Process Improvement: The Swim Lane Diagram

Every business has some process improvement opportunities.  The key is to know how to gain improvement in quality, cost, or time with a process in need of help.  What follows is an actual case from an organization consultation.

At one organization, an onboarding[i] process was taking too long for employees to become effective.  A group of 12 cross-functional individuals were gathered as a virtual team to tackle this problem.  The only individual in the group who knew how to improve the processes was the Information Technology (IT) guy.  The method selected was to document the current situation using a swim lane diagram.  The process went like this:

  1. The whole group talked about the process and decided to document it using sticky notes on big sheets of paper adhered to the wall horizontally rather than vertically, because a parallel depiction best suited diagramming the orientation process.
  2. Several lanes were identified—similar to the swimming lanes used by Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps in Rio. Individuals and groups were each designated a specific lane.
  3. Next, a sticky note was posted in an applicable lane, each one relating to a particular activity when currently onboarding new hires (see photo of a similar horizontal diagram at allaboutlean.com).
  4. Finally, we connected the sticky notes with lines to show the sequence of events. We could determine the amount of time the orientation process took by adding up the longest path through the diagram, similar to creating a critical path in project management scheduling.

The swim lane process clarified the current situation; the discovery revealed it was taking new employees six weeks to become effective within the organization while being onboarded.[ii]  The 12-member group had to then revise the process in order to gain efficiencies and effectiveness.  A new document was born from that revision, and a project was formed to tackle the several issues that were found: unavailable personal computers at hire, lack of information sharing, and inefficient approval processes.  The changes included:

Readying personal computers, having them readied and available when the new hires arrived
To deal with the personal computer issue, a stock inventory would have to be maintained following required Vice President-approval for the outlay of cash.  [Epilogue: Sign-off was immediate following a detailed presentation.]

Sharing of information, creation of a workflow, and automated emails for approvals with elimination of excess paper shuffling; backups for approvers were also identified
To address the data sharing and approval process, a SharePoint site was eventually created with the capability of sending emails to approvers and the sharing of documents amongst employees; CIO approval was required.  [Epilogue: One again the sign-off was immediate, but it required a second, separate business case presentation.]

Use of the swim lane diagram enabled the virtual team to: (a) document the current process, (b) discover the problematic issue of delayed new-hire effectiveness due to length of time for onboarding employees, (c) determine how to correct the slowed process, (d) identify the resources needed, and (e) name key personnel (VP and CIO) responsible for the approval of acquiring and ordering installation of new resources.  The diagram team was credible and convincing.  The onboarding process time was reduced from 6 weeks down to 2 weeks, which improved the bottom line and made a lot of people happy.

Some processes take longer than others to figure out what is preventing success in improving them.  Analysis by means of Pareto charts, Ishikawa fishbone diagrams, and other methods can be used.  Hmmm….sounds like more blog posts may be forthcoming.


[i] Onboarding is the process by which new hires get adjusted to the social and performance aspects of their jobs quickly and smoothly, and learn the attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors required to function effectively within an organization (SHRM, n.d., para. 1). Society for Human Resource Management. [SHRM]. (n.d.). Onboarding new employees. Retrieved August 29, 2016, from https://www.shrm.org/about/foundation/products/Pages/OnboardingEPG.aspx

[ii] For more information on best practices in onboarding, see the SHRM Foundation’s Effective Practice Guidelines Series publication, Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success.

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