A helpful guide to understanding swimlane diagrams with definitions, examples, tools and tutorials.
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.
A typical swimlane diagram usually relies on a series of standard shapes and symbols. These are:
Start/end points – signaling the beginning and end, respectively, of a process flow, these items are characterized by a rectangle with rounded corners.
Decision shape – visually represented by a diamond, it marks a question or decision that needs to be made.
Activity shape – a rectangle portraying an action or task.
Input or Output – referring to any information that is entered or produced from the process flow, these items are rendered through parallelograms.
Document – it represents any document needed in the process flow and is shaped like a rectangle with a wavy line at the bottom side.
Connector – indicating whether the diagram is connected to another flowchart, it comes in the form of a small circle.
Providing an easy-to-read representation of responsibilities within a process, a swimlane diagram can serve the following purposes:
To outline a certain process from start to finish by dividing it into specific sections.
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.
Dealing with any kind of process that involves multiple parties is a great opportunity to document it with the help of swimlane diagrams. Organizations from various industries and sectors can use them to clearly show their internal processes of handling a specific initiative and to implement a standard workflow model. Given the various purposes that they can serve, swimlane diagrams have evolved to include several specific sub-types, such as:
Describing how activities are coordinated to create a workflow.
Documenting a particular process based on scenario testing and what-if assessment.
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, the deployment and opportunity flow charts.
A swimlane or cross-functional diagram uses swimlanes and other standard symbols to pinpoint who is accountable for what parts of a process. Allocating specific tasks to major participants and illustrating how these different agents interact to complete the process, swimlane diagrams provide an easy-to-read map of responsibilities in that given framework.
To begin outlining any swimlane diagram, you need to consider the following aspects:
What is the overarching goal that you want to accomplish?
What is the timespan over which you aim to reach your desired outcome?
What initiatives should be employed to achieve your set goal?
After you determine these main components, break down the overall work into actionable steps (sub-processes) and clearly define the boundaries between them. For an existing process, research its steps and show the interconnections, communications, and handoffs between them. For a new process that is to be modeled, delineate the specific actions which would improve quality and efficiency.
Who are the major participants that will be involved in the process?
With the elements above having been established, follow these seven steps to create your swimlane diagram:
Set up a timeline (in months, weeks, or quarters) at the top of your document to represent the overall period during which you will implement your process.
Map the start of the process – mark the first step or task which sets it into motion through a rounded rectangle.
On the vertical axis of your document, define and list the main entities of your process - these may refer to departments or functions that will be carrying out the steps or tasks in the process.
Create horizontal swimlane categories for each of the items outlined at Step 3 – draw horizontal lines across the document to separate the identified entities and label them accordingly on the left side of the page.
Add the sub-steps of your process in their corresponding category – draw the actions/activities that each department needs to do from left to right, in sequential order, using the timeline at the top as a reference point for their positioning.
Connect your diagram – use lines and arrows to add connections between lanes and steps.
Confirm your outline with participants and adjust it accordingly.
Once a final version of the plan is ready, you can start building its actual visual representation using swimlane diagram templates or a dedicated dedicated swimlane diagram generator. The resulted graphic can be presented to higher management or other stakeholders and used to monitor the plan’s progress with every project review meeting.
If you are interested in learning how to make a swimlane diagram using various office tools, browse our collection of step-by-step tutorials.
When you need to produce an actionable process flowchart, swimlane diagram templates are one of the easiest ways to get started. Offering a pre-built format that you can customize with your own data to suit your needs, they simplify the creation process and help you generate a professionally-designed output.
Save time and efforts while creating informative and visually appealing flowcharts with our free downloadable swimlane templates. Designed as PowerPoint slides, these pre-made samples are easily editable and allow you to make presentation-ready graphics for those important executive meetings in no time.
Digital swimlane diagrams are undoubtedly superior to their handwritten counterparts, but their creation depends on a thorough research and careful selection of the best swimlane diagram software in advance. Here are a few criteria to use as reference points when looking for the right solution:
it should easily accommodate various swimlane diagram depictions.
it should provide modifiable layouts.
it should feature standard flowchart symbols in their image libraries.
it should include responsive design functionalities that allow the representation of multi-stage and multi-participant processes.
Get access to more resources on swimlane diagram makers on our dedicated swimlane tools page.
Seeing that any given process has countless aspects, visually representing them all on a swimlane diagram would result in a cluttered graphic that would be hard for your audience to follow. A well-crafted and effective flowchart should then focus on conveying only three aspects of your process: who, what and when.
To ensure that your diagram is communicating the right information, here are some tips to consider:
Shape size – psychologically, people interpret bigger things as more relevant. Use different sizes for various tasks to add meaning and structure to your swimlane diagram. Doing so will help your audience identify a hierarchy in your graphic, with items represented through larger boxes as more important, and smaller ones as less important.
X-Y position – efficiently organizing information on a swimlane diagram relies on two axes - the horizontal and vertical one, respectively. When outlining your diagram, be sure to define the flow first and then add the details later. Using the X-axis, which runs horizontally, to denote the timeline of your process will help your diagram’s viewers better understand your tasks’ sequence dependency, establishing the overall direction of the process flow from left to right. Next, list the various participating actors on the Y-axis, which runs vertically, to distinctly divide the process into separate categories and indicate who is responsible with what work.
Level of detail – as you add data to your diagram’s swimlanes, keep in mind that less is more. For high-level presentations, focus on including only crucial information without going into procedural detail to avoid crowding the graphic and leading your audience astray. In other words, you need to stick to the “who” and “what” elements, without diving into the “how”.
Clarity and consistency – to make your swimlane diagram easy to read, avoid using too many types of symbols, colors, or connectors. You should also keep your language simple, using short, clear descriptions for your tasks.
With these recommendations in mind, you are all set for creating more accurate swimlane diagrams.
Below, we have answered the most commonly asked questions on swimlane diagrams in short.
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.
Any variation of project visuals that divides the workflow into logical containers can be a swimlane diagram. Timelines, Gantt charts, roadmaps, but also flowcharts or Kanban boards can be considered swimlane diagrams, as long as they feature multiple lanes.
To get a better idea of how this process-mapping visuals look like, check out some of the swimlane diagram examples we’ve put together for you.
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 and categories are defined, the elements of the graphic (i.e., tasks and milestones) will be placed in their corresponding swimlane to declutter the diagram.
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.
The logical division of elements into swimlanes is the flavor of these project visuals. Before you get started, take a moment to list:
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.
For a more comprehensive approach to process mapping and diagramming, check out our detailed step-by-step tutorials on how to make a swimlane diagram using various office tools.
Both flowcharts and swimlane diagrams map out the major steps in a process. However, the main difference between a regular flowchart and a swimlane diagram consists in the fact that the former conveys only what work needs to be done, whereas the latter also shows who needs to do what in the given process.
Swimlane diagrams break down highly complex projects into visually intuitive components that are much easier to analyze when taken separately. In turn, this achieves:
Office Timeline is a free PowerPoint add-in that helps you create project visuals with swimlanes in just a few minutes.