Swimlane diagrams: the organizational tool every project manager needs to know

Swimlane diagrams: the organizational tool every project manager needs to know

In the same that swimming lanes apply a sense of order to a busy pool, swimlane diagrams organize the information in complex diagrams into neat, categorized rows. It’s a type of flowchart that provides clarity by placing process steps into ‘swimlanes’ (horizontal or vertical lines) that are grouped into departments or categories.

The beauty of organizing your information like this is that you can see, at a glance, both the connections between everything and the separate groups. For example, someone in a large organization can see both the individual processes of different departments and how these processes form a whole.

Swimlane diagrams are also known as functional bands, multi-column charts, or Rummler-Brache diagrams.

What are the benefits of a swimlane diagram?

Aside from organizing data into a format that’s easy to understand, swimlane diagrams also highlight processes, which makes it easier to pinpoint – and therefore eliminate – bottlenecks, waste, and inefficiency, such as duplicate tasks being performed by different departments.

You can also use them to deal with situations like staff or task changes because you can see how each element of the diagram interacts as part of the whole.

Types of swimlane diagram

Swimlane diagrams are relatively flexible: your lines can run horizontally or vertically, and you can have as many lanes as you need.

The deciding factor to whether you lay your lines out in one direction or the other is generally down to preference and/or screen configuration: if your monitor is wider than it is tall, then go for horizontal lines.

Swimlane diagram symbols explained

The symbols you use in your swimlane diagram will be the same you’d use in a regular flowchart. To recap:


  • Start/End: This shows where your flow begins or ends. Within the shape, you should include the words “Start” or “End” to clarify which it is.
  • Process 1: This signifies any process, action, or operation. They define an action, such as “write article”, “create schedule” or “water plants”.
  • Process 2: Another shape used for processes is the rounded rectangle. They’re usually used to represent automatic events that trigger a subsequent action, such as “receive feedback”.
  • Process 3: This represents a setup to another step in the process.
  • Conditional: Also known as the “decision shape”, this symbolizes a question. The answer to that question determines which arrow to follow coming out of the diamond. Arrows should be labeled to avoid confusion.
  • Manual Operation: This represents an action where a user is prompted for information that must be manually inputted into a system.
  • Display: This symbol indicates a step that displays information.
  • Input/Output: Also referred to as the “data” object, this symbol refers to any information the goes into or comes out of your flow.
  • Document: This shape represents any document or report that takes part in the process flow.
  • Multiple Documents: This shape simply clarifies that there are multiple documents involved.
  • Start Loop: This shape represents the beginning of a loop.
  • End Loop: This shape indicates the point at which a loop should finish.

How to create a swimlane diagram in eight easy steps

1. Choose the right tools for the job

There are several ways you can go about creating your diagram. If you’re short on time and doing this as a personal project, then scribbling your diagram by hand is perfectly acceptable.

But if you need to make something clear and professional looking, then start off using sticky notes or a pen and paper, then move onto diagramming software once you’ve organized your thinking. Not only will it look neat, but, thanks to templates and ready-made symbols, you can create and edit your diagram quickly and easily.

2. Define your goal

What’s your ultimate goal? Which processes do you need to include in your diagram? It’s important to think about how much detail you need to include to give everyone a clear enough understanding of the overall picture.

3. Break the work down

Break your processes down into separate tasks while keeping an eye on the complete process and its boundaries. Note everything down – you can refine your list later on.

4. Identify your lanes

First, you need to choose which way you want your swimlanes to run. Then, once you’ve figured that out, list the different lane categories – which could be participants, departments, or workgroups. If you change your mind later on, you can just rotate your lines.

5. Add your processes

Next, add the sequential process steps in their appropriate swimlanes using your standard flowchart symbols. Remember to include the connections between the different lanes, and add details about who’s responsible for what, and by when.

6. Analyze your diagram

Record your process as it is, but keep an eye out for gaps, duplication, bottlenecks and other issues. If you’re creating your swimlane diagram for a new process, then remember to go into as much detail as possible when explaining process steps that could potentially improve efficiency and quality.

7. Get the team involved

Finally, run your diagram past all the relevant team members/stakeholders and make sure they’re all on board. This stage is especially useful because they can help you identify any stages you may have missed.

If you do make any edits to your original diagram, remember to re-share it with everyone and, if necessary, explain your changes to give people another chance to comment.

8. Share and use your diagram

Congratulations! Your swimlane diagram is done. Now you can use it to communicate responsibilities, standardize training processes and discover inefficiencies – which you can either do internally or with the help of external analysts.

And remember to store it somewhere visible and easily accessible – ideally on the cloud, – and refer back to it periodically every time there’s a change, such as a new employee, process or department.

How to create a swimlane diagram in Cacoo

Creating a swimlane diagram in Cacoo, our own diagramming software, couldn’t be easier.

Simply click on ‘Templates’ on the left-hand side of the page, and select either ‘swimlane flowchart’ or ‘decision flowchart’. A ready-made swimlane diagram will pop up. From there, you can edit the shapes, lanes, colors, and text by dragging and clicking on the different elements.

Alternatively, you can select a regular decisions flowchart from the list of templates, then add swimlanes to it at a later date by selecting the line draw function. Or if you want to start with a blank slate, simply select ‘Create diagram’ and opening a fresh page. From there, you can find all the shapes, arrows and line elements you need in the left-hand column.

You can then save your diagram, duplicate it and use it as the foundation for another process, and share it with the wider team and organization.

Final thoughts

Using a specially-designed diagramming tool makes the swimlane process a whole lot easier thanks to ready-made templates you can edit with a click. It means you don’t need to teach yourself (or your team) how to use complex illustration programs, nor do you have to struggle with formatting issues while using software that isn’t designed to deal with complex diagramming.

Another bonus is that you can share all your hard work with the wider team and organization via the cloud, which means it’s available to everyone, wherever they are. No more struggling to find documents on the server, no more hunting around for the right version and no more time-consuming update emails to let everyone know you’ve edited your diagram: everything you need is all there, at your fingertips.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).