Swim Lanes

CM2016_11_swim“Have you designed your swim lanes yet?’ isn’t a good question to ask someone whose only form of exercise is swimming. My immediate thought was of a pool, with the rows of floating lane markers.

It turns out, as those of you who have trained or worked in business process design will know, that a “swim lane” in business terms refers to groups of activities in an process that belong together or are completed by the same department. It can help clarify the responsibilities within a process by presenting them visually.  When you’re trying to set up multiple and complex processes that involve a number of participants it makes sense.

It’s a helpful metaphor since swim lanes keep swimmers apart and moving in the same direction, but don’t extend the metaphor too far – swimmers in swim lanes are generally trying to beat the other swimmers to the end of the pool. In a business process there isn’t much to “win” by being the first to finish your steps in the process.

So if you’re working business process diagrams use the term, it has a technical meaning that makes sense. Avoid using it as a synonym for a department, role, or stakeholder group.

It lost out in the first round of the Forbes Annoying Business Jargon Matchup in 2012, where the eventual winner was “drinking the Kool-aid”, so apparently this term is more useful and perhaps less abused than most jargon.

Image: Swim via pixabay

Lessons from Science – Metabolic Pathways

As part of a course on system management and process design we had to read the book “The Goal” by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt. I found it easy; not just because Goldratt does a terrific job of explaining the concepts, and not just because it’s presented as a novel.  The concepts are familiar, they map to similar concepts in metabolic pathways.

Metabolic pathways are a series of chemical reactions that occur within a cell, examples include photosynthesis, glycolysis (the breakdown of glucose to release energy) or the Citric Acid Cycle (the energy producing pathway used by all aerobic cells, shown above).

Essentially a set of processes in a certain order convert a set of chemicals or metabolites into something else, with either a release or absorbtion of energy. It’s a lot like a business or manufacturing process, except that it’s generally energy absorbed.

Bottle Necks

In talking about process design the concept of a bottle neck came up, this refers to any step in a process that takes a long time, and slows the whole overall process. If you’re looking at improving a process this is a good place to start. Sometimes adding more equipment or resources can remove the bottleneck, sometimes a better solution is to move the bottle neck in the process. Many years ago I was overseeing the assessing of residence applications and it turned out that doing the qualification checks first (the bottleneck) made the overall process faster since we could begin working on whichever case had cleared that step.

In biochemical terms this is usually called a “rate limiting step”, and exactly the same thing happens, the total time of the whole process is dictated by the rate limiting step. Adding more metabolites (resources) or increasing the concentration of the enzyme can increase the overall rate, but these are not easy steps for an organism to take.


The rate of chemical reactions can be altered by adding catalysts, or in biochemical reactions enzymes.

In project terms this could be the endorsement by upper management, which suddenly removes a number of obstacles and releases resources in support of the project.

I don’t want to stretch an analogy too far, but a concept developed to understand one area can easily be applied to another. It certainly made the process design concepts easier for me to learn – although I did get some flashbacks of memorising the complex pathways that keep organisms working. Far more complex than any business process I’ve encountered so far.

images; chemistry

Citric acid diagram found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Citric_acid_cycle_with_aconitate_2.svg / CC BY-SA 3.0


I went to a new cafe for lunch with my team this week. I can’t go there again.

The people were friendly and helpful, the premises are newly fitted out and rather designed looking. The food was good. But the organisation was so terrible I can’t go back. An example; the server took my order which was a takeaway order. Then took the orders of five other people. Then cleared some tables. Then sorted out drinks for another table. Then asked me to pay. I had been standing there with my wallet in my hand the whole time.

My guess is that this newly-opened cafe was started by a couple of people who like to cook, but have never run a cafe with high demand before.

There’s a cafe around the corner which serves hot food within about 3 minutes of reaching the counter. They’ve made the process as simple as they can; there’s a limited (but changing) selection, you pick up your own cutlery, the price is fixed. The result is speed – important to their clients who are on a short break from the office. It also means they serve more clients in the short lunch “rush”. That’s got to be better for business.

It got me thinking; how often do companies (or projects) start with the “beautiful picture” of what their business could be and ignore the reality? How is it that we can ignore what is really obvious to our customers?

Maybe it’s because we don’t ask – for example the data behind the “Perception Gap” infographic shows; 76% of social marketers feel they know what their customers want – although only 34% of them have asked customers what they want. So my restaurant problem scales up. Frightening.





image lunch

Usability in Action; Banks

Years ago, more than 10 years ago, I withdrew my rent money from an ATM, as my automatic payments hadn’t been set up. I got the receipt but not the money. Obviously I was a bit concerned, but the bank happened to be open so I went in to try to solve this. The teller told me that it was a Good Thing I’d kept the receipt because it helped them track my transaction, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything until they reconciled the machine’s balance at the end of the day.

Well eventually it was resolved and since then I’ve always chosen the “with receipt” option when withdrawing money.

The process of cash withdrawal at ABN Amro

That’s probably more than a thousand receipts. Think of all that paper. And the only reason I’m doing it is just in case the machine doesn’t give me my money. (Never had a problem since but I’m still cautious).

Well ABN Amro’s machines here in the Netherlands have made a very simple change to the process of withdrawing money. They now ask you whether you want a receipt AFTER you’ve taken the money. Now I choose no. No more receipts. I bet others do the same.

It’s one of those blindingly simple changes to a process that helps the customer, saves money and saves the environment.

I think we should all look at design, including process design from the user’s perspective. We should ask ourselves not just what we want the user to do, but what does the user want out of each step. In this example someone at ABN Amro has worked out that a lot of people get the receipts “just in case” the machine gives them the wrong money. So they’ve moved that step to after the cash step.

We need to take time to re-examine a lot of processes, I bet there are more smart ways to improve design of machines, objects, websites and processes.

image ATM