What are swimlanes in project management?
Swimlane diagrams are an excellent tool for visually organizing a complex project. They achieve this by grouping specific tasks, milestones, business processes and other elements together into “lanes” divided by parallel lines, hence the association with the world of swimming competitions.
Generally, a swimlane diagram will define the employee or department handling certain tasks, the stage of the project when a task should be handled, etc. In the context of visuals illustrating a workflow or processes, you might also find them under the name of cross-functional flowcharts.
Types of swimlane diagrams
Swimlanes can be added to virtually any type of project visual, providing of course that the categories make sense to the PM and are useful in decluttering the layout of the graph. For the sake of simplicity, we have decided to split the applications in three major categories:
At the same time, this post is dedicated to tools that are primarily designed for the purpose of transforming data into visual representations. Find out how to create a timeline in Excel or if you want to learn how to make a Gantt chart in PowerPoint, check out our additional resources.
Let’s now take a closer look at some of the most popular project management solutions that can integrate swimlanes in their repertoire of visualization tools.
One of the best-known strategies in agile project management for limiting the number of simultaneous tasks and prioritizing them in order to maximize efficiency are Kanban boards. Swimlanes are inherent to their design. The system quickly earned adepts in software development and this helped it make the transition from physical to digital. Before we get started with the apps in this category, here’s a Kanban board example to better illustrate the concept:
Let’s find out who’s on our list!
The company behind Kanbanize, Businessmap LTD, was founded back in 2008 and their vision is aligned with modern corporate values such as scalability, collaboration and automation. The flexibility of the application allows it to easily adapt to any industry’s requirements. This claim is supported by their diversified clientele that includes Bose, GoDaddy, Epic Games, Mozilla and Arsenal FC.
The agile project management software features comprehensive boards that can be updated at any point, permissions that can be defined and customized, event triggers, email integration, analytics and time-tracking capabilities. Kanbanize simplifies the job of PMs working with multiple teams via the Management Workspace, which permits distributing and tracking work across multiple projects from a single interface.
With respect to users’ feedback, Kanbanize could be improved by adding integration with external apps and better options for card finding, particularly in environments with numerous pages.
Planview’s mission is to make the transition from strategy to delivery across organizations as painless as possible. In other words, their application is designed to translate high-level objectives into very specific, achievable and actionable steps and deliver strategic initiatives. With tools like roadmaps, Planview bridges the gap between the resources and projects. Vertical swimlanes are used to categorize the cards in each sub-section of the Kanban board for more visibility.
What’s more, it also includes analytics and enables you to create presumptive scenarios, then compare outcomes and determine the best course of action investment-wise.
For Planview Enterprise one, the complexity can also be perceived as a setback, because it steepens the learning curve. When the Kanban board grows, the numerous configurable columns on the swimlanes become a bit intimidating, particularly when users lack an extensive experience.
Synergy is the word of the day with this Kanban project management tool. Like the popular TV series character Dirk Gently, the team behind Zenkit believes that ‘everything is connected’, and they apply this principle in terms of tasks, client data, business documentation, etc. Their belief is best illustrated by their import feature, and API that seamlessly integrates with thousands of other apps to bring in external data, hassle free.
Designed primarily as a Kanban board, Zenkit also has the ability to create Gantt charts and timelines, when this type of visualization would facilitate understanding the project’s next steps. Checklists and to-do lists with flexible labels, collaboration, formulas, offline mode and mobile versions are part of their arsenal as well.
The app does struggle a bit with larger teams, particularly in the free version: there have been some reports of lag and general slowness in this respect.
Timeline and Gantt charts
Gantt charts and timelines are the ideal visualization tools for illustrating the tasks and milestones of a project against the backdrop of timeband, because they allow users to frame everything in context. Swimlanes are not native to them. In fact, here’s a Gantt chart example without swimlanes:
However, much like adding chocolate sprinkles on icecream, swimlanes give Gantt charts and timelines extra flavour. A swimlane diagram is considerably easier to organize and understand the more tasks and milestones you have. Check out this swimlane diagram example:
Gantt charts and roadmaps created as swimlane diagrams are quite popular in project management because they are extremely visual. Task, for instance are depicted as bars with lengths varying according to their individual duration, permitting you to figure out how all the puzzle pieces fit together. Whenever you’re fleshing out a project, these graphs make the planning and execution less convoluted. Let’s check out the contestants.
A timeline and Gantt chart maker tool developed to synergize with PowerPoint and leverage the functionalities of the popular presentation software, Office Timeline is available as an add-in for it and a standalone, browser-based version. Ease of use, an extensive line of beautifully designed swimlane templates, an intuitive interface and the absence of any serious learning curve are the key points that recommend this application for non tech savvy users in the PM field.
Furthermore, the PowerPoint integration allows you to create the Gantt charts and roadmaps with the same software you will use to hold the presentation to your stakeholders, saving time and resources. Office Timeline is compatible with other frequently used project management apps like Excel, Smartsheet, Wrike and even MS Project, so you can import data and sync changes to the source file.
Office Timeline currently only produces Gantt charts, timelines and roadmaps with swimlanes, but the application is in continuous development and extra features as well as new templates are being added all the time.
It may not be anyone’s favorite day of the week, but it’s definitely a cloud-based project management software worth checking out. Monday relies on a unique style of color and placement to organize and manage teams. Color coding isn’t by any means new or groundbreaking. However, Monday makes good use of it to convey information like who’s assigned to a task, due dates, statuses and progress in general.
At its core, Monday is not exactly a Gantt chart maker, but it can become one by adding the Timeline widget to the dashboard. Monday also shines in terms of assigning specific tasks to team members, Then, via the Timeline view mode, you can access a comprehensive overview of all projects.
The main challenges of this project management software come from the per-user pricing limitations, limited mobile app capabilities and difficulties with expense and time tracking.
Similarly to Office Timeline, Toggl Plan is a PM tool designed with simplicity and ease of use in mind. New users will appreciate the fact that its interface doesn’t overwhelm you from the start with a plethora of complex features and settings. The philosophy behind this planner is that micro-management stifles creativity and should be avoided, which is why Toggle is geared towards creating swimlane diagrams as high level overviews, like the one below.
However, this is where the similarities between the two Gantt chart makers end. Toggle Plan is not as design focused and the way visual elements are illustrated border on spartan minimalism, but it does include Kanban Board capabilities and to-do lists.
According to most users, more integrations with external apps and a simplification and the addition of an invoicing system are the main grow points for the Toggl app.
This application also has something in common with Office Timeline: it is designed as an add-in for a popular Microsoft application, namely Microsoft Project. By taking the task-level data from Project, it can export multiple phases or a complete, simplified schedule as a Gantt chart or timeline, with or without the swimlanes.
Those of your who worked with Microsoft Project before are painfully aware of the tool’s complexity and the lack of simple visual customizations available. OnePager aims to change that by transforming the project schedules into swimlane diagrams focused on the audience, and that can be edited with ease, while preserving the integrity of the original data. Bonus, this project management app also allows exporting the results as Gantt charts with swimlanes in PowerPoint slides.
Now, on the downside, Microsoft Project is a pretty great application, but it’s not always the best option, especially if you’re going for a high-level overview. Therefore, OnePager’s limitation comes from the platform this Gantt chart maker was built on.
Flowchart diagrams can be used to represent an operation or a process visually, and rely on logical steps. This is why, in addition to project management and the development of business plans, another practical use for them is the design of mathematical algorithms. They can have just a few steps or can grow to be incredibly complex, which is when you can introduce swimlanes to organize them more easily. Here’s a swimlane diagram example of what a flowchart might look like:
Now, onto the apps!
Visio is often listed as the go-to application for flowchart design, thanks to the wide variety of diagrams it can produce. Featuring templates for networking, floor plans, data processes and much more, this Microsoft application is part of the Office 365 package. However, according to users, that can be a double-edged sword because you don’t always know what version you’re going to get; it really depends on the type O365 package you purchase.
In addition to the templates, Visio also includes an extensive shape and stencil library, which make it a great interdisciplinary tool. Another plus for Visio is that it’s very easy to showcase the relationship between multiple elements on the flowchart without cluttering the visuals too much. Because it’s part of the Microsoft suite, it also boasts integration with other applications like Excel or Access, allowing you to pull data directly from the databases.
What most users struggle with are the publishing and sharing of the flowchart diagrams, and the lack of a browser-based or Mac/Linux version.
According to some users, Lucidchart is a far superior flowchart maker compared to Visio from several standpoints, but the one most often noted is the ease of use. We have to agree here. From the first steps you’ll notice that the learning curve is virtually non-existent and the interface – in Lucidchart’s case a web app – is very intuitive. Bonus points for having an offline mode in spite of this.
Lucidchart can produce cross-functional flowchart diagrams to keep even complex plans nice and tidy. On the same note, it allows working on separate layers and containers, for easy categorization. Once you’re done, you can use the Presentation mode to showcase the work, but you can also publish it or share it as an URL.
There aren’t many complaints around Lucidchart as a whole. One of the things users would like to see in future updates are the ability to auto-expire links. Some tweaks around the snap-to-grid which is thrown out of balance when the canvas size changes would also be welcome.
Are you looking for a solution that allows you to quickly draw a swimlane flowchart without installing a single thing? There are moments when speed, ease of use and simplicity trump all other factors, and that’s exactly Gliffy’s time to shine. This application also seamlessly integrates with popular platforms such as Slack, Trello, Confluence, WordPress, G Suite and many others. Collaboration and templates for all the basic styles of flowchart diagrams are what Gliffy excels at.
Speaking of basics, there’s only a handful of formats supported for exporting your newly drawn swimlane diagrams (JPG, PNG, SVG, and Gliffy), but on the other hand they are the most frequently used. Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that this flowchart creator is by far one of the most inexpensive alternatives around, although most users describe the available plans as slightly awkward.
There’s scope to grow for Gliffy, and it’s by no means as comprehensive as Lucidchart or Visio.
Before picking a project management software with swimlane capabilities, it’s advisable to determine what type of diagram would work best with your organizing style and context. The list here is by no means exhaustive; let us know what your favorite application is in the comments!
If you favor timelines and Gantt charts, check out this blog post for a list of the best Gantt chart apps on the market that are worth exploring.
Best Swimlane Software for Project Management Overview
||An agile project management tool with time tracking, email integration, automated events and analytics
||Planview Enterprise One
||A complex and comprehensive Kanban Board for designed for actionable plans capable of analytics and what-if scenarios.
||A simple but powerful PM tool that leverages synergies and integrates with many external platforms.
||Gantt chart & Timeline maker
||An intuitive and easy to use timeline, Gantt chart and roadmap maker that relies on beautiful, professionally designed templates, aimed at the less tech-savvy user groups in PM.
||Gantt chart & Timeline maker
||A more complex application that leverages color coding to simplify the project overview.
||Gantt chart & Timeline maker
||An easy to use timeline maker with minimalist graphics.
||Gantt chart & Timeline maker
||A Microsoft Project add-in that can render easily editable Gantt charts based on the source file data.
||Microsoft’s flowchart creator that boasts extensive templates, shapes and customization options.
||A simpler and easier to use alternative to Microsoft’s Visio.
||Out-of-the box minimalistic flowchart maker with no installation required.
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