How (and Why) to Make a Swimlane Diagram

By Zack Kushner on Jan 25, 2016 in Tips and Tricks

swimlane_example_1Swimlanes (aka functional bands, multi-column charts, or Rummler-Brache diagrams) illustrate how processes involving multiple contributors progress through their various chronological stages. That may sound complicated, but in practice swimlanes are an elegant way to un-complicate diagrams that would otherwise be overly complex.

In a swimlane diagram, processes are split into distinct channels according to whose responsibility they are. This allows each person (or group of people, such as a business department) to quickly and easily see what they’re required to accomplish. Because the lanes are arranged side-by-side, events in the process can be organized in sequence and connected by arrows, so multiple processes come together to form a whole.

This format helps teams to see what their team and the other teams need to accomplish (and when), so processes don’t stagnate.

The Uses of Swimlane Diagrams

Most often, swimlane diagrams get used by multi-department organizations to illustrate cooperative business processes. In our example below, notice we’ve organized the lanes horizontally instead of vertically and bumped the number of lanes up to four.

swimlane_example_2

You can use as many lanes as your process demands and orient the diagram whichever way makes the most sense for your situation.

What makes a swimlane diagram a swimlane diagram is:

a) the separation of processes into lanes—either horizontally or vertically—and;

b) organizing discrete tasks in sequential order along the other axis.

Doing both these things allows the diagram to provide viewers with the most benefit. Each department can see its assigned tasks broken out into a distinct channel and everyone can see at what stage of the entire process their tasks need to be tackled.

How to Make a Swimlane Diagram in Gliffy

Making a swimlane diagram using Gliffy is straightforward.

1) Look in the Shape Library along the left side of your canvas for the Swimlane sub-section. If Swimlane shapes aren’t there, you’ll need to add them by clicking More Shapes at the bottom of the Shape Library, expanding the Basic and Flowchart section and ticking the Swim Lanes box.

Swimlane Screenshot

2) Drag the swimlane shape that best suits your needs onto your canvas. By selecting the shape, you can change its total size, the size of individual lanes, or the shape’s orientation.

  • Add Swim Lane screenshotTo add / subtract lanes, select the swimlane shape by clicking on it then click the edit custom properties icon in the popup menu bar. From here you’ll be able to set the number of lanes from 1 to 12.
  • Pro tip: set your desired lane size first, as any new lanes you add will automatically match your existing lanes.

3) Once your swimlane shape is ready, use the Flowchart section of the Shape Library to fill out your diagram with process events and connect those events with arrows.

To get started even more quickly, use one of Gliffy’s existing swimlane templates by clicking File / New and browsing through our template gallery—or just use either of the diagrams in this post as a template.