A review of new software products that can make a big difference to your business

A better way to flowchart*

Michael BurnsBy Michael Burns

*This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in the June/July 2007 issue of CAmagazine.

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 descriptions.

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 issue.

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.

Swimlane symbols

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 mburns@180systems.com.