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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Ross

Why Swimlanes Sink

I have spent more hours than I care to count over the last 20 or so years looking at swimlane diagrams. Staring at them - as one might peer at a piece of modern art or a magic eye picture - imploring the meaning to reveal itself to me. Or creating them from scratch, reacting to an edict that "this is how the business wants their Operating Model to be documented". And then revising them in a seemingly never-ending cycle of revisionism in a bid to achieve some grudging, caveated sign-off from the business.

Flushed with success, I present the target operating model to the stakeholders in a grand "ta dah!" moment - to be told that the future state is meaningless unless it can be directly compared with a current state model documented in exactly the same way.

Needless to say - this current operating model doesn't actually exist, having never been created previously by the team who now deem its retrospective creation to be a critical factor in their ability to play 'spot the difference' with the newly honed and polished spaghetti junction 200 page Powerpoint of swimlanes that have brought me teetering to the edge of sanity over the preceding months.

Unreadable at a glance and generating more questions than answers when studied at length, swimlanes are hideous constructs.

I have a theory that every swimlane diagram has its own "swimlane factor", swf(x), which quantifies the multiple by which the time and cost expended on creating, arguing about and endlessly updating the diagram exceeds the collective amount of time ever spent perusing it once 'completed'.

My belief is that swimlanes are needlessly complex, and have never once been used as s reference point by someone actually completing a task, or even understanding where that task contextually sits. Checklists ? Now you are talking.

There is a utility in being able to visually represent the context in which tasks and handoffs interest with each other, but it is not best served by swimlanes.

Happily there is a rather better alternative (I believe). Stay tuned...

(Originally published on LinkedIn)

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