Swim Lanes

From time to time, people ask me what is the best way to draw a process map.  (Maybe they, or I, should get out more.)

A better question is why are you drawing a process map?

  • So that you can agree what the process is
  • So you can communicate a process
  • So you can spot improvement opportunities

Don’t get hung about the format, get hung up about the purpose, to communicate.

However, if you need a single standard format, draw swim lanes.  They are called swim lanes because they look like swim lanes.  Down one side they show the people or functions involved in a process, and then they show the process steps lined up against the person who is doing them.

If you use Microsoft Visio they supply a free template for a swim lane chart.

Alternatively here is a Swim Lane in pdf or pptx format.

They are the best single way to draw a process map because:

  1. They show the process, (fairly fundamental).
  2. They show clearly “who does what”, this is good because it forces a discussion about “who does what”.
  3. They show the hand-offs from one person to the next, processes invariably go wrong at the hand-offs.  If you can reduce handoffs you will improve your process.
  4. They are easy to read, nobody needs to be a brain surgeon.

A final point, at the risk of banging on, process maps have only one purpose, to communicate information.  If your map has 75 boxes and they are all filled with 5 point text then it is not fulfilling that purpose.  Simplify the chart and either drill down a level or add work instructions.

The aim is to clarify and communicate, not confuse.

Read another opinion

Image by Carol Mitchell


  1. James –
    Your first point is the what people should remember most. It is about the purpose of the map and not the map itself. There are many formats that can be used. I have used some and at times I don’t use a format as long as the map is facilitating the discussion that is needed to be had. It is important that people get a common understanding of the current process and what the future state will be like too.

    Great post.

  2. Hello James

    Sometimes I map processes simply to understand (intellectual) the process and sometimes to experience (emotional) the process. I do it to increase my knowledge of what is so. That is to say that my purpose is simply to learn. Later I might use that learning to suggest / make changes.


  3. James Lawther says:

    Thanks for your comments, I suppose it almost doesn’t matter why you take the time to map something out just as long as it isn’t an ends in its own right.

    I can’t help but think that that is too often the case.

  4. Hamdeh Buhumaid says:

    Hi James,

    I stumbled onto your website while looking for sites to read up on process improvements and learning new methods. I’m currently working on process improvements in my company and as I read your posts it confirms that alignment is one of the important points to get right. I’ve seen time and time again that people have different ideas of how things are done whether you have process documented or not.

    Thanks for the website. looking forward to learning more!

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for your comment Hamdeh, I think you are absolutely right, it is all about the people.

      I think process improvement is really easy, the hard bit is getting everybody lined up, particularly if it cuts across people’s targets and objectives.

      Good luck with your education.


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