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alternative to swimlane diagrams

Alternatives to the Swim Lane Diagram

The Swim Lane Diagram is just one of several forms of business process mapping that companies can implement. 

As it has been around since 1940, but was first described in 1990, it is on the older side of the mapping styles available, but it is one that has remained constant for some time. Especially as we head into the digital age, more and more companies are revising and revamping their business processes and coming across old Swim Lane Diagrams used in the past. 

While it was well and good for the 1940s, the tools available today for business process mapping software have a lot more to offer these companies than whiteboards – let’s take a look at how. 

Why Do Teams Use the Swim Lane Diagram?

To understand the alternatives to the Swim Lane Diagram, we first need to understand why it was used in the first place. 

Swim Lane Diagrams are different from other types of flow diagrams because they are separated into different lanes parallel to each other on the chart. Typically, a lane will represent a single person or department, with specific activities assigned to each. The activities are then connected to each other with arrows to explain the order.

They work best when companies have multiple departments working together on the same process to divide who is responsible for what. So if a team is responsible for landscaping, the building team knows they should be in touch with them at specific parts of the process to ensure everything is going well – and it would be reflected in the chart.

Having all this information spread out on the map, it encourages cooperation and communication between team members of different departments throughout the process. It’s a great way to avoid miscommunication – in theory.

Their main purpose, beyond ensuring everyone knows who is responsible for what part of the process, is being able to find what parts of the process are being delayed or being affected by their current capabilities.

How Do Teams Currently Use the Swim Lane Diagram? 

Currently, Swim Lane Diagrams are used either for specific, similar processes amongst various teams or departments, for product development, marketing, and sales, or for supply chain management logistics.

Swim Lane Diagrams are results-oriented, with the optimisation of business processes as the final goal.

There are four steps to setting up a Swim Lane Diagram: 

  • Identifying those involved in the process and diagram to follow
  • Establishing the starting point for the process
  • Completing the diagram based on the current process
  • Search for places where the process can be optimised

By identifying everyone involved in the process, whether they are individuals, teams, or departments, you know how many lanes your diagram will have. The optimal number of lanes involved in a single process should be between four and twelve – anything else, and it becomes quite chaotic.

Then you identify the starting point of the process you are analysing. It can be a customer making an order, a decision from upper management, or a monthly task that needs to get completed. You just need to know where to start, as that is the lane you then develop the rest of the map from.

Then you get to the true meat of the issue – completing the diagram. In an ideal situation, all the processes would be chronological, and you could simply keep adding them to the different lanes with arrows. This is typically not the case, however, and you will find a lot of overlap between what departments are doing simultaneously throughout the process. You need to make sure that you are correctly labelling and adding the steps at the right time, and this can turn out to be more challenging than expected to visualise. Take your time with this step and make sure that it is done correctly.

Finally, once you have drawn the process in its entirety, it’s time to analyse and find where you can optimise your existing process. Where are there places where you can cut back on time or cost to save your company both time and money. 

Possible outcomes are the realisation that you have too many unnecessary processes or bureaucratic checks, which are costing you precious time and resources that could be better used elsewhere. Alternatively, you might find out you have too few processes or actions in place, which leads to lower productivity and losses.

Swim Lane Diagrams allow companies to visualize all of this at once.

What Are the Drawbacks of the Swim Lane Diagram? 

While a Swim Lane Diagram can be useful, there are some drawbacks.

Firstly, there is a limit to the number of roles you can represent in a process – there is simply a lack of page real estate in this type of diagram for them to be comprehensive enough. This makes it difficult to include responsibilities in a matrix such as RACI. If they are included, the visual focus of the diagram becomes the roles and not the flow of the process. 

Secondly, due to the difficulty of assigning roles in Swim Lane, activities will become duplicated when multiple roles work on the same activities. This makes the entire process look more complicated than it actually is, which can be difficult to anyone reading it. Such a complication then results in people over simplifying the process to make it understandable, but this leaves key components out.

Thirdly, when handovers of processes span multiple lanes, the process becomes confusing. If we add to this the issues with demonstrating the roles in the process and the fact that multiple roles may work on the same activity, the issue is compounding. And with the lack of handovers, there is also a lack of value distinction. Why is this process being done? What does the company gain from it?

Fourth, tied to the above points, is that you can only have so many lanes available. As I mentioned previously, four to twelve is the best number to work with. But sometimes, this might not be enough. As you are deciding on how many lanes you are willing to include, you end up compromising on certain parts of the diagram, hence losing out on visualising the process in its entirety. Valuable information is then lost or relegated as unimportant.

Fifth, given the above, it is much more difficult for these diagrams to be completed collaboratively in a process workshop. Swim Lane Diagrams can become excessively complicated if there are too many lanes and steps involved, and this can lead to misunderstandings about what is happening when and who has to do it. 

Especially because it is not only the people directly involved in the process that need to understand it, but stakeholders that are not specifically involved or specialists in that section of the process.

Sixth, Swim Lane Diagrams are more limited. While they can cover one process in its entirety, if you want to have a big picture approach or even zoom in on a specific process, it does not lend itself well to working in this way. 

Finally, these diagrams are effectively the operations manual of the business. If there is any concern or issue in understanding and following along, either due to the passage of time or different interpretations of how something should be done, this can pose a big problem. You need everyone to be on the same page about each specific process and how it aligns with your most current company goals and mission. Swim Lane Diagrams are often not dynamic enough for this.

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How UPN And Skore Are an Alternative to the Swim Lane Diagram 

UPN stands for Universal Process Notation.

It is what we have based our business process mapping software on here at Skore. The reason for this is the simplicity of UPN when it comes to mapping processes.

What does a UPN diagram look like on Skore? Let’s take a look

A clear, initial trigger or input is always placed at the beginning of each process. It is the reasoning of the existence of the process itself. It is immediately followed by the first step or activity that is needed to begin the process. This activity is followed by the output or handover, explaining what the result should look like for this part of the process to move on to the next step or activity.

Under each activity, the roles are clearly defined and outlined. Multiple roles can also be associated with one activity, so everyone knows who is involved and responsible for what, while avoiding activity duplication. Skore goes the extra mile and provides the Role Manager, where you can study what the responsibilities of each role are, as well as their associated activities. It is also possible to study the Handover process in this view as well, to understand how different roles report to each other.

Activities are also organized linearly according to the flow of the process, not the department or team taking charge. No step is missed, and it makes it inherently easier to follow along for everyone involved.

If necessary, Skore and UPN can also create subprocesses below a larger activity. 

Remember how we mentioned you cannot look at the details up close with Swim Lane Diagrams? Well, you can with Skore! 

Smaller sub-processes that need to happen for the larger process to go through can be easily included. If you are looking to hire, there is a difference between the process followed by those at the higher levels of the organisation deciding that an employee needs to be hired, and those at the ground level preparing the hiring materials. With Skore, these two processes can co-exist and be referenced and understood clearly within the same diagram.

And this is highly possible due to Skore’s use of UPN. 

It is one singular style of notation that everyone on the team can be trained on, regardless of their level of expertise when it comes to business process mapping in general. Miscommunications are avoided, and your team always knows what each part of the map means.

You have a process repository you can check in with any time, and this also allows you to have process standardisation throughout your entire company. This ensures that everyone is doing what they should be doing the way you intended because there is no way they can get it wrong.

And when you want to evaluate and analyse what can be done better, or what can be improved, you can constantly take a look at your current process and recalibrate as necessary for the optimal result.

Conclusion 

Mapping out business processes is a need for any organisation that wants to be successful. Without understanding how their business operates, they are sure to lose track of what is happening when, and this will result in losses of time and money that will not return to them. 

Swim Lane Diagrams were designed in the last century as a way to visually map out these processes to help companies see where they can make improvements. But the lack of uniformity could cause more trouble than they are worth.

In the twenty-first century, with UPN it is far easier to get everyone in the same company on board with the current processes, avoiding miscommunication and misunderstandings when it comes to implementing changes. 

At Skore, we use UPN for this exact reason – book your demo to find out how!