Choosing Quality Tools (Mind Map vs. Flowchart vs. Spaghetti Diagram) [transcript]

I saw a question on social media about mind-maps. After looking at the thread and learning a little more, I recommended trying out a process flow chart or a spaghetti diagram instead. A mind map is popular in a lot of workspaces. Process flow charts are popular with QE’s and process engineers. Spaghetti diagrams sound peculiar; they’re a tool for people who practice lean quality principles. In the spirit of just trying out graphical tools, any of these could help us get started. Let’s talk more about a general approach to choosing and creating graphical quality tools. And I’ll explain the differences between a mind map, a process flow chart, and a spaghetti diagram, after this brief introduction.

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Within our quality toolbox, there are a lot of graphical organizers. Some are better at fulfilling different goals than others. If we have a goal in mind, then we may choose a certain tool. If we have a topic or idea that we’re trying to get clarity about, then we shouldn’t let NOT knowing which way to draw it stop us from trying to create. Just start with something. We don’t want analysis paralysis about which tool is best to stop us from using any tool at all.

Rules or guidelines of how to use Quality Tools mostly fall into two areas: getting the results we want and how to coordinate our team to get the best benefits from using them. With this in mind, I have 3 general guidelines about which graphical quality tool to use, how to draw them, and when to use them.

Guideline #1: MAKE A CHOICE AND CHANGE YOUR MIND IF YOU WANT. Don’t get hung up on choosing the exact, right tool to the point that you delay doing it. The Quality Engineering police are not going to come out of the woodwork to call you out on doing something wrong. (Or, at least I hope they don’t do that!) But, do get familiar with a few of them and try them out! In the podcast blog, I’ll post my favorite book to learn about all the Quality Tools.

Guideline #2: DRAWING THEM IS USUALLY BEST. Try to do it on paper or using an online cooperative app that uses sticky notes. We can even get creative with an online word processor, where multiple users can be working in a document at the same time. I have not had great success in using software templates during a meeting. This is when we’re trying to use a software program with a fishbone diagram that’s laid out with blanks. Or a program where we drop process flow shapes onto the screen. We’re typing and adding shapes onto a screen. The results are a pretty looking graphic, but during the meeting with the team of people it’s too slow, limits participation, and the focus shifts from team collaboration and generating ideas to, “How do I use this software and where do I put this information?” If we want to capture the quality tool results for posterity, then we can follow-up later with a pretty looking graphic.

Guideline #3: USE THEM ANYTIME, BUT SOMETIMES INTENTIONAL USE IS BEST. We might be in a meeting with a diverse team, and things will just start to happen with ideas and conversations. If it’s the purpose of the meeting and is not derailing the agenda, it might be the perfect time to jump up with a whiteboard (in the office or virtually) and start using a graphical organizer. Just be sure this is something the meeting host is okay with doing. We can check in with them, and if they say, “No,” that’s okay. Because another, typical way to use these tools is to create a meeting with a specific purpose and tool in mind. For this type of meeting, we curate a team that has different viewpoints and a vested interest. Having a dedicated, intentional meeting allows the team to prepare for the topic and to be trained on the method so they know how to best participate. This prepared meeting also allows us to gather the right materials (like post-its, markers, or flip boards) or to get people access to the right meeting space online.

Those are my 3 guidelines for using any graphical quality tool. Overall, I encourage you to just try them out.

What’s the difference between a mind map, a process flow chart, and a spaghetti diagram? Does it matter which one we use? Sometimes it does, depending on our goal. But we don’t want that analysis paralysis about which tool is best. We want to act to help ourselves and our team make decisions. Let’s talk about these three tools, and we’ll start with the mind map.

A mind map is a graphical organizer with the intent of building out knowledge about a topic. A lot of people use it to help them study something new, and many students are using it to help them study for their classes and tests. It replaces outlines and bulleted lists with a visual graphic of a main topic and then it’s sub-topics and details. It’s useful because it’s supposed to help us build out details about a topic on paper in a way that aligns with how our mind likes to think about things. It looks like a tree with branches, or a spiderweb. The main topic is circled, in the center of the page. Subtopics are branched from the main topic, surrounding it with more circles. Then additional branches are added for details and extra notes. I’ll include a picture of a mind map on the podcast blog. As designers, when would we most likely use this type of tool? We could use it to help understand our customer, to get inside their head a little. If our customer were in the center of the mind map, then subgroups to that could be their demographics: where do they live, how old are they, what hobbies do they enjoy, what is important to them (and so on)? Another use for a mind map could be when we’re learning about a new technology. Perhaps we need to add switch to our design, and within our company we’ve never had to design with a switch before. We could put switch into the center of the mind map, and then branch out into subtopics, which could be types of switches, normal inputs, and materials. And then under those subtopics, we would start listing additional details. A last example: like our social media poster, we’re trying to understand a complex procedure. We could use a mind map to help us think about the details, and to organize what we learn. On the podcast blog, I’ll link to a couple of tutorial videos: one that gets into why mind mapping is better than outlined lists when it comes to learning new things. The other video is a tutorial about how someone uses a mind map for project management; this one also has good recommendations for notations.

A process flow chart is used to define, study, and communicate a process. It is one of the seven basic quality tools. Each step of a process is identified with a symbol (usually an oval, rectangle, or diamond). The steps are mapped out in sequential order and connected with arrows. Decision points with different outcomes are included (like pass/fail or yes/no). Designers can use flowcharting to help evaluate the user process. We can evaluate the process flow using different techniques to identify important features, quality characteristics, and steps and information that the user needs to best use our product. I’ve talked in-depth about this in previous episodes. I’ll let you know which ones at the end, and I’ll include links in the podcast blog.

The last tool we mentioned earlier was the spaghetti diagram. As a quality tool, a spaghetti diagram is a lean tool, used to identify waste in a process. It doesn’t map the process like a process flow chart. Instead, there’s a map of a physical space, and there are lines and arrows that shows how something flows through that space. That something that’s moving through the space is a product, papers for approval, or whatever we’re trying to finish. It’s suited for manufacturing shop floors, where a component needs to move from one station to another to the next to get produced. Or, in a restaurant kitchen, where several sous chefs are plating an order from the different stations within the kitchen. For designers, it could be the layout of the area where our product is going to be used. The idea is to limit walking time and movement to eliminate wasted time and effort, make things more streamlined. We start with a diagram of our space. We include walls, equipment, stations, desks, trash cans, and other things that people have to walk around. Then, we draw lines with arrows to capture movements. If it’s not an ideal set-up, then our diagram is going to look like a plate of spaghetti, with lines drawn all over the place. Knowing the current state, we can then reorganize the physical space and the location of stations to eliminate the strands of spaghetti and streamline our process.

How can we use a spaghetti diagram for design? I’ll go back to our users: we’re designing for them. Will our product be used in a typical environment? We may not be able to map an exact room, but there are products in situations where there’s a standard layout and where timing and efficiency is important. An example is an operating suite. Let’s say we have medical equipment that stays in the operating suite and we are using disposables with it. Our map of the physical space may be the operating suite with the patient bed, the hook-ups we need for the equipment (like any air or electrical connections we need), and the tray that holds sterile disposables. Is there other equipment that will be used with the procedure? If so, we’ll add that to the map, too. Now, knowing the steps of our process from our process flow chart, what are the physical movements of the medical team during the procedure? Does someone need to walk around the patient bed many times to get component hook ups and readings? Is there anything we can do with the product design to eliminate those excess movements? Instead of packing everything that’s disposable into one package, can we make it two packages? Would that help limit movement of the user? We could also take a more micro view of the user’s space. If we’re designing a large tool bench for a woodworker, our map could be of the tool bench. Knowing the process steps that our user is going to take, can we map out our user’s movements? Does our user need to use the clamp, then walk to the other end of the bench to get the wrench to tighten it? Can we redesign the tool bench to eliminate that movement?

We reviewed 3 graphical tools: the mind-map, the process flow chart, and the spaghetti diagram. We use the mind-map to help us learn about a new topic, which can help us with design choices. A process flow chart maps out the steps of a process, and we can analyze it to figure out how to make our process better. A spaghetti diagram tracks movement within a physical space, and we can use it to help us figure out how to be efficient with those movements.

What are the insights to action today? I’m going back to my 3 guidelines:

Guideline #1: MAKE A CHOICE AND CHANGE YOUR MIND IF YOU WANT. While each quality tool has a specific use, is it wrong to approach a new problem with just any of them? No. Just try them. You’ll learn something more about what you’re trying to figure out. And you can change your mind and go with a different tool instead.

Guideline #2: DRAWING THEM IS USUALLY BEST. Get out some paper and colored markers and let yourself have some fun. Or try a cooperative whiteboard with your team.

Guideline #3: USE THEM ANYTIME, BUT SOMETIMES INTENTIONAL USE IS BEST. Learning about a tool and then sharing it with your team can lead to enjoyable and productive meetings that have team building results, too. Preparing yourself to be a good facilitator is worthwhile for you, the project, and your team.

If you’d like to get more into process flow charting, then there are two previous Quality During Design episodes I recommend:

Episode 29 “Types of Design Analyses possible with User Process Flowcharts” talks about a lot of various analyses we can do with a process flow chart, like identifying important tasks, making the process more efficient, and performing a costs analysis.

Episode 2 “My product works. Why don’t they want it?” talks about a process flow chart for the user’s process and the appropriate level of detail we may need to identify the true customer needs and requirements for our design.

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