is unique about your lifestyle.
- Check the list's
accuracy. The list's accuracy is monitored by carrying it around
and checking that events listed actually occur and that there were no
other major events. For events that cannot be directly observed, one
way of checking the accuracy of the list is to share it with others
who have independently observed the event.
How to Use a List of Periodic Events
Once a list
has been created, the individual needs to review each item on the list
and describe how the item affects the behavior of interest. Thus if you
are trying to lose weight, and a list item is “shop for food,” the
review will establish how the time, frequency, and content of shopping
affect what is eaten. If another item is “sleep,” the review will
establish how the time and manner of sleeping affect eating.
Once the list
has been created, it should also be used to make other team members
familiar with the nuances of the person's life.
a solution is suggested, the team should examine the list to see how the
proposed solution will affect existing routines. The team should take
components of the proposed solution and embed them in existing routines.
In using a
list of routines, it is important to search for the relationship between
them. Experience shows that routines feed into each other; they have
to; they are part of a set of repeating events that have stabilized over
time and are working with each other. Modifying one will require
changing many others. You can understand better the relationship of
routines to each other by clarifying how routines affect each other. A
tool for doing so is to search for cycles among routines. By cycles we
mean that you start with one routine and after going through several
other steps you end up with the same routine. For example, taking your
morning shower at the gym might affect the need to take a shower at home
when you wake up. Thus the exercise and hygiene routines are related.
If you insist on shower at home before you go to your morning gym, it
will be counter productive. In contrast, by going to morning gym, you
are not only exercising more but also taking a shower. Figure 1 shows
Figure 1: Relationship between Morning Shower & Exercise
A search for cycles among
your daily, weekly and monthly routines can help you understand how
change could occur.
The study of
systems requires new discovery tools. This chapter has introduced two
methods for studying systems: flowcharts and list (cycles) of routines.
Both approaches have advantages; a flowchart is more visual but listing
is easier to accomplish. It is not crucial to use one method versus the
other: both focus attention on the interrelationship among people,
events, and the environment. Both approaches help describe a
system—flowcharts do so by highlighting items that are interrelated;
lists do so by focusing on steady states (routines) and cycles among