What is a swim-lane map? When do you use it?

swim-lane process map

The third type of map in our process mapping series is the swim-lane.  Other names for it are process flow map and cross-functional flow chart.  This process flow map allows you to identify the duties and responsibilities of different departments or functions in a single process and see how they relate to each other.  It displays how the process flows using a table format similar to swim-lanes. It shows the departments in a vertical lane and functions or objectives in a horizontal direction, or vice versa. 

Swim-lane maps make it easier to visualize the responsibilities, duties, and objectives of each department. Also, it helps to see the bottlenecks and redundancies of the process.  Its use is common in the supply chain, sales, marketing, and product development.

When do you use a swim-lane map?

  • The purpose of this type of map is to document processes, so people who are part of it understand the flow and how they affect others.
  • You need to clarify the responsibilities of complex processes, like those indicated above.
  • To improve communication and collaboration by giving the participants the chance to see how their work affects others and identify how their work is attached to the final product.
  • You need to understand the input and output for each function or department.

How to draw a swim-lane map

  1. Get a cross-functional team of process owners, about 5 to 10 people.
  2. Clarify the purpose or the objective.  What do you want to see or get from the map?  This step will help to facilitate the process and provides focus on the activity.
  3. Present the symbols for a process step, decision points, connectors, and others.
  4. Define the process mapping scope, what are the first and last steps.
  5. Label the map with the process name, date, and map scope.
  6. Draw a table in a whiteboard or using flip charts and mark the lines to create the swim-lane effect.  
  7. List the functions or department names on the column or row heading as per your preference. 
  8. Start drawing the process flow in chronological order.  If more than one step happens at the same time, draw them parallel to each other.
  9. Connect all the steps and decision points following the flow.
  10. When you reach the end of the process, make a second pass to verify that all steps are included.  

More notes in drawing the map

You can draw your swim-lane in Word, Visio, or any other software that you prefer.  I like to use a whiteboard and 3 x 6 Post-it notes to makes it easier for group participation.  For each step, describe what is done in simple words using verbs or nouns.  When the header contains the department name, write the name of the function that performs the task in the note.   If it is relevant to the purpose of the mapping exercise, you can include metrics like process time or details like what system or program is used.

Identify the improvement opportunities, highlight those areas with too many handoffs, redundancy, waiting times, and others.  You can use PDCA to create the action plan, execute, and verify for effectiveness.  Reflect at the end of the exercise.  Was the objective accomplished?  What did you learn?  What do you need to communicate to all team members?  Get feedback from the team and improve the process mapping experience.  

Process Map, what is, when, and how to use it?

Process mapping is a visual way to show the steps to complete a process.  There are different types of maps that range from a very high overview level to a detailed overview level of the process.  Which one you use depends on the purpose of your analysis.   We already discuss the Value Stream Map and today is the turn for the Process Map or detailed process map.

A Process Map (PM) is a basic flow chart that presents the step’s sequence to complete a single process, showing all the inputs and outputs.  PM is a low-level chart used with the participation of supervisors and process owners.

When do you use it?

  • The purpose of this map is to document a process, analyze and manage workflows.  
  • You can use this type of map whenever you want to take a close look of a process workflow, focusing on the sequence of steps regardless of who or what department complete them.  
  • The map is a drill-down view of the process, which make it an excellent tool to see the input and output details of the process as well as the decision points.  
  • PMs are good to identify opportunities to eliminate, simplify, rearrange, or combine steps.
  • To create process improvement tactical plans. 

How to draw a Process Map?

  1. This is a team exercise, invite a multi-functional group to draw the map.  Those who provide input or receive the output of the process should be part of it.  
  2. Define the process boundaries.  What triggers the process?  What ends the process?
  3. Use a verb or noun format to list the sequence of steps to complete the process. For example, use, go to, search for, calculate, analyze, verify, and call.
  4. Include mental steps like thinking, analyzing, counting, and others.
  5. Keep asking what happens next, until you reach the end of the process.
  6. Write each step, including the trigger either on a sticky note or directly on a whiteboard.  Choose whatever method works best for you.  I like to use 4 x 6 sticky notes because they are big enough, and it is easier to edit the map if you need to add steps or rearrange them.   Plus, you don’t need a whiteboard, a clean wall will suffice.
  7. Watch for repetitive steps, like going back and forth between screens, copy and paste information on the same document several times.
  8. At the end, go through the map once again to ensure all steps are included.

While drawing the map, promote the participation of the entire group, create a comfortable environment where team members that do not know the process well feel free to ask questions without any fear.  For example, they can help writing the steps or place the notes on the wall or board.  As with any other continuous improvement activity, this is a learning exercise.  Facilitate the event in such a way that people understand the purpose and learn how to do it.  The idea is to promote the use of simple tools that can help them to present their ideas visually or to show the process to other people.

Now you have another tool to analyze your processes, learn how to use it and practice while improving!