Collaboration among teams is an ideal way to achieve organizational goals efficiently. But in reality, it is easier said than done. When multiple teams and departments are involved in one project, it can be a handful to manage who's doing what. It pays to adopt a visual tool for an efficient workflow in complex processes and projects. Explore your options for constructing your swimlane chart by reading this article.

What is a swimlane diagram?

A swimlane diagram is a flowchart that illustrates who's responsible for specific parts of the process. It is called a swimlane as it adopts the concept of lanes in a swimming pool to represent duties and tasks within a group or entire organization.

You can arrange the swimlane flowchart horizontally or vertically. Since the responsibilities of specific processes are illustrated on the swimlane flowchart, it lets the team or organization practice better communication and efficiency in completing the processes.

History of swimlane diagrams

To learn more about what is a swimlane diagram, one must know its origin. The framework with the same concept of a swimlane diagram appeared during the 1940s. It is similar to the one many today use to explain processes with multiple units.

Some industries call it the cross-functional flowchart or the Rummler-Brache diagram after authors Geary Rummler and Alan Brache developed the first model. In 1990, the same authors documented the swimlane diagram concept in "Improved Processes.' They build on an existing multi-column framework to elaborate the processes involving multiple units or departments.

Today's swimlane flowchart represents a significant aspect in the process flow diagrams, the Business Process Model and Notation or BPMN, and the Unified Modeling Language. Besides showing the processes for every specific member, a cross-functional flowchart also presents the interactions among members to keep the process running smoothly.

Benefits of using swimlane diagrams

Before diving more profoundly into the concept of a swimlane diagram, look closely at the advantages the structure brings to your team's projects.

  • The multiple lanes the diagram has allows you to indicate the responsibilities of every individual or department. This helps simplify complex processes within a company.
  • Visualizing the processes through the swimlane framework will generate more detailed overviews of an employee's organizational roles. As a result, it helps reduce redundancies, bottlenecks, and unnecessary steps. For example, if your swimlane flowchart shows that some departments are directly connected to the finance department. This means that if there are bottlenecks in finance, you can expect other departments involved to be affected. Knowing the bottlenecks ahead will streamline the processes and identify where you must allocate the necessary resources.
  • They ensure all parties and individuals are included. Everyone has their roles on the diagram, and each member also knows which relationships must be prioritized within the department or organization.
  • It helps standardize the work processes and store them in shareable formats where other members and stakeholders can easily refer back if necessary.

Attributes and elements of swimlane diagrams

There are two significant elements you will see in a swimlane diagram. They include the following:

  • When you first explored what is a swimlane diagram, you knew that the structure consists of vertical or horizontal lines. At the topmost part of the chart is where you will see the 'actors,' which can be employees, a department, or a work group.
  • Process steps. They are generally spelled out within the specific lanes and are connected by arrows to show the relationship between other processes and actors.

Also, expect to use flowchart symbols to represent the different elements and processes on your diagram. You must be familiar with some aspects while constructing your swimlane flowchart.

  • Start/End. This shows where the flow begins and ends. Use the oval shape to represent this process.
  • Process 1. This process can be writing an article, creating a schedule, or preparing the ingredients. Remember that you can create multiple processes depending on what is needed on your diagram. A rectangle represents this process.
  • If the process involves documents like order from, receipts, or credit reports, ensure to use the rectangle shape with a wave on its bottom side.
  • The diamond on your chart means a decision must be made to proceed with the process—for example, a credit check.

There are more elements in your swimlane flowchart, especially if the process is more complex. With digital diagramming tools, you need to memorize only some symbols as they label each shape once you start formulating the structure on their drawing board. However, ensure to identify the necessary elements before you plot your flowchart.

How to create a swimlane diagram

  1. Identify the tools you need for the job. If it is for personal use, you can scribble the flowchart on paper if you are short on time. Meanwhile, for complex projects, you can utilize diagramming software. There are templates you can use for easy structuring.
  2. Specify the goal. Determine the team's ultimate goal in creating the flowchart. Consider the processes and details you must include to provide a comprehensive and concise objective.
  3. Break down the processes into separate tasks. Remember to keep an eye on the overall process and boundaries. You can list everything and refine it later on.
  4. Identify the lanes. You must figure out the flow of your swimlane diagram. Note the different lane categories, including workgroups, participants, departments, and other stakeholders.
  5. Plot the processes. Place the sequential processes in the respective swimlanes and include the connections between the lanes. You can also add deadlines and the people responsible for the tasks.
  6. Analyze the diagram. You can make a simulation of your flowchart and take note of the bottlenecks, redundancies, and gaps.
  7. Get your team involved. Ensure to run the flowchart with the responsible units and departments. All of them should be on board to help you see any process you have missed.
  8. Share your flowchart. As you know, online diagramming tools allow you to share charts using a specific link. Have everyone access the document so they will be guided throughout the workflow.

Tips and best practices for creating effective swimlane diagrams

You can consider some of the following points when creating your swimlane diagrams.

  • Familiarize the flowchart symbols and elements. This does not mean you have to memorize all the symbols related to flowcharting. You only need to know the common ones needed for your diagram. There are four common symbols to remember, the oval to signify the start and end, rectangles for the processes, a diamond for a decision, and arrows to connect all the shapes.
  • Know the processes and sub-processes. Identifying these can be tricky. Collaborating with your team to properly place these steps in the right lanes would be best.
  • Assess and refine. Evaluation is necessary for greater efficiency. You can invite essential teams to review the flowchart and identify if processes need revisions.

Swimlane diagram examples

The application of swimlane flowcharts is endless; hence, you will find several examples, from the simple ones to the much more complex processes. The framework is used in almost all industries which include the following:


The first swimlane illustration below is relatively complex, with various categories, lanes, and processes. The process starts with the customer submitting a purchase order which the sales team must take note of. As you can see, most processes require approval from different departments. While the end process could be the shipment was terminated, or the order was shipped. 

Swimlane diagram-for manufacturing

E-commerce industry

When you have an e-commerce business, this might be an appropriate swimlane diagram for inspiration. Unlike the first example, the illustration below is relatively simple. Besides the symbols in the flowchart, it also utilizes colors to group the processes. This way, it is easier to identify the relationships among the steps. You can also use other kinds of arrows, but experts recommend using a maximum of two types. This is to make sure your viewers understand. Most importantly, you can add more lanes or limit them to two or three. It depends on what is required on the diagram.

Sales order fulfillment swimlane flowchart

Swimlane diagram FAQs

What is the purpose of the swimlane?

The following are some of the evident purposes of a swimlane diagram:

  • It outlines processes from beginning to end by dividing them into specific sections. This is why you will see different rows and columns on the flowchart.
  • The diagram lets you communicate and emphasize the processes and subprocesses assigned to a specific actor within the team or organization. Along the way, it promotes better collaboration since you allow everyone to be accountable for their tasks within the framework.
  • It identifies inefficiencies and bottlenecks, which helps you figure out redundancies between the lanes, duplicates, capacity constraints, and delays. As a result, you can later address these issues and increase quality and performance.
  • You use the diagram to illustrate processes better and account for possible evolving circumstances like technology changes or staffing.
  • Most importantly, companies use a swimlane flowchart to represent integrated processes among teams and departments visually. As a result, you'll get a more concise and organized workflow.

What is the difference between a flowchart and a swimlane diagram?

A flowchart and a swimlane diagram are technically related. Essentially, a flowchart is a visualization tool to organize complex processes. It illustrates the sequences, steps, and decisions of a workflow. Within the flowchart are symbols you must use to represent every step in the diagram. There are various types of flowcharts, and one of them is swimlane. As you know, this diagram aims to outline who needs to do what within a given process.

The evident difference between these two is the lanes used by the swimlane or cross-functional flowchart, inspired by the lanes of a swimming pool. In a regular flowchart, you won't see horizontal and vertical lines. However, these divisions in the swimlane flowchart are essential to divide specific steps within a process.

In a nutshell/Conclusion

Now that you know what is a swimlane diagram, we bet you're now confident to create your swimlane diagram. The examples given here can be complex at first look, but once you familiarize the symbols, it will be a smooth process for you. Also, pre-designed diagrams are a great help if you're learning the ropes around this diagram.

Digital software will plot an example framework for you, including the basic symbols like rectangles, diamonds, and arrows. Of course, you must know which among those you need, while you can remove other symbols which won't be necessary on our flowchart. There's also a blank canvas available if you prefer structuring the flowchart independently.

Finally, the most important thing is not to get overwhelmed by the complexity of this flowchart. After all, swimlane aims to break down complex processes into specific steps, which must also be your ultimate goal after creating the chart.

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