Swim-lane flowchart benefits for your small business

Keeping track of multiple employees and processes at the same time is difficult. Many project and people management tools can help. An older tool, the swim-lane flowchart has recently found new fans.

What is a flowchart?

A flow chart is a visual representation of a process. Processes shown in a flow chart could be for any part of your business. You can represent both macro and micro ideas in a flowchart.

For instance, you can create a macro flowchart that shows how all the parts of your business work together. You could also create a micro flowchart for one aspect of your business.  A micro flowchart could, for example, only represent your shipping process.

Reasons to use flowcharts:

  • To understand a process
  • To identify problems in a process
  • To work out bugs in a new idea
  • To determine labor needs or costs of a new project
  • To estimate the time needed for a project
  • To train staff

How to create a flow chart:

  • Break your process into the smallest appropriate steps
  • Decide on a beginning and ending step
  • Organize your steps in sequential order
  • Choose the best type of flow chart to show your steps

Creating a flow chart helps understand how things work together in your business.

You might think of a process like hiring a new employee as a few steps. You advertise for an employee, interview candidates, and then, hire a great person. In reality, the steps probably look more like this:

  1. Decide to add an employee
  2. Create a job description for the position
  3. Advertise the position
  4. Screen candidate resumes or applications
  5. Interview your favorite candidates
  6. Check candidate references
  7. Extend an offer to your first choice of candidates

You can see a process with clarity when you document it. Instead of three steps to hire someone new, there are at least seven. You can plan enough time for the process when you understand it.

Your flow chart shows you that you can’t replace your employees in a few days. The process will be 2-3 weeks. Further delay is possible if your chosen candidate can’t start immediately.

Knowing how long it takes you to hire someone is important. You can make an accurate plan. It may also inspire you to focus on employee retention.

Transform your list of steps into a flow chart and it should be easier to read. You can understand flowchart information at a glance.


Figure 1. A simple flowchart of a hiring process (made with PowerPoint)

What is a swim-lane flowchart?

The swim-lane (or swimlane) flowchart is a visual representation of interacting or dependent processes. It shows how tasks or activities work together to reach a common goal. It can be very difficult to track or understand a process that involves many people or tasks.

For instance, here’s an attempt to describe the process of remodeling a kitchen:

First, you demolish the existing kitchen and then, measure the space, order appliances, order custom-fabricated natural-stone counter tops, order custom cabinets, order lighting, install basic plumbing, install electrical outlets, wire for lighting, wait for delivery and installation of ordered goods, and do final plumbing, electrical and painting.

There are lots of items on that list that are happening at the same time and others that are dependent on each other. For instance, you can’t install counter tops before you install your cabinets. You need to wire for light fixtures before you install them.

As anyone who has ever remodeled a home can tell you, things rarely happen on schedule.

However, if you share a swim-lane flowchart with your clients, they can see how the pieces fit together. If the counters are late, will they delay other steps (see Figure 2.)?

You can also use this chart (see Figure 2.) to help you organize your contractors. If the counters are late, you’ll see that you need to re-schedule the final visits from your electrician, plumber and general contractor.

How do you create a swim-lane flowchart?

A swim-lane flowchart uses separate columns, or swim lanes, to track each task or activity in a process. It may also show how tasks relate to each other.

Like swimmers in a pool, each moves at their own pace. They all move forward across the pool. They all have the same goal.

A swim-lane flowchart is often like the documentation of a relay race. In a relay race, one racer has to wait for the previous racer to finish. A swim-lane flowchart allows you to see when steps in a process are dependent on other steps.

An example of a swim-lane flowchart

The first column in Figure 2 represents the key players in the remodeling process. Each column after that represents a step in the process. As you can see, some steps happen in the same time period, and others are separate.

A more complex swim-lane flowchart may connect various dependent actions with dotted lines. However, the intent of this example is to demonstrate the basic swim-lane concept.

Figure 2. A swim-lane flowchart of a kitchen remodel made with Excel

Other types of flowcharts:

  • Program flowchart
    • A program flowchart shows the implementation of a program and the way it moves through each participating department.
  • Data flowchart
    • A data flowchart shows how digital data moves through a company. A data flowchart shows how data enters an organization, how it’s used, and where it’s stored or archived.
  • Process flowchart
    • A process flowchart documents the action steps needed to complete a process. A swim-lane flowchart is one type of process flowchart.
  • Workflow
    • Workflow charts show the typical process for a company’s revenue-generating activity. A widget-making company shows each step; from receiving an order for a widget, through widget delivery.

Learn how to reference charts and graphs in your documents here.

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Business Insights and Ideas does not constitute professional tax or financial advice. You should contact your own tax or financial professional to discuss your situation..