Project swimlanes can be a real boon to project managers and their teams for managing complex projects. However, not all project managers are familiar with them or how they work.
This article acts as a brief introduction to swimlanes for busy project managers who want to know what they are and how to use them. It will define project swimlanes, run through the benefits of swimlane diagrams, and explain how best to use swimlanes in project management.
Types of Project Swimlanes
There are several types of swimlanes used in project management.
- One of the most common and well-known approaches are Gantt charts. This allows teams to visualize their plans on a calendar type of view, mark dependencies, and track progress.
2. The second type that most project managers encounter is Kanban swimlanes. Mostly used by Kanban practitioners, these project swimlanes help teams separate and categorize their items on a Kanban board.
3. And the third type of project swimlanes refers to swimlane flowcharts that are used to map out the project’s process in a more understandable way. This last type of project swimlanes is the one we will analyze today.
What is a Project Swimlane Flowchart?
A swimlane diagram is a flowchart divided into lanes by group, individual, or sub-process, depending on the need. In project management, they’re typically used to illustrate a business process from start to finish. It can be arranged vertically (just like above) or horizontally depending on which the user prefers.
Swimlanes can also delineate different lanes for different departments, showing which departments are responsible for various tasks. This helps department members to understand how delays in their project swimlanes can affect deadlines.
Benefits of a Swimlane Diagram
There are several potential benefits to using swimlane diagrams for project management, including:
- Improved communication between team members and between teams. With duties, tasks, and responsibilities clearly mapped out, team members can see who is responsible for what. This is also useful for communicating between departments and for communicating with managers who need to understand what’s going on.
- Increased flexibility. Swimlane diagrams are flexible, as they can be drawn horizontally and vertically. This can help to create different perspectives, spot potential issues more easily, and emphasize details and roles without being tied to any particular thought process.
- Continuous improvement. Because swimlane diagrams provide a detailed view of business processes, project managers can see any missed steps, duplication, wasted effort, etc., which also allows them to see where processes might need to be upgraded or improved.
- Highlighting redundancies and bottlenecks. Plotting out core processes on a swimlane diagram makes it easier to spot and neutralize potential bottlenecks and inefficiency, for example, duplicate tasks.
- Change management. When looking to reassess projects or reassign staff, swimlane diagrams help by showing you the impact such changes are likely to have on a process, team, or department.
- Clarification of complex processes. Many projects are inherently complex, while others become complex in the context of the organization or by being part of multiple projects running at the same time. Swimlane diagrams help to simplify and clarify this complexity, making it easier to see at a glance what’s going on within a given project, process, or department.
Project Swimlane Diagram Symbols and Attributes Explained
The symbols used in a swimlane diagram are the same as in any flowchart. Here’s a recap of the most commonly used symbols with a more complete list in the image below:
- Process: Signifies any process, action, or operation.
- Terminator: This shows where the flow begins or ends.
- Process: Signifies any process, action, or operation.
- Decision: Symbolizes a question. The answer to the question determines which arrow to follow. Label the arrows to avoid confusion.
- Document: Represents any document that’s included in the process.
- Data: Also referred to as the “Input/Output” object, this represents any information that goes into or comes out of your flow.
- Display: Indicates a step that displays information.
- Manual Operation: This represents an action that prompts the user for information they must manually input into a system.
- Start/End of a Loop: Represents the beginning or end of a loop.
How to use a swimlane diagram
There are several steps to follow when using swimlane diagrams for the first time. Here are the key ones to keep in mind at the planning stage:
- Clarify your goal. Why are you using the swimlane diagram? Which process or processes will you be exploring to achieve that goal? Work out what level of detail you will need for the diagram to be effective and meet your goal.
- Break the work into manageable pieces. It’s best to work in bite-sized chunks and to clarify the boundaries of the process you want to study.
- Identify the project swimlanes you want to use and why. These may be employees, work groups, or departments.
- Research the process steps. For existing processes, you need to know the “who” and “what,” so you can divide them into their respective swimlanes. Spell out the interconnections, communications, and handoffs between the lanes. Document the process as it is while looking out for process gaps, redundancies, duplication, bottlenecks, and other inefficiencies.
- For a new process being modeled, spell out the steps to increase efficiency and reduce delays and costs.
When drawing a swimlane diagram:
- List the participants down the left side to create horizontal swimlanes. You can always rotate later if you would prefer vertical swimlanes.
- Use standard symbols to depict process steps sequentially in their appropriate swimlanes.
- Get participants in the process to verify the diagram and suggest any appropriate edits or changes.
- Once verified, use the diagram to communicate a standardized process. You can do this simply to clarify responsibilities, or for the training of new employees, or to reveal inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and repetitions.
You can draw swimlane diagrams by hand or use diagramming software.
Ready to use a swimlane diagram in your organization?
Swimlane diagrams are a useful tool that helps us understand the process and where it could be improved. But when you are ready to move on to the daily tasks and project management at hand, such tools are not sufficient. If you are after a project management solution that allows you to plan out your efforts in Gantt charts and track progress on Kanban boards, check out Teamhood. It is a free, visual, and easy-to-use project management solution for any team.
Passionate content marketer looking to bring better solutions to the project management space.
2020 - Present Marketing specialist at Teamhood.
2014 - 2020 Marketing manager for Eylean.