A review of new software products that can make a big difference to your business
A better way to flowchart*
By Michael Burns
*This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in the June/July 2007 issue
Remember drawing flowcharts? As accounting students, it’s something we all had to learn — and it was
usually a struggle. The charts took forever to draw, and then were left to gather dust as soon as they were
finished. But if you think flowcharts are passé, think again. Business process improvement is the new mantra
of business, and process maps are a key component. Fortunately, we now have a flowchart technique called
swimlane that is easy to understand and apply. Swimlane flowcharts are drawn so the activities performed by
each business function, department, location or person are in different horizontal or vertical rectangles, or
lanes. A swimlane shows what is done, by whom and in what sequence. By keeping each role in one lane, it’s
easy for the person responsible for the role to see whether the flowchart properly represents their business
process. A swimlane should not be complicated. Symbols can be used for decision points, reports, loops and so
on, but keep the number to a maximum of four or five. It’s also important to avoid cryptic labels or
The most difficult part in drawing swimlanes is picking the right level of detail. If the objective is to
identify controls or control weaknesses, you can keep the drawings at a fairly high level. You can get into
more detail about the actual control or weakness using a control matrix, which we will describe in the August
Example of a swimlane flowchart
There is no such thing as a perfect swimlane. If you described a business process to 100 people all
trained in swimlane, you would get 100 different flowcharts. You’re only looking for a reasonable
approximation that accomplishes the objective.
Drawing a swimlane diagram is an iterative process. You will need to go back to the source of your
information and show your results. You can bet they will think of something else that was not discussed the
first time. But limit the number of iterations to no more than three and preferably two or you will be
wasting your time on minor matters.
There are many tools available to draw swimlanes. Some are highly sophisticated and are included in
technologies referred to as business process management. But you will probably find Microsoft Visio is more
than sufficient and it’s relatively easy to use. Choose the cross-functional flowchart template for a
swimlane flowchart. One limitation with Visio is that there is a maximum of five rows or columns. You could
get around that limitation by creating multiple pages that are linked.
Swimlane flowcharts have become the recommended method for documenting business process. If you have had
trouble with flowcharting in the past and you have the need, it’s time to sink or swim.
Michael Burns, MBA, CA, is president of 180 Systems (http://www.180systems.com/), which provides independent consulting service, including
business process review, system selection and IT audit. Michael can be reached at 416-485-2200 or email@example.com.