Drowning in Swimlanes…

I have to be honest.  Swimlanes are like cigarettes to me.

Let me explain.

Before we really knew better, I used to smoke 20+ a day.  But one day I decided enough was enough and weaned myself off them.  It was hard but I did it, and because it was so hard I became an anti-cigarette zealot.  Thirty years after giving up, the mere smell of second-hand cigarette smoke still makes me recoil, and if I see someone lighting up I want to snatch it from their hand.

Fortunately, fewer and fewer people smoke these days.  It is a dying habit (pun intended).  As a result the temptation to snatch doesn’t occur so often.

And so it is with swimlanes.

The problem with swimlanes

According to the limited information in Wikipedia swimlanes first appeared in the 1940’s.

I first used them in my process manuals in the 1970’s and continued to do so until 2002.  Why? Because they were the only workable solution to the problem of showing who was responsible for what, when drawing process flows using paper and pen or apps like ABC Flowcharter and Visio.

But I was never happy with the swimlane concept because it disrupted the process flow. 

  1. If the next step in the process is carried out by by a resource in another lane, you have to skip to that lane.  This makes it more difficult to read the process because it disrupts the left-to-right-top- to-bottom reading patterns (or right-to-left-top-to-bottom) that we learn as infants. 
  2. The more resources involved, the more difficult this gets, with lines traversing the page and back again.
  3. Swimlanes prevent you wrapping a process to a second row of steps, so the diagram has to be extended out to the right (or downwards if you’re using vertical swimlanes) or onto another page.  This makes the documentation more bulky. 
  4. If there is one resource that carries out most actions, and several resources that are only occasionally involved you will have pages with blank (or near-blank) rows.


So what changed?

In January 2002 I was introduced to what would later be formalised into UPN, when I was asked to look at a process mapping app, Nimbus Control, that a department wanted to use, and determine if it was a good fit for the company’s wider process mapping needs.

I did, and it was, and swimlanes disappeared from my process vocabulary when I saw and learned this construct:


“Who is responsible?”  On the activity box?  It’s such a simple and yet powerful concept.  All of my problems with swimlanes became history, and so did swimlanes themselves.

Since 2002 I have drawn, overseen the drawing of, or advised clients on the methods to use when drawing tens of thousands of process diagrams.   In all that time I have never encountered a valid use for swimlanes.  I have encountered a few traditionalists who wanted to use them but changed their minds quickly when shown the UPN way.

So now, you see them, poor creatures, the addicts, huddled in doorways, banished from their work colleagues, hopping from foot to foot in a feeble attempt to keep warm on a cold winter’s day, placed on the adult equivalent of the naughty step, banned from all public enclosed spaces, pariahs in their own country.

But we should also spare a thought for the smokers…


Paul Barrett

Suggested reading

If you’d like to read more on this topic then try Jim Boots, former process guru at Chevron on BPMN, Swimlanes and Decision Diamonds


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