Two Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do with Visio

Creating diagrams in Visio is fairly easy, but do you stop when you have a collection of shapes on the page? If you do, you’re missing most of the real power of Visio. While it’s true that a picture can be worth a thousand words, with Visio, you can take that picture to the next level and make it even more valuable.

In this article you’ll discover techniques that allow you to visualize process data on your maps, and you’ll also learn that you can connect a diagram to data and turn the diagram into a business intelligence dashboard.

Creating the Best Practice View of a Process

Let’s say you’ve created a flowchart of a business process. The diagram represents the “best practice” view of that process. Perhaps a portion of the flowchart looks like this:

People in your organization can use the flowchart to get a sense for how to do their work within the overall process, but how do they know where to go for more information? Or what tools they should use to perform each task? Or who to consult if they need assistance?

Visio makes it really simple to provide all of that information as part of the flowchart. Before we look at an example, we need to define two key Visio features.

Shape Data:

Every Visio shape can contain data. Some Visio shapes include predefined data fields, such as the flowchart shapes that incorporate fields for Cost, Process Number, Owner, Function, Start Date, End Date, and Status. Even if a shape doesn’t have predefined fields, you can add your own fields to store data of interest to you.

For example, here is a task shape to which we’ve added data fields:

TIP: You need to open Visio’s Shape Data window to see the data in a shape. To do so, right-click any shape, select Data, and then Shape Data. You can position the resulting window anywhere over the drawing or dock it on any of the four sides of the Visio window.

Data Graphics:

A Visio data graphic lets you visualize the data in your shapes in one of four ways: You can display data in text callouts, progress bars and graphs, using colored icons, or by automatically applying a color to a shape. Data graphics are dynamic, so as the data in a shape changes, the data graphic responds accordingly.

In the example below, we’ve added two text callouts, one at the top to identify who is responsible for each task, and one below to indicate where someone should look for more information about doing each piece of work.

We can continue to display additional key attributes in a similar fashion. In the following figure, we’ve added the tools for completing each task, and, where appropriate, we’ve identified the person to whom someone might turn for assistance.

Using Process Maps to Monitor Process Execution

Creating a map to depict the best practice view of a process is a great start. What if we could use the same process map to manage individual instances of a process by viewing up-to-the-minute data in the context of the map?

With the data linking feature of Visio, you can. The data connection wizard lets you link a diagram to one or more external data sources. You can connect to data in Excel, in a SharePoint list, in Access, in SQL Server, or in virtually any database anywhere. It’s even possible to link to both Task Lists and Enterprise Projects in Microsoft Project Online.

When you link to a data source, Visio does two things. First, when column names in the data source match existing shape data field names, Visio adds the data values to those fields. Second, if there are columns names that do not match, like the orange ones below, Visio creates new shape data fields and inserts the values into the shapes.

As an example, linking the process map above to data like the Excel worksheet shown below allows us to visualize key performance indicators (KPIs) along with other data values.

Now that we have KPI data in the map, let’s leverage it by creating two additional data graphics. We’ll use an icon set to display actual time vs. budgeted time for each task, and we’ll create a color-by-value graphic to show the status of each task. The results are shown below for three tasks.

If you want to make the resulting diagram more meaningful for its intended audience, two clicks instruct Visio to generate a legend showing the significance of each data graphic icon or color.


In this article, you’ve seen how Visio can help you move far beyond creating simple flowcharts and swimlane diagrams.

  • You can display critical data values on a map, thereby positioning the diagram as the focal point of learning and knowledge about the process.
  • When you link a process map to data and then visualize KPIs on the map, you gain operational intelligence because you can monitor and manage individual process instances in the context of the original map.

To learn more about the techniques and Visio features described in this article, in my webinar, Visio Basics for Project Managers, now available on-demand.

Related Content

Webinars (watch for free now!):
Leveraging Project, Project Server and Project Online for Better Communications
The Basics of Schedule Planning – It’s ALL about Communication

Communication: 5 Ways to Improve Your Project’s Lessons Learned
Size Matters (in Plan Communications)
Ask the Experts: 15 Microsoft Project Tips for New Users

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Written by Scott Helmers

Scott A. Helmers is a Partner at the Harvard Computing Group, a software and consulting firm that assists clients with understanding and implementing business process solutions. He is a co-inventor of TaskMap (, a Visio add-in that allows anyone to document, analyze, and improve their business processes. He has been named a Microsoft Valuable Professional (MVP) for Visio every year since 2008 and is the author of four books from Microsoft Press including Visio 2016 Step by Step. He is also a course author for LinkedIn Learning. You can reach Scott at

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    Always nice to see something on Visio, thx! Wishing MS would better connect Visio to MS Project outside of just creating report objects. It would be nice to connect the processes visualized in Visio to the schedules created in MS Project, no?

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Jigs.

    I agree 100% with your suggestion about using Visio process maps to visualize process instances managed with MS Project. Part of the reason I agree is because I’ve demonstrated exactly that using Visio and Project Online. I will provide a hint of that connection in today’s webcast but did provide a full demonstration in a previous MPUG webcast (

    NOTE 1: If I remember correctly I still had to use Excel as an intermediary between Visio and Project Online in that video; that is no longer the case. Please let me know if you would like additional details.

    NOTE 2: Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to link Visio to the traditional desktop version of Project as it is to link it to Project Online.

  3. This is a great post Scott, thanks for sharing. And, I also agree with Jigs that we should have an easy way to connect Visio to consume data from MS Project (both Desktop and Project Online).

    When it comes to Project Desktop, a reasonable way to achieve that is to export data from your schedule to an Access database, and then connect consume data in Visio from this database. I’ve shared my thoughts here:

    Raphael Santos

  4. Thanks for the comments, Raphael, and great article from three years ago! I hadn’t seen it before but you did some nice work there.

    Tell you what — if you’ll post a feature request on UserVoice about opening Project up for access from Visio I will definitely vote for it! I strongly suspect I can get some other Visio MVPs to vote for it as well. Maybe we can nudge Microsoft into opening up that particular black box. ODBC would be fine; it doesn’t need to be, and really shouldn’t be, a custom interface.

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