(originally published October 27, 2008)
After over a decade of process indoctrination (TQM, Six Sigma), I still resist swimlane charts.
Oh, simple swimlanes I can live with. Here is one at Wikipedia (incidentally, attached to the article about swimlanes is a simple one about contracts!)
What continues to get me are mind-bogglingly complex charts showing a simple transaction, but scattered across 8+different organizations. Either the swimlane chart drafter is trying to show too broad a process, or (as is often the case in contracts) a simple function ends up sprawled across the organization for lack of a clear home.
At Dell, an example was the transition of business from the pre-contract cycle to post-contract management.
The chart already had a dozen lanes BEFORE offshoring was considered!
- Sales (Inside + Outside)
- Finance (controllers, AR, AP (for subs))
- Delivery (products + services + professional / integration services)
- Contracts (post-award administration)
- Third parties (sub-contractors)
Reducing the number of swimlanes to those that actually, materially drive value is an important part of Lean Services. The RACI model of communication takes out some of the organizations that just need to be Informed (i.e. Accounts Receivable) versus those Accountable parties who need to review/approve transactions (controllers). Applying RACI to the above mess dropped the number of swimlanes down to 8 in a single afternoon, we then started arguing over the organizational boundaries, and, as always, headcount.
Often, I find the reason for proliferating swimlanes is a merger or layoff in the distant past. Organizations define their boundaries based on what they are comfortable doing, and will fight to the death before allowing a "foreign" task box into their swimlane. Innocent seeming tasks can carry a lot of visibility, workload and risk.
I tend to start with a linear chart, showing the workflow from a simple chronological perspective. Once everyone agrees that, yes, this is actually the way business flows through the company, then the time is right to start placing markers on boxes or lines that denote when a handoff occurs.
If you de-pressurize this process, it encourages groups to look at the business from a flow perspective, rather than as a zero-sum headcount exercise. It doesn't hurt that, usually, I am finding ways to make the administrative work "go away" as part of the bargain!
- Stephen Sopko