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Swimlane Diagram – Definitions, Uses, Examples

Swimlane Diagram – Definitions, Uses, Examples

What Is a Swimlane Diagram?

A swimlane diagram is a type of flowchart that outlines who does what in a given process. Based on the analogy of lanes in a pool, a swimlane diagram places process steps within the horizontal or vertical “swimlanes” of a particular department, work group or employee, thus ensuring clarity and accountability. Highlighting connections and communications between these lanes, it can serve as an indicator of waste, redundancy and inefficiency in a process.

This kind of flowchart is also known as a cross-functional diagram (with swimlanes being called “functional bands”) or a Rummler-Brache diagram, after the authors who developed the first model. In 1990, Geary Rummler and Alan Brache documented the concept of swimlane diagrams in their work “Improved Processes”. The two built on the already existing multi-column process charts (a variation of the early flow process charts that appeared in the 1940s) to spell out processes which involve more than one unit or department.

Swimlanes (also written as “swim lanes”) represent a valuable element in process flow diagrams (PFDs), as well as in what’s called the Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) and its software design counterpart – Unified Modeling Language (UML). They introduce parallel (vertical or horizontal) lines to group process steps by actor (which can be a department, work group, employee or even an information system). A swimlane diagram not only spells out processes designated to a specific actor, it also shows how different actors interact to keep a process rolling efficiently.

What Is the Purpose of a Swimlane Diagram?

Providing an easy-to-read representation of responsibilities within a process, a swimlane diagram can serve the following purposes:

  • To communicate and highlight which process steps or sub-processes are assigned to a particular actor within an organization, thus helping everyone involved know who is doing what.

  • To identify bottlenecks and other inefficiencies, which in turn helps detect redundancies between various lanes, duplicative steps, process delays or capacity constraints that can be later addressed and resolved. All this leads to increased performance and quality.

  • To better structure a given process and account for evolving circumstances, such as staffing or technology changes.

  • To provide a formal model of integrating processes between teams and departments, which results in clearer, more organized workflows on an ongoing basis.

Examples of Swimlane Diagrams

Given the various purposes that they can serve, swimlane diagrams have evolved to include several specific sub-types, such as:

Swimlane Activity Diagrams

– describing how activities are coordinated to create a workflow.

Swimlane Activity Diagram Example

Swimlane Process Maps

– documenting a particular process based on scenario testing and what-if assessment.

Swimlane Process Map Example

Cross-functional Flow Charts

– showing how micro-processes are sequentially linked together in an operation, they describe the attributes of more complex processes; there are several types of cross-functional flow charts: the matrix, deployment and opportunity flow charts.

Cross-functional Flow Chart Example

Swimlane Diagrams in Short – Frequently Asked Questions

What are swimlanes?

Swimlanes are components of diagrams like Gantt charts, timelines, or flow charts. Their role is to divide graphics into horizontal or vertical columns and band the elements inside together based on their shared characteristics. For instance, a swimlane can contain all the tasks handled by a certain team.

What is a swimlane diagram?

Any variation of project visuals that divides the workflow into logical containers can be a swimlane diagram. Timelines, Gantt chart, roadmaps, but also flowcharts or Kanban boards can be considered swimlane diagrams, as long as they feature multiple lanes.

What is a swimlane diagram in a process map?

Swimlanes diagrams are visuals used in process mapping to delineate job responsibilities or sub-processes according to the logical category they fit in. Once the teams or categories are defined, the elements of the graphic like tasks and milestones will be placed in their respective swimlane, to declutter the diagram.

What is a swimlane in Agile?

Agile swimlanes are horizontal delimitations of ongoing issues in sprints for Scrum or Kanban boards. Unlike the swimlane diagrams on a timeline or Gantt chart, the Agile environment mostly employs them to sort out application areas, users or workstreams. They’re also useful for grouping data or providing customized views for targeted data analysis.

What are the best swimlane diagram makers?

To select the optimal swimlane diagram software tools, first consider what type of project visuals are best suited for your current work. The categories include:

  • Kanban boards;
  • Gantt chart & timeline makers;
  • Flowchart makers.
Get access to more resources on swimlane diagram makers on our dedicated swimlane tools page.

How do you make a Swimlane diagram?

The logical division of elements into swimlanes is the flavor of these project visuals. Before you get started, take a moment to list:

  • Tasks and milestones;
  • Deliverables, dependencies and deadlines;
  • Teams handling the project.
Select the best way to group the graphic’s elements into categories and you have your swimlanes. If you need a reference point to jump-start the process of swimlane diagram creation, visit our swimlane templates page.

What is the difference between a Gantt chart and swimlane diagram?

On a standard Gantt chart, all tasks, milestones and dependencies are shown concurrently against the timeband which defines the project’s life cycle. On a Gantt chart created as a swimlane diagram, all these elements exist, but are visually grouped in containers based on their properties.

What is the purpose of a Swimlane diagram?

Swimlane diagrams break down highly complex projects into visually intuitive components that are much easier to analyze when taken separately. In turn, this achieves:

  • Better insight into the project and improved communication within teams;
  • Fair and optimal workload distribution;
  • Easier analysis of project phases and process tweaking on the go.

How do you make a swimlane diagram in PowerPoint?

Here are the basic steps you should follow to create a swimlane diagram using PowerPoint:

  • Using “Shapes” from the “Insert” tab, create two rectangles;
  • Group the rectangles and duplicate them for each swimlane required;
  • Create a timeband that runs parallel with your swimlanes;
  • Label the swimlanes using text boxes;
  • Add the tasks, milestones and connectors using “Shapes”;
  • Style each of your elements using the “Format” tab options.
Or, use Office Timeline to create the swimlane diagram automatically.

For more resources on how to create and refine a swimlane diagram using different tools, please refer to our swimlane tutorials page.

Dive into swimlane diagrams

Office Timeline is a PowerPoint add-in that helps you create project visuals with swimlanes easily.

Swimlane Diagram Made in PowerPoint