Guide to understanding swim lane diagrams

What is a swim lane diagram?

Swim lane diagrams are flowcharts that show a process from start to finish. These diagrams also show who is responsible for each step in the process.

Much like a swimming pool with established lanes for each swimmer, a swim lane diagram has horizontal or vertical lanes belonging to each person involved in the process. Process steps are shown using standard flowchart symbols.

Instead of only documenting the steps in the process, this diagram style allows people to see their responsibilities within an organization efficiently. It also helps people understand how their role fits with the system’s other moving parts. That means responsibility can be handed off from one party to the next more effectively.

Swim lane diagram symbols

Swim lane diagram symbols are similar to those you use in a flowchart. They include:

Image Name Description
Start/End Start/End Indicates the process’s start or end points.
Process 1 Process 1 Indicates a process, action, or operation.
Process 2 Process 2 Indicates an automatic process that triggers another action.
Process 3 Process 3 Indicates a setup to a subsequent step in a process.
Conditional Conditional Indicates a question.
Manual Operation Manual Operation Indicates that the user must manually input information into the system.
Display Display Indicates that information must be displayed.
Input/Output Input/Output Indicates that information should be entered in or should come out of the flow.
Document Document Indicates a document or report that is involved in the process.
Multiple Documents Multiple Documents Indicates that there are multiple documents involved in the flow.
Start Loop Start Loop Indicates the beginning of a loop.
End Loop End Loop Indicates the point at which the loop ends.

Examples of when to use a swim lane diagram

To help you to understand when to use a swim lane diagram, we have included some examples:

Modeling a sales workflow

Swim lane diagrams are an excellent tool for modeling a sales workflow. For instance, a corporation can model standard sales workflow processes by showing the internal process of handling a lead.

A lead typically begins as the responsibility of the marketing department, where it is nurtured and marketing-qualified. Then, it is handed off to a sales representative. Once the deal closes, the lead – who is now a customer – is handed off to customer services. From there, it may intermittently move to the marketer's lane for surveys and feedback. Eventually, it will circle back to the sales representative for a contract renewal or product upsell.

By showing this process through a swim lane diagram, marketers know that qualifying the lead isn't the end of their interactions with the customer. Sales reps also can clearly see that renewals are their responsibility. Even better, they know they can turn to marketing for information regarding the customer's experiences and the likelihood of upselling.

Onboarding new employees

Swim lane diagrams can provide human resources staff members with a detailed breakdown of employee responsibilities to help them with onboarding. For example, some of the key responsibilities of a software engineer can be separated into different categories including: development, maintenance, analysis, innovation, and planning. These categories can then be broken down further into more specific tasks.

Internal auditing workflows

Swim lane diagrams can help clarify who must be involved in each stage of the audit process. The audit process is divided into multiple stages. Examples include planning, document review, fieldwork, follow-up, reporting, and issue tracking.

Each stage of the process requires extensive communication between multiple parties, including the auditor, the IT department, the senior management team, and the other stakeholders involved.

Accounts payable processes

Accounts payable processes break down into several steps, including receiving the invoice, reviewing the invoice, approving the invoice, and paying vendors. Depending on the organization's size, the complexity of each stage can vary. Given the amount of paperwork involved, keeping payments and processes organized can be challenging.

Swim lane diagrams can provide a clear overview of the stages in the process and make it clear who is responsible. This reduces the chances of late payments and makes it easier to assess the company's financial health.

Benefits of swim lane diagrams

Benefits of swim lane diagrams

Here are some of the key benefits of using swim lane diagrams to outline processes within an organization:

  • The separate lanes of the diagram make it easy to delineate responsibilities belonging to certain individuals or departments. This helps to clarify complex processes within an organization.
  • Visualizing processes in this way provides a more thorough overview of employees' roles within an organization and helps to reduce bottlenecks, redundancies, and extraneous steps. For example, suppose your diagram shows that all departments connect to your IT department. In that case, you know that a bottleneck within your IT department will likely affect all of your other departments. Identifying these bottlenecks helps to streamline processes and determines where you should allocate resources.
  • They ensure that all necessary parties are involved in a process, everyone knows their specific role, and everyone knows which relationships they should prioritize within a department.
  • They help standardize work processes and record them in highly shareable formats that people within the organization can quickly refer back to if needed.

How to create a swim lane diagram

Before creating a swim lane diagram, it is important to conduct research and determine your goal. That will help you determine what level of detail you should go into to make your diagram effective.

Once you have a good understanding of what you want to achieve, here are some steps you can follow to create your swim lane diagram:

  1. List all the participants who are (or should be) involved in the core process you're diagramming.
  2. Depict each step in the process from start to finish, moving from lane to lane based on who owns each step. Use standard flowchart symbols, such as arrows designating the direction of movement. Each subsequent step should be one step further to the right (in diagrams with horizontal lanes) or further down (in diagrams with vertical lanes) to clarify the process's progression.
  3. Make a note of any redundancies that you spot within the diagram to address later. However, it is important to note that redundancy is sometimes purposely built into processes for safety purposes or to improve quality.
  4. Have participants and department heads verify the accuracy of the process.
  5. Save an editable version of the document in a centralized repository for future updates and revisions.
Why use MindManager to make swim lane diagrams

Why use MindManager to make swim lane diagrams

You can make swim lane diagrams by hand or in any graphic design program or use a program specifically designed for swim lane diagram making. MindManager, an industry-leading swim lane diagram software, allows you to create complex, detailed swim lane diagrams with ease.

MindManager's key benefits include:

  • User-friendly, intuitive interface
  • Extensive image library—over 700 topic images, icons, and symbols to add to your bubble maps
  • Premade bubble map templates
  • Convenient file storage, retrieval, and sharing
  • Powerful integrations with file storage apps like Box and OneDrive
  • Google Docs integration via Zapier
  • Various tools and features to facilitate brainstorming and strategic planning
  • Google Chrome extension—MindManager Snap—to easily collect and import text, links, and images from the web

MindManager helps you synthesize ideas and information by providing a simple, intuitive framework for organizing your thoughts. With MindManager, you and your team can clarify complexity and collaborate in new and unexpected ways.

Swim lane diagram templates

MindManager comes pre-installed with many swim lane diagram templates. To use these templates:

  1. Open MindManager
  2. Click NEW in the navigation menu
  3. Select the template you want to use
  4. A preview screen will appear - check to see if you'd like to use your selected template
  5. Select 'Create Map'
  6. Customize the template for your specific project
Swim lane diagram FAQs

Swim lane diagram FAQs

What are the symbols in a swim lane diagram?

  • Start/End: indicates the process’s start or end points.
  • Process 1: indicates a process, action, or operation.
  • Process 2: indicates an automatic process that triggers another action.
  • Process 3: indicates a setup to a subsequent step in a process.
  • Conditional: indicates a question.
  • Manual Operation: indicates that the user must manually input information into the system.
  • Display: indicates that information must be displayed.
  • Input/Output: indicates that information should be entered in or should come out of the flow.
  • Document: indicates a document or report that is involved in the process.
  • Multiple Documents: indicates that there are multiple documents involved in the flow.
  • Start Loop: indicates the beginning of a loop.
  • End Loop: indicates the point at which the loop ends.

What is the difference between a flowchart and a swim lane diagram?

A flowchart is a diagram designed to outline a process, system, or algorithm. A swim lane diagram is a specific type of flowchart that outlines who needs to do what in a given process.

When should you use a swim lane diagram?

Swim lane diagrams confirm who owns each part of a process. They show communication, connections, and handoffs between team members, who are each placed in different "lanes." This helps to provide a thorough overview of a process and highlight inefficiencies.

Using swim lane diagrams to improve your efficiency

Visualizing your processes using a swim lane diagram can clarify who is responsible for each process within an organization.

This can help people to understand their responsibilities and also helps them to understand how their role fits in with other roles within the organization.

Swim lane diagrams can also help identify bottlenecks and remove redundancies to improve the organization's efficiency.

Visualize more with MindManager

Want to visualize your processes and remove the bottlenecks within your organization? Give MindManager a try today and start building swim lane diagrams with our easy-to-use templates.

Try the full version of MindManager FREE for 30 days