What is a swimlane diagram and how do you make one?

You’ve probably heard the old sentiment about “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Or, maybe you’ve experienced it yourself.

In many cases, it can be true — too many hands working all at once can feel like chaos.

But here’s the thing: When you have a clear handle on who’s doing what, extra cooks can actually lead to peak efficiency and superior quality. Fortunately, a swimlane diagram can help you get a clear handle on everybody’s responsibilities.

What is a swimlane diagram?

A swimlane diagram is a flowchart that displays who is responsible for certain parts of a process. This visual tool takes something we’re all familiar with — the lanes of a lap pool — and uses them to represent responsibilities within a team or an entire organization.

Each person, department, or team gets their own “lane” on the diagram where their steps or deliverables will be listed. It makes it easy and intuitive to immediately understand who does what.

Swimlane diagram example

There can certainly be complex swimlane diagrams, particularly for established or cross-functional processes that have a lot of steps and team members involved.

But, for the sake of a basic understanding, let’s stick with a simple swimlane diagram example. This swimlane flowchart shows what happens immediately after a customer places an order:

What is the purpose of a swimlane diagram?

A swimlane workflow diagram offers a number of important advantages for teams and organizations, including:

  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities: One of the biggest benefits of a swimlane flowchart is that it clearly shows who’s doing what part of a process. It minimizes or even completely eliminates those frustrating, “Oh, I thought [other person] was doing that!” moments.
  • Demystifying processes: The swimlane diagram itself is pretty simple, and that’s one of its greatest assets. It can break even the most complex processes down into an easy-to-understand flowchart. No complicated process maps or matrices — just an intuitive diagram.
  • Uncovering bottlenecks and inefficiencies: Because the swimlane diagram requires that you break processes down by both teams or people and tasks, it can help you spot sticking points that you can improve.

How do you make a swimlane diagram?

A swimlane flowchart is helpful for boosting understanding about who’s handling what, but how do you create your own swimlane diagram? Here are five simple steps to follow.

1. Organize your basic information

Before you start plotting anything in your lanes, you first need to understand what information you’re working with. This means identifying:

  • The process you’re mapping (e.g. order fulfillment)
  • Who’s involved in that process (e.g. the customer, sales department, inventory department, and payments department)
  • What tasks or steps are involved in the process (e.g. receiving the order, checking stock, etc.)

If you have this information jotted down before you create your diagram, you’ll have a much easier time mapping out your process than you would if you flew by the seat of your pants.

2. Map out your lanes (or use a template)

Now that you understand what you need to plot, it’s time to create the skeleton of your diagram. It’s as simple as sketching out as many lanes as you have teams or people — so, if there are four teams involved in the process, you’ll need four lanes.

Keep in mind that your lanes can run vertically or horizontally. You have flexibility to choose what works best for you and your process.

Want to make this step even simpler? Grab our swimlane diagram template so you can jump into the pool right away.

3. Find your starting point

It’s easiest to map things out on your swimlane flowchart if you start at the beginning, as then you can move through the rest of the process in order.

So, figure out what the first step in your process is. In the case of the example we’ve been sticking with, the first step is a customer placing an order. That’s the first thing you’d list on your swimlane diagram, in the “lane” for the customer.

4. Move through the process

Once you have your starting point, it’s as simple as continuing through the rest of your process — plotting things in the appropriate “lanes” as you move through the various steps and tasks.

Keep in mind that this is a flowchart, so you’ll likely have a few of questions to answer throughout the diagram. A couple of sample questionsexamples from our running example include:

  • Is the product in stock?
  • Is the credit card valid?

Answering “yes” or “no” to those questions helps you determine what step of the process you move to next.

5. Review your diagram

That’s it — that’s all it takes to create a swimlane diagram. But, once you have the process mapped out, it’s smart to review it (ideally, with the team who handles the process). This gives you an opportunity to:

  • Identify bottlenecks, inefficiencies, confusion, redundancies, and more
  • Create a “future state” diagram that outlines your ideal process

That will ensure that you use your swimlane diagram not only as a point of reference, but also as a tool that helps you and your organization work more effectively.

Know who’s doing what with a swimlane diagram

To do great work, you need teams to work like well-oiled machines. Yet, confusion about who’s responsible for what is common. In fact, only about half of employees strongly agree that they know what’s expected of them at work.

That’s where a swimlane diagram can help. It provides instant clarity about who’s handling each part of a process so people can stay in their lanes and get across the finish line faster (not to mention with less stress).

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