Swimlane diagrams are a type of cross-functional flowchart developed by organizational consultants Geary Rummler and Alan Brache in 1990. The pair built on pre-existing multi-column process charts to better illustrate processes involving more than one unit or department. A swimlane diagram is used in process flowcharts to clarify job sharing and job responsibility.
Understanding swimlane diagrams
Swimlane diagrams differ from conventional flowcharts in that processes and decisions are visually grouped into lanes using parallel lines. Each lane in turn represents a single person, group, sub-process, department, or information system.
Directional arrows then cross swimlanes to depict how information or materials move through the various sub-processes, providing clarity on the departments or employees responsible for a particular set of actions.
Like a conventional flowchart, however, swimlane diagrams use directional arrows to represent the sequence of events in an overall process from start to finish.
Businesses use swimlane diagrams to:
- Identify bottlenecks, delays, redundancies, and extraneous steps to streamline processes.
- Standardize work processes and then document them in a format that is easily shared and simple to understand.
- Ensure all necessary parties are involved in a process, and
- Increase operational transparency and collaboration between departments
Creating a swimlane diagram
Creating a swimlane diagram is a matter of following a few simple steps:
- Determine the goal – this enables the business to identify what process or processes need to be analyzed. What level of detail is required for there to be a sufficient level of understanding?
- Segment the work – break the process down into its constituent parts and clearly identify the boundaries of the process to be studied.
- Designate swimlanes – as noted earlier, these may be departments, groups, employees, or information systems.
- Research the process steps – this is achieved by laying out the interconnectedness between each lane. It’s important to start by documenting the process as it exists and then looking for process gaps, redundancies, or duplicated steps. Swimlane diagrams can be hand-drawn or created using software such as Microsoft Word and Microsoft PowerPoint. Whatever the method chosen, use standard symbols to depict each process step sequentially in its associated swimlane.
- Confirm the diagram – consult with individuals who are familiar with the process, and make adjustments where necessary.
- Implement the diagram – this may involve incorporating the diagram into a new standard operating procedure or as a reference tool for quality or training purposes. Alternatively, new diagrams can be devised for the same process to compare various approaches and choose the best way forward.
Swim lane diagram examples
The application of swimlane diagrams is almost limitless, but we have provided some examples below that are most relevant to an organizational context.
Let’s dive straight into them.
Labor contract management
This example can help organizations better understand the management process of new employees. It may contain the following swimlanes and process steps:
- Employee – new employee registration, probation expired, sign the agreement of contract modification, contract expired.
- Employee department – performance appraisal.
- Human resources department – employee dismissal (if not qualified), sign labor contract, determine contract modification, archive file, invoke separation procedure.
- Documents – labor contract, modified contact, letter to end labor contract, contract modification agreement.
Swimlane diagrams can also capture the entire process of inventory management from shipping to accounts payable. Inventory swimlanes and their associated process steps include:
- Sales department – shipping customer order.
- Production department – stock request, stock inquiry, production.
- Quality control department – quality inspection.
- Purchasing department – material purchasing, purchasing invoice.
- Warehouse – stock in, stock out, order settlement.
- Financial department – accounts payable.
This swimlane diagram deals specifically with the processing of customer requests while using software, including error detection and the distribution of an error-free product back to the customer. The following swimlanes and process steps are applicable:
- Customer – customer request for help or error reporting, post-service feedback.
- Sales – sales issue, resolve the issue and respond to customer, confirm the issue has been resolved.
- Technical support – new technical issue, determine solution, report solution to sales, resolve the issue identified by the tester, ask the customer to clarify the issue if it cannot be reproduced.
- Tester – test the presence of the issue, determine repeatability of issue, test issues resolved by the development team.
- Development team – report errors, undertake technical analysis, fix issue.
Swimlanes can also be used in change management processes that are sometimes complex and require the status quo to be upset. Let’s take a look at an example with six different swimlanes and their process steps:
- Change indicator – request the change.
- Emergency change advisory board – evaluate emergency change, approve or deny the emergency change.
- Change advisory board – evaluate change, approve or deny the change.
- Change manager – assess the change, determine the type of change (emergency or non-emergency), authorize deployment, notify relevant business departments.
- Change builder – build the change with data store, backout plan, and implementation plan, test the change, review the change post-implementation.
- Implementor – schedule the date of change implementation, implement the change, determine whether implementation was successful, back out of the change if necessary.
The final example consists of a swimlane diagram that can be used to improve business production efficiency from the acquiring of raw materials to the distribution of the finished product:
- Sales department – receive order, vet order, place order, collect payment, release for delivery.
- Research and development – make a new technology file.
- Production planning – order review, create production schedule, confirm materials, assembly process, maintain pace of production.
- Workshop – produce products, store products.
- Purchasing department – define material needs, place purchasing orders, follow-up and confirm orders.
- A swimlane diagram is used in process flowcharts to clarify job sharing and job responsibility. These flowcharts were developed by organizational consultants Geary Rummler and Alan Brache in 1990.
- A swimlane diagram is used to streamline processes, delineate roles and responsibilities, and increase transparency and collaboration between related departments.
- A swimlane diagram can be hand-drawn or created using flowchart software. Businesses must first determine a goal and work backward to identify the process steps required to achieve it. Those familiar with the process should be consulted before it is accepted into standard operating procedures or training.
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