Take your marks! Swimlane charts for processes

Questions that always come up once you identified the seperate tasks in a process are: How do I visualize this? How do I make sure that it is in a logical (or at least suitable) order? How can I show this to others and make them understand the connections?

While there may be a lot of different ways to do this, one method has taken hold in the process management community: The swimlane diagramm

What is a swimlane diagramm?

A swimlane diagramm is basically a flowchart with one additional attribute: The tasks are ordered according to roles in seperate rows (or columns) that represent the different roles. These are the swimlanes and it is totally irrelevant wether they are horizontal or vertical. For my brain it seems I can follow the horizontal arrangement better. But the vertical arrangement has the advantage of being easier to lay out on an A4 page. Some people also prefer the vertical swimlanes because it resembles a checklist that can be used in everyday process execution.

Above you see an example of a horizontal swimlane chart for a simplified hiring process in a bigger SME. Note that the horizontal lanes are labeled according to the role that is responsible for the different tasks.

This chart was created with the free software yEd graph editor. But swimlane diagramms are not a matter of dedicated software. There are a number of Powerpoint templates out there that include all necessary boxes and connectors. In a team environment a simple whiteboard with stickers is probably the most flexible and practical way to establish lanes and order tasks. And don’t forget: there is still pen and paper to do it!

Sample Hiring Process-Paper-V1


Now that you identified and documented your tasks, understand what a swimchart diagramm is and got your weapon of choice to put it down, how do you actually write one of these things?

Creating a swimlane chart

A swimlane starting point is always a round shape that represents a trigger event for the process. It is a good idea to also immediatly determine which event defines the end of the process and put it right at the end of the diagramme in the according swimlane. Use a round shape for this one as well. The seperate activities in between are normally displayed as rectangular boxes. Decision points are represented by diamond shapes. After you identified start and end points and put in all tasks and decisions you need to connect the seperate fields with arrows. The general rule is that there is only one connector coming in and one going out from every rectangular box. Decision diamonds have one arrow going in and (usually) two going out, representing a yes or no/true or false decision. In many cases a no/false will initiate a feedback loop back to an earlier stage of the process. But there are also situations where such decisions would mean cancelling the process or a initiating a different process.

To summarize:
  • swimlanes: rows or columns labeled according to functions
  • start, end point: round shape (One arrow coming out)
  • task: rectangular box (one connector coming in, one going out)
  • decision: diamond shape (one connector going in, two going out)
  • connectors: arrows between the boxes

You can see all these elements in the example above. This is a simplified process, though. Complex processes in large organizations or for webbased services might contain more than a dozen swimmlanes and hundreds of nodes. Such diagramms might require the depiction of further aspects like material flow or data base queries.

If you want to learn more about swimlane charts, there are hundreds of tutorials on the web. Or just get in touch with me and I will answer your questions personally.

Please remember one thing:

You have to do that first! When you are fairly confident that you got all the necessary information, then it is time to map it out in a swimlane diagramme. And while mapping out you will most certainly stumble upon areas in the process where information is still lacking or unclear. But don’t consider this a set back! Instead, think of it like this: you just started to actually work on your processes and not let the processes determine your work!

Another important point to keep in mind is that while trying to gather as much information as possible about your processes, not all of it needs to be integrated into your swimlane chart. Don’t confuse the different functions of process maps, check-lists and procedures. (See a general introduction to the differences here)

Follow this blog as I will give some tips on the first steps when identifying and documenting processes in another post.