People swimming in a pool

Using a Swimlane Diagram to Improve Your Business

Hey folks, it’s Brian back again with more tools, tips, and information on how you can Optimize for Outcomes in your business. This week we’re going to talk about another tool. The tool this week is the swimlane diagram. This is a tool I used a lot in my corporate career and have used it with many different businesses as well, just to better help them understand how their processes are working and where they have problems they can fix.

The purpose of a swimlane diagram is to document a process, and it’s done a little bit differently than some of the other documentation that I’ve covered in the past. Swimlane diagrams get their name from their appearance. It looks like swim lanes like you would see in a swimming pool.

You have a number of these lanes that go from left to right and each one of those lanes represents a person or technology that exists within a process. The swimlane diagram is a lot more powerful than a process narrative. In a process narrative, you write out the steps using words. Step one is ‘x’ and step 2 is ‘y’ and so on.

A swimlane diagram gives you a better visual representation of what’s happening in the process. It takes more time, but it allows you to see a lot more and gain a lot of information that you can’t see or understand when you’re just looking at a process narrative. The swimlane diagram is going to show you the complete process from start to finish, and everything that happens in the middle.

Benefits of a Swimlane Diagram

There are some unique benefits that you get from a swimlane diagram that you don’t get from some of the other process documentation tools.

First, it will give you a good indication of how each of the different players or technology within a process relates to each other. You will see when things move from one person or tech to the next and that gives you a lot of good insights into how your process is functioning.

Think back to our fundamentals of systems thinking. A system is how you get something done. It has process steps, and each process step has inputs and outputs.

When we talk about a swimlane diagram it’s documenting what those process steps are, and each one of those steps is going to have inputs and outputs.

There are also handoffs between the different players in a process. Usually, what they’re doing they take an output from the step that just completed and they’re handing that off to the next person or tech in the process.

With the handoffs that occur in a process, here are some common problems that you might see.

Inputs that are wrong. Either they’re defective or they’re missing things.

Inputs that are late. The person or application doing the receiving is sitting around waiting.

The person or technology doing the receiving isn’t ready. The person or technology that’s providing that input pushes it to the next step and the person that’s receiving that next step isn’t ready to take it which can cause you all kinds of problems.

Looking at a Swimlane Diagram

Let’s take a look at what a swimlane diagram looks like.

Swimlane diagram showing a restaurant's process on how to seat guests.

This is a simple example of a restaurant process for seating Customers.

The swimlanes go left to right and include lanes for Customer, greeter, server, and seating software.

The seating software is an application that helps the restaurant manage the different zones and which seats have people currently in them.

To be clear, the server is the wait staff, not a computer server. It’s the person that is waiting the table bringing the Customers their food and making sure that they’re taken care of.

Another thing to note about swimlane diagrams is the shapes have meaning. There are a lot of different shapes that you can use and each one has a specific meaning that helps you better understand what’s going on.

I will caution you to not get carried away and how you use your shapes. I’ve seen swim lane diagrams that have 25 different shapes on them and it becomes really difficult to remember what all the shapes mean and it takes away from the power of the diagram. It makes the diagram very complicated and difficult to understand.

Another thing related to shapes is sometimes people use them in a nonstandard way. In the world of business process improvement, standard shapes always mean the same thing, so make sure that if you’re trying to use shapes to add to your swim lane diagram that you use the appropriate shapes.

Many of the applications that are used to create swimlane diagrams will give you some help in remembering which is which.

I regularly use only five or six shapes ever in a diagram. In the example above, only four shapes are used. Here’s what each one means.

The oval shape is a terminator. This means your process is either starting or your process is ending. You should always see one of these in the upper left as the start of the process.

You’ll also see one on the far right somewhere which represents the end of the process.

The rectangle is used to represent process steps. Anytime somebody or something is doing anything, you see that represented by a rectangle.

The diamond shape represents a decision point. You will always have two or more ways that the process could go from a diamond or decision point.

The last shape in the example is the wait shape which you find in the software lane. This shape with a straight line on the left and rounded right (a stretched semi-circle) represents a wait or delay in the process.

It’s important to use a separate shape to call those out because that’s always an opportunity to look for making efficiency improvements.

The wait or delay means someone or something is sitting around waiting and not adding value or progressing the process.

In this case, it’s a valid wait because it makes sense to give it a few minutes before trying to look for seats again. But even if it’s a valid wait, always call them out with that separate shape.

Another one I use a lot is the cylinder although it didn’t appear in this example. The cylinder is used to represent a data store or some kind like a database.

If you’ve got a drawing that has a lot of applications in it, you might represent data somewhere and would use a cylinder as a data store to show you this is where the data is coming from.

There are all different kinds of shapes used for all different kinds of things, but it starts to get really confusing especially to people that aren’t process nerds. Keep it simple with the shapes don’t get too carried away.

Make sure you use start and end points. Use your process steps and decision diamonds. Use the wait shape as well. Everything else is up to you.

Handoffs in the Process

In the upper left you have the start of the process where the Customer enters the restaurant. The arrows show you how the process flows one step to the next. Any time the arrow crosses over one of these swim lanes, that’s a handoff.

When the Customer comes into the restaurant, the greeter has the next step in the process. An input (the new Customer) has come into the process and the greeter owns the next step.

They’re then going to check for available seats. This is multiple steps happening in a row here within the same swimlane.

This is another handoff where the greeter is checking the available seats within the software. The software is then doing some work to see which seats are available.

This shows what is meant when I say that a swimlane diagram is going to help you better illustrate, see, and understand where you have handoffs in your processes. That is important to understand because those handoffs are where you have so many problems in a process.

Another benefit to swimlane diagrams is they help you see where you have possible rework.

Rework exists in your business when you have to redo a task. It could be repairing something under warranty if you’ve got physical products. It could be going through and reteaching or spending extra time clarifying concepts that you’ve already taught if you provide training.

Any time you got to redo something that you’ve already done, that’s considered rework and it is a waste of resources. There’s never any good time to do rework. Under perfect circumstances, your business would never have it. It just doesn’t add any value but it does cost you resources, time, and it cost you labor hours that are spent redoing a job that’s already been done.

A swimlane diagram can help you identify where in your process you have this rework and where you should look to either improve quality or reduce the time that it takes to rework something. Your first choice should always be to try and improve quality so the rework never happens. If you can’t do that then you want to look at how you can reduce the amount of time it takes you to rework something.

Looking at the diagram, there is an example in the greeter row. Once the greeter brings the Customer to their seats, they check the table settings and make sure the silverware is clean. If the silverware isn’t clean, they have to go get a new set of silverware before the process can continue.

This is an example of rework because somebody should’ve already cleaned the table and put out clean silverware. If that’s not happening and the greeter has to go and check that and then take the time to fix a problem on work that’s already been done, that’s a waste of time.

By identifying this rework, we can then dive into understanding why the silverware is dirty. Why does the greeter have to go get new silverware? How often does it happen?

This is where you can use the tool that we talked about last week, root cause analysis, and get into the five whys and start digging down to figure out what the problems are. Why is the silverware dirty? Because the dishwasher is bad. Why is the dishwasher bad? We have been skipping regular maintenance, and so on.

Another thing that a swimlane diagram is going to show you is where you have loops in your process.

In the example, there is a loop in the seating software. This loop could potentially run over and over again, and that’s where the business can get into problems.

Loops aren’t in and of themselves bad, so you don’t need to try and remove them all from your business, but you do want to make sure that things don’t get stuck in the loop.

In this example, at some point, a seat will free up and we know that then this loop will end.

While it’s not drawn out on the example diagram, another instance where a loop might occur is if there is a wait list and the greeter goes to find the Customer. The Customer might have stepped outside or the Customer might have gone into the bathroom. The greeter then goes to call the name of the Customer and nobody shows up.

The greeter would then wait a few minutes and then they’re going to try again or they might check with anybody walking into the lobby.

Now imagine not having an out in that loop. Assume that the family came in, they put their name on the waitlist, and then they decided they didn’t want to wait and they left. If you don’t have an out for that loop that means seven days later, your greeters are still going to be checking to see if the family is available.

It’s a little bit goofy but it gets the point across that you have to make sure that your loops have some way that at some point they stop and they don’t continue forever. You don’t want instances of your process running over and over and over again with no way for them to stop because that will consume resources. It will limit what your resources can do because they are spending so much time trying to process whatever is happening in that loop.

Scaling with Swimlane Diagrams

Swimlane diagrams are going to help you scale your business. From an efficiency perspective, this is one of the greatest tools that you can use to start understanding what your business is doing that’s inefficient.

I have seen countless numbers of businesses or teams that, just by creating the swimlane diagram, they start to see stuff that doesn’t make sense. They start to see the inefficiencies.

You don’t even have to do any real hard work other than just draw out what’s happening today. What is the order of the process? How are things connected?

When you see this physical representation in a diagram of what your business is doing, you will immediately catch things and say, “Wait. This doesn’t make sense. Why are we doing this before that or why are we having this person do that thing when this other person should do that.”

Just going through the process of documentation, it will help you improve the efficiency of your business which is going to lead to you being able to scale your business faster and cheaper and more successfully.

Technology for Swimlane Diagrams

You have a lot of options out there when it comes to technology to do swimlane diagrams.

The big corporate one is Microsoft Visio. It is a standard in the corporate space that is used by companies large and small. It’s a very powerful tool that allows you to do all kinds of diagramming, not just swimlane diagraming.

Just like everything else that Microsoft makes, Google also has an application that competes with Microsoft. Google Drawings is Google’s diagramming software.

Just like all the other Google apps, you can use it for no cost online.

Lucidchart is another application that can be used. Lucidchart has free version which is fairly limited, but it at least allows you to see it.

I drew the example diagram in Lucidchart out of convenience.

It’s SaaS based so you sign up for an account on their website. You get three drawings at no cost and then if you want more than that, you have to start paying a monthly fee.

Another application that you can use to do this I would say it’s not ideal, but I’ve done this in a pinch before it does work. It allows you to create drawings like this and save them and use them in all kinds of ways and that’s Microsoft PowerPoint.

Visio is not included as part of Office but if you already pay for Office you will have PowerPoint, so there’s a cost savings there. It’s not the greatest choice, but it does work when you don’t have other options.

People Management

From a people management perspective, this tool is really powerful, especially as your company grows and you get more and more people that are doing different things.

A swimlane diagram is going to allow you to see where teams are handing off to other teams or within a team where one role is handing work off to another role. That’s going to help you understand a lot of the inner dynamics of how you need to build a team successfully, who’s interacting with whom, and what types of skill sets your people need.

You’ll better understand the work that they are doing. You will also be able to get some perspective on where people might be struggling with their work.

You’ll be able to analyze the handoffs, knowing that the handoffs are where there’s added complexity. You’ll be able to better understand the skillsets required to do the job and make the right handoffs where needed.

You can then apply the knowledge that you have of your employees that are doing the work and that’ll help you make sense out of problems that you might be seeing in your processes.

That covers the overview of swimlane diagrams to start off the week here.

If you’re looking for extra guidance on how to apply this or other tools in your business, you can book a 15 minute call with me for $95 here.

If you have a bigger need, please email me and we can discuss how I can best help you Optimize for Outcomes.

Thanks and I will see you online.


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