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.