The Swim Lane Diagram for Process Improvement: Key Benefits

You have business processes in place. You know they exist, else you would get little done. But you want to get a higher level understanding of your processes. You may wonder if your process are as smooth as they can be, as efficient as they can be and if they are helping or hindering overall performance. To get a better understanding of your processes, text based procedures and checklists aren’t going to help much. Time to look into some visual process mapping techniques. The first we’ll look at is the ever handy and easily created swim lane diagram. Read on to learn how process mapping with swim lanes create operational transparency, accountability and contribute to the efficiency of organizations.

What is a Swim Lane Diagram?

A swim lane diagram, also called a cross functional flow chart, or swim lane process map, is an element used in mapping process workflows. It groups components into a distinct sequence, or lane, in the visual presentation of workflow and process charts. Swimlane diagrams distinguish capabilities, roles, and responsibilities for each sub-process in business process workflows.

In swim lane maps, parallel lines divide the chart into lanes, hence the name, with one lane for each person, group or sub process. Take a look:


Process mapping with a swim lane diagram

This is a simple swim lane diagram created in Visio. As you can see, a swim lane diagram allows for the visual mapping of processes and the individuals or departments responsible for them. The swim lane diagram above maps out a simple process in which a decision point splits the end result of the process into two separate possible outcomes. This method allows for a comprehensive understanding of how organisational roles, decision and process interact to affect certain outcomes.Swim lanes are a popular approach to business process mapping because they provide several clear process improvement benefits.

Lanes are labelled to show how the chart is organized. For example, a vertical lane may represent a sequence of events, while the horizontal lanes depict what department, person, or material is involved, with arrows and other standard symbols to show how the actual process workflow takes place.

What are the benefits of using a swim lane process map?

These highly versatile cross functional flow charts can communicate complex principles on a more intuitive visual level. Unlike other workflow diagrams, swim lane diagrams help to build a standardized, integrated process map across the organization that can be analyzed for inefficiencies and aid improvements. Let’s take a look.

1. Clarify Complex Processes

Organising processes into swim lanes can provide easy visual explanations even for complex relationships. (See adjacent example of a simple vertical swim lane diagram). 

Many complex process relationships are never fully illuminated due to the tendency for word and text based explanations to be hard to follow and, well, easy to ignore.

A swim lane process map, by comparison, creates a visual structure to both process workflow and the people, places, and things that interact with them. What used to be hidden in obscure procedures is revealed more comprehensively in a swim lane process mapping session.

Swim lane diagrams help identify and organize

  • bottlenecks and inefficiencies 
  • department and team responsibility 
  • redundancies
  • the relationship between teams, steps and overall process 

Costly delays and redundancies may exist not merely as the result of duplicate or wasted efforts and tasks, but can also be due to of a lack of documentation or other breakdowns in communication. The visual nature of a swim lane allows these issues to not only be brought into the discussion but to become necessary places of process improvement. Giving the problem a visual structure makes the problem much harder to ignore and can act as a catalyst for a implements continuous process improvement. 


2. Better Understanding and Communication

Creating swim lanes for processes at each new initiative can help all parties better understand exactly what is taking place, whether it’s top executives or general labor. As mentioned above, swim lane maps require the discovery and listing of all tasks and sub-processes, as well
as the decision making that affects the workflow.

A Swim lane process map also helps encourage effective communication between process  roles. For example, swim lane diagrams require that each process be segmented into a series of tasks which all lead to a desired end result, showing all responsible parties. Whether it’s improving production times, installing a new computer system, or on boarding new hires, the diagram shows everyone what their responsibility is and how it affects others.

This methodology also helps to guide processes. A swim lane diagram provides a visual reference so that anyone can easily answer questions such as “What happens now?” or “Who is supposed to take care of this?”.

3. Identify Participants

visual process mapping tool

Visual process mapping techniques can integrate into your entire workflow with a process mapping software tool.

As mentioned above, working out each team or individual responsibility is important for both current and future initiatives. This should include each organizational unit involved in the sequence of tasks, as well as any source of input, such as documents, data, or approvals, and anyone receiving any output from the process, such as vendors or even computer systems.

While diagrams can be constructed at any level of detail, in-depth swim lane diagrams will reveal steps where additional help or skills are called for, or even team members that are not required, or who are being over-worked or under-used. 

4. A Versatile Process Mapping Tool

Swim lane maps provide flexibility to visually diagramming and understanding processes. Various levels of complexity can be introduced to provide overviews or map specific details. Symbols representing outside data, documents or outside process events can be incorporated into the swim lane diagram along with the standard process start, step, decision and end symbols. There are a total of 6 standard symbols in all and these can be used for the vast majority of your process mapping needs. 

Also, workflows can be rotated in the diagram so that sequences read horizontally and roles become a column. This can help to create a different perspective emphasizing personnel duties rather than process sequences. 

5. Easy Analysis for Continuous Improvement

As the flowchart progresses, it’s repeatedly checked for issues such as missing steps, duplication of effort, poor time management and activities that add no real value. Eliminating any or all of these results in a better process. A swim lane process map helps to make these improvements easier to spot by providing a visual, orderly context.

Once areas needing improvement are identified, analysts can explore ways to address each issue and make the right changes. Using swim lane process maps can also help to map out proposed changes so that potential risks and rewards can be identified. For instance, it makes sense to eliminate a duplicated step, but the step may be necessary due to time constraints or quality controls

Swim Lane Process Maps with the Agility Process Based Management System

In keeping with the holistic process based approach to business management systems, the Agility integrated management system system revolves around the use of easily built and visual swim lane maps. The highly intuitive and highly adaptive swim lane graphics allow you to tailor your specific processes to your overall business goals. This gives you and your team the visual ability to clarify the complex, understand the problems and identify the key roles, streamlining your processes from top to bottom for a more efficient and ultimately cost saving process improvement system.

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