Lean Manufacturing Management

Swim Lanes Improve Reliability

Klaus M. Blache | March 12, 2020

It’s important to clarify what best practice looks like, especially in complex processes.

That includes succinct and clear roles and responsibilities that can be easily followed. This is key to enabling workable processes. Swim-lane flowcharts have been around longer than all of us under many names including swimlane diagram, functional band, multi-column chart, process flowchart, business process management chart, visual process mapping, and process workflow mapping. The basic chart looks like the parallel lanes of a swimming pool, leading to its name. Here are some examples of where/how swim-lane charts are used effectively:

• visually displaying roles, responsibilities and functional capabilities
depicting non-linear processes, especially material and information flows
displaying the sequence, decisions, and processes (or process elements) to be performed
showing activities that span multiple departments
identifying bottlenecks, repetition, potential risks, things that should be done, and things to remove (that don’t make sense)
performing continuous improvement across departments
training new employees
showing how decisions/actions affect other individuals/departments
leveling the amount of work between groups/departments
managing administrative processes such as payroll, recruiting, hiring, registration, insurance, and parts purchasing
mapping a help-desk process for IT
developing reliability and maintenance corrective actions.

Swim-lane charts can be organized in a horizontal or vertical format and are usually chronologically ordered. Sometimes interchanging the axis gives you a different look by generating additional viewpoints. When developing one on paper it’s better to use a vertical format. That way the process can more easily be extended with additional process and decision steps.

This classic swim-lane flowchart defines the process of making pizza in a restaurant. Each asset/entity is assigned a lane and a color. Functions in each lane retain the same color. Arrows guide functions across lanes. While this is a finished, horizontal chart, it’s best to use the vertical format when developing a chart. It’s easier to add lanes/functions in that orientation.

Anything related to a process can be in a swim-lane chart. Each lane can represent any entity, such as a person, job title, project team, group, department, plant, customer, and/or supplier. The lanes are typically labeled and arrows show how functions are moved between the process elements. Standard shapes are often used to represent specific activities and decision points. At least one participant needs to be well versed in the existing organizational chart and capabilities so current organizational structure (and related job scope) is not violated.

While there are many software versions, I prefer using sticky notes and/or creating them manually on paper so all can fully participate. Then, if desired, use software to make it more readable, retrievable, and for historical filing.

These charts are not for every situation. Just like all other reliability and maintainability tools and techniques, you need to understand and decide when it’s the right tool to use. I’ve seen it applied in parts ordering, process-information flow, operator-driven maintenance work order assignment and completion, root-cause analysis, and problem solving/continuous improvement. A clear well-defined process can also help you change behavior toward the target culture. Use swim-lane charts to enhance your reliability and maintainability process. EP

Based in Knoxville, Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at kblache@utk.edu.

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Klaus M. Blache

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