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When to Use Swimlanes - And When to Use Other Workflow Diagram Types

Swimlanes are a very useful feature in workflow diagrams and process maps. They visually separate different roles, departments, or systems to show how work flows between them. Swimlanes make it easy to see where one process ends and another begins, and who is responsible for each step. 

Making the Right Decision

Here are some guidelines on when to use a swimlanes diagram versus other types of workflow diagrams:

Use Swimlanes When:

  1. There are clear roles or departments that complete different steps in the process. A swimlanes diagram makes it easy to visualize hand-offs between groups.
  2. Understanding responsibilities is important. Swimlanes clearly assign ownership for each part of the process. 
  3. Process flows primarily from left to right. Swimlanes are best for linear workflows.
  4. The process has a small number of roles or systems interacting. Things can get confusing if there are more than 5-6 swimlanes.

Consider Other Options When:

  1. The process is highly complex with a lot of decision points and branches. A flowchart may handle complexity better by showing conditional logic and loops.
  2. There are many roles/systems involved. Lots of swimlanes can get confusing and make a diagram feel fragmented. A simple workflow diagram without lanes may be clearer when there are many hand-offs.
  3. Responsibilities are shared and activities are interdependent. Swimlanes imply clear ownership that may not exist in collaborative workflows.
  4. The process does not follow a simple left-to-right flow. Spaghetti diagrams with crisscrossing lines can precisely model complex flows.
  5. The priority is understanding steps and connections rather than roles. A basic workflow diagram focuses on the process flow itself without roles.
  6. Cycle times and process metrics are important. Value stream maps include data like these that swimlane diagrams don't capture.
  7. The goal is identifying waste and inefficiency. A value stream map highlights delays and bottlenecks that a swimlane diagram does not focus on.
  8. Mapping a supply chain rather than a contained workflow. Supply chain maps show physical product flows across organizations. 
  9. Hand-offs happen indirectly through queues and inventory. A Kanban diagram can model these indirect connections.

Match the Diagram to the Process

The key is to match the type of diagram to the reason you are mapping the process. Swimlanes are great for showing responsibilities and direct hand-offs between departments. But when priorities are understanding complexity, steps, connections, metrics, waste, and physical flows, another style may be a better fit. 

Consider what specific questions you want the diagram to answer, then pick the method that provides maximum visual clarity. A workflow diagram is meant to provide insight - the right type will allow readers to quickly grasp the process. With an appropriate workflow diagram style, you'll gain understanding and identify improvement opportunities.

The most important thing is recognizing that one size does not fit all when it comes to process mapping. Evaluating options like flowcharts, value stream maps, Kanban diagrams, and simple workflows prevents you from defaulting to swimlanes when another diagram type may be optimal. Selecting the right visual approach leads to maximum insight.