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Swimlane Diagram: Ultimate Guide to Designing Better Business Processes

By Letícia Fonseca, Apr 06, 2022

swimlane diagram

A swimlane diagram is a visual representation of a process and its multiple facets.

For businesses, swimlane diagrams are helpful in process mapping and project management.

This guide will provide you with an in-depth view of swimlane diagrams and how they can communicate and enhance business processes.

You will also learn how to create your own swimlane diagram for various projects and use Venngage’s Swimlane Diagram Maker.

 

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What are swimlane diagrams?

Swimlane diagrams or process flow diagrams are types of flowcharts that divide the steps of a process into ‘swimlanes’ or categories, hence its name.

These categories represent the groups or individuals that perform each step in the process.

As you can see in this swimlane diagram example, the steps in an order processing flow are categorized into four aspects or departments:

swimlane diagram

Because it shows how a process extends to multiple business units or departments with different functions, a swimlane diagram is also called a cross-functional diagram.

Unlike a simple flowchart, a swimlane flowchart depicts who is in charge of each process step. Swimlanes can be arranged horizontally or vertically.

What are the benefits of using a swimlane diagram?

Swimlane diagrams have many uses and benefits. These include:

  • Highlighting the process steps and responsibilities that are assigned to an employee or department
  • Providing a better structure for business processes in order to clarify and organize workflows
  • Standardizing and streamlining a process flow to improve performance and prevent inefficiencies
  • Promoting clear communication between teams and better analysis of the phases of a project or business process

In a business setting, swimlane diagrams can be used for project management, onboarding a new employee, illustrating internal workflows, and documenting business processes.

Swimlanes are also used in unified modeling language (UML), which is the modeling and diagramming language used for software design.

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3 types of swimlane diagrams

Here are the three types of swimlane diagrams that you can use depending on the project or process requirement.

Swimlane activity diagram

A swimlane activity diagram details the coordination of tasks or activities in a process. This type of swimlane diagram is used to create and systematize workflows.

Swimlane activity diagrams are designed for processes with a straightforward flow that does not create branches or multiple outcomes.

For example, this swimlane activity diagram describes the activities involved in a engineering process flow:

swimlane diagram
 

Swimlane process map

As the name suggests, this type of swimlane diagram is made for process mapping. Swimlane process maps are used for planning, documenting, and modeling processes.

Unlike swimlane activity diagrams, a swimlane process map illustrates potential scenarios in a process that can result in more than one outcome.

Here is an example of a swimlane process map that shows how an order request process works:

swimlane diagram
 

Cross-functional flowchart

There are three types of cross-functional flowcharts. They are:

Deployment flowchart

A deployment flowchart is the most common and basic type of cross-functional flowchart that organizes a process from start to finish.

In a deployment flowchart, the process steps are arranged in a logical sequence and distributed to the different departments that they cover. It can have as many lanes as needed. This is a great example:

swimlane diagram
 

Opportunity flowchart

On the other hand, an opportunity flowchart groups the process steps into activities that produce value, and activities that don’t. This means it has only two swimlanes, which are ‘value-added’ and ‘non-value-added.’

Opportunity flowcharts are especially useful in business analysis as they can help determine which parts of a business process will result in profit or loss.

Here is an opportunity flowchart that shows the step-by-step of the product order process:

swimlane diagram
 

Matrix flowchart

Lastly, a matrix flowchart is a complex flowchart designed for complex processes.

It consists of process steps with sub-processes that are aligned into more than one swimlane, which means it doesn’t follow any clear rows or columns.

Matrix flowcharts are much harder to understand and are mostly used in programming, in here we have a customer service example:

swimlane diagram
 

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What are swimlane diagram symbols?

Swimlane diagrams make use of various shapes and symbols to convey the different components of a process. These are:

  • Start or endpoints: These are rectangle shapes with rounded corners used to indicate that a step is the start or end of the process flow
  • Activity shapes: Which are rectangles that represent an action or task
  • Lines or arrows: Are used to connect the process steps and portray the correct sequence of the process flow
  • Decision shapes: Which are diamond shapes that symbolize a question or decision that needs to be answered with a yes or no
  • Input or output symbols: Which are parallelograms that signal data coming in and out of the process flow
  • Document symbols: Which are rectangles with wavy lines at the bottom side which signify any document that is needed to complete a process step
  • Connector symbols: These are small circles that denote that another flowchart is connected to the current diagram
swimlane diagram
 

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5 steps to make a swimlane diagram and best practices

Creating a clear and well-developed swimlane diagram involves following a series of steps and helpful guidelines. Here are the steps you can easily follow:

Step #1: Outline the process

Before you start drawing your diagram, you need to define the process and all its components first. This means writing down the title or name of the process, the objectives behind it or why you are creating a diagram in the first place, the complete process steps, and its performers.

Step #2: Plot the starting point

Once you have everything prepared, proceed with drafting your swimlane diagram. On a separate sheet of paper, start by plotting the first step in the process on the left side of the page. Draw a rounded rectangle around it to mark it as the starting point.

Step #3: Divide the page into swimlanes

Now, draw vertical or horizontal lines across the page to create your swimlanes then list before them the involved departments or individuals according to the order of the process steps. They should be at the top of the page for a vertical swimlane or on the left side for a horizontal one. Your starting point should now be aligned on the correct swimlane or the department in charge of it.

Step #4: Chart the steps

Next, starting from the left side of the page to the right, write the rest of the process steps and align them on their respective swimlanes. Draw the correct shapes or symbols around them to ensure that each part in the process flow is conveyed properly. Then, connect the process steps using lines or arrows to show the correct sequence. Once you have completed all the steps, mark the last step as the end of the process flow.

Step #5: Use a powerful swimlane diagram maker

To finalize your swimlane diagram, choose a diagramming tool that can not only turn your design vision into a reality but can also help you produce an impressive diagram. Venngage’s Swimlane Diagram Maker is an intuitive design tool that allows you to create a swimlane diagram for free, in just a few easy clicks.

swimlane diagram

With Venngage, you don’t need to be an artist or designer to be able to create professional swimlane diagrams. Aside from its easy-to-use editor and drag-and-drop interface, Venngage has customizable templates that you can edit to achieve the design and impact you want for your swimlane diagram.

We also invite you to upgrade to a Venngage business account to access My Brand Kit, which lets you add your company’s logo, color palette, and fonts to all your designs with a single click.

A business account also includes the real-time collaboration feature, so you can invite members of your team to work simultaneously on a project.

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Swimlane diagram best practices

Here are some things to keep in mind when creating a swimlane diagram:

  1. Keep the diagram small and focused as much as possible. Include only the specific departments or individuals that are actually part of the process and use not more than twelve swimlanes.
  2. Be direct and concise when writing the steps. Stick to phrases and sentence fragments and if you shall use technical terminology, add notes under the document to define them.
  3. When connecting steps in the same swimlane, the steps should be listed sequentially (top to bottom) and should still be connected using lines or arrows.
  4. Make use of colors for better distinction between the departments or individuals and to make your diagram easier to understand. Add supplementary icons and graphics but keep them to a minimum.
  5. Don’t forget to analyze your swimlane diagram to identify possible gaps, redundancies, and bottlenecks in the process.
swimlane diagram
 

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FAQs about swimlane diagrams

How do you make a swimlane diagram in Venngage?

To create a swimlane diagram using Venngage’s Swimlane Diagram Maker, simply follow these steps:

  • Step 1: Sign up for a new account to start using Venngage’s Swimlane Diagram Maker for free
  • Step 2: Choose a swimlane diagram template from Venngage’s massive collection of diagrams and flowchart templates
  • Step 3: Customize the template of your choice by adding or changing the shapes, colors, and labels to reflect the process steps and flow
  • Step 4: Enhance your design using icons, backgrounds, and graphics from our library
  • Step 5: Download your finished swimlane diagram or share it online

Why are swimlanes used in activity diagrams?

Activity diagrams are a type of flowchart that shows the flow of activities in a system. In an activity diagram, swimlanes are used to illustrate which activities are carried out by a certain group or individual and describe the logical order of events.

When should you create a swimlane diagram?

Swimlane diagrams are usually created when demonstrating complex processes and delegating the tasks needed to complete them. They are used during business planning for projects or business processes that involve different departments or business units.

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In conclusion: Use swimlane diagrams to design, communicate, and improve business processes.

Swimlane diagrams can effectively represent and translate a business process into actionable steps.

Use Venngage’s Swimlane Diagram Maker to create a swimlane diagram.

 
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About Letícia Fonseca

Letícia is a Content Marketing Specialist, and she is responsible for the International strategy at Venngage.

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