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Streamline Business Processes using Swim Lane Diagrams

The following is an original article written by Kurt Sloan, printed here with permission.  Kurt's a terrific BA that I am fortunate enough to work with.

Swim lane diagrams are good tools to use to map a process flow and identify potential problem areas that need to be corrected.  Read on to learn what a swim lane diagram is, what information you need to use it effectively, and how to apply it to an existing business process.

The more we use a given business process the more complacent we become with its inherent inefficiencies.  This is true whether the process is examining a location to identify right-of-way owners, capturing and collecting a series of as-built drawings, or simply tracking a series of project-related information requests.  By nature, most people tend to get used to doing a job in a certain way, even when it is not the best way.  It can be very difficult to change our ways unless we have a significant reason to change our behavior.

If you suspect that you have a business process that is not running as efficiently as it should be, you can use a swim lane diagram to map out that process and identify areas where it can be modified to become more efficient and effective.

What is a swim lane diagram?

A swim lane diagram (sometimes referred to as a “Deployment Process Map” or a “Cross Functional Flowchart”) is a graphical representation of a process flow that shows the interaction of different parties on the process and how the process progresses naturally through the different phases of the project. 

Swim lane diagrams can be tailored to reflect individual situations as needed, but almost always include the following information:

  • Process:  The actual process and flow that is being tracked through its identified progression steps.
  • Actors:  The people, groups, teams, etc, who are performing the steps identified within the process.
  • Phases:  These might reflect the phases of the project, different areas of the project, or any secondary set of key elements that the process flow needs to traverse to successfully complete this process.
  • Symbols:  These are the physical symbols used to graphically represent what is happening in any given step of the process.

There are different schools of thought for how to properly layout a swim lane diagram. One popular method, which we will use here, is the vertical “Actors” and horizontal “Phases” matrix.

Workflow Symbols

The area that holds most opportunity for individuality, and is the greatest source of debate in the development of swim lane diagrams, is in the selection and usage of workflow symbols.  A multitude of symbols is available to choose from when creating a process flow. The actual symbols you choose, however, are not as important as is providing the reader with the proper identification of those symbols and the meaning you are implying with them.  This is done most effectively by creating a detailed symbol legend.

Minimize the number of symbols presented on a diagram to reduce the chance of confusing readers.  If you are creating the process map as part of a team assignment, it is important to get team agreement on symbol meanings and usage prior to mapping out the process. 

The following symbols are basic to most swim lane diagrams and are usually sufficient to successfully conduct a process mapping, although users can add to or modify this to suit their tastes and needs:

Map Out Your Process

Step 1, Identification.  The first step is to identify the process that you want to analyze.  Identify a name and then a description for the process so that readers of the diagram can quickly and easily understand the intentions of the chart.  Put this information at the top of every page that you create. 

Step 2, Map the Process Steps.   You are now ready to identify your process steps and map them out using a swim lane diagram . Start by creating a blank matrix and then begin filling it in starting in the upper left-hand corner (which indicates the first actor at the earliest stage of the process) and moving down and to the right.  As you identify new actors add new columns to the right of the matrix.  New phases of the process are represented by adding new rows to the bottom of the matrix.

A basic swim lane diagram will look similar to the figure shown here:

Step 3,  Get Details from Others.  As you beginning mapping out the detail of your process it is recommended that you schedule time with key actors as you identify them and ask them to describe the steps they go through for each section of the process that they touch.  These interviews will help you complete your physical process flow and can often help to identify misconceptions about the process that are currently in place.

Additionally, you may find it useful to add another column to the far right that represents the “System” as a unique user.  This can be very useful in showing how the process being mapped interacts with different project applications in place on the project.  For example, if you were mapping out a project scheduling process and the project is using Primavera Project Manager for tracking the scheduling activities, you might want to add a column to the far right of the chart called “Systems” or “P6” and use this column to show the calls to and the data returned from the system that affect the process.

Identify Areas of Inefficiency and Ineffectiveness

To gain the maximum benefit from a swim lane diagram , it is important to review the process mapping with a focus on process improvement and not just on process identification.  Once you have captured the existing process as it occurs today, take the time to go through the steps and look for areas of inefficiencies.  The process improvement effort is highly dependant on maintaining an open mind and looking at the process flow with the intent of finding ways to do things more efficiently.

Hand Offs.  Common process improvement points can be found in those areas on the process map where there are a larger number of hand-offs (process steps moving from one actor to another) or turn-arounds (typically shown as circular process movements back to an originating actor) than you would expect.

Every time a process is handed off to another actor, there is an inherent risk of time delay based on the large number of hand-off methods that could be used.  For example, if the process calls for the transfer of an information request from a sub-consultant to the project manager, it would be beneficial to identify how those hand-offs typically take place (e.g., via e-mail, faxed form, phone call) to determine if they are being handled in the most efficient and expedient manner possible.  You can then modify the process on paper and discuss it with the actual actors before initiating the actual improvements.  This allows the different players in the process to participate in the improvements that will affect them.

Turn-Arounds.  “Turn-arounds” are activities where the current actor in the process flow must contact a previous actor for clarification or pass the process back to the left on the chart in order to “advance” the process.  It is important to note that process flow advancement is typically shown by an upper-left to lower-right movement across the diagram.  A turnaround changes the direction of the flow in order to “advance” it.

Turn-arounds are often seen as an indicator of problem areas in a process.  When you see these on your process flow, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is happening at this point in the process that requires Actor A to touch this item again?
  • Was there anything we could have done prior to Actor A’s first handing off this item to alleviate the need to pass it back at this point?
  • Is there a way to modify the process so that Actor B can complete this step without passing the process back to Actor A?  If so, what would need to occur/change to make this happen?


My experience has shown that swim lane diagrams are extremely effective when mapping out an existing process that touches multiple areas within a project, and especially when it requires multiple people to complete the process.  Remember, this isn’t rocket science.  If there is a symbol you don’t like, replace it.  If you prefer to have your phases laid out as the columns and not rows, do it.  Find what works for you and do it that way.  The key to the successful use of this tool is the actual use of this tool.

Kurt Sloan

Posted 06-30-2008 3:19 PM by Billy McCafferty
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on 01-18-2009 1:22 PM

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A Guevara wrote re: Streamline Business Processes using Swim Lane Diagrams
on 03-13-2009 12:15 PM

Very useful info. Thanks a lot!

A Guevara wrote re: Streamline Business Processes using Swim Lane Diagrams
on 03-13-2009 12:15 PM

Very useful info. Thanks a lot!

Swimlane Flowcharts wrote re: Streamline Business Processes using Swim Lane Diagrams
on 05-06-2009 7:35 AM

Nicely written.

"The actual symbols you choose, however, are not as important as is providing the reader with the proper identification of those symbols and the meaning you are implying with them"

I think this is a key point - people get so worked up over whether you used the "proper" symbols or not and the argument is bogus - just focus on the good content and process flow.

Prajeesh wrote re: Streamline Business Processes using Swim Lane Diagrams
on 12-13-2011 11:58 AM

Very informative web content on swimlane. Thanks for posting!

Corey wrote re: Streamline Business Processes using Swim Lane Diagrams
on 03-13-2012 12:35 PM

Great info. I'm a BA Intern and this article was very informative.

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