How to Document Your Solar Processes with Swimlane Diagrams

In every business is a web of processes that help the whole to function. Each department, individual, and decision plays a role in the success of the business. In the solar industry, there are thousands of processes, from general correspondence and paper filing, to the sale and installation of your solar product. These processes mostly operate in the background of your business, and many, if undocumented, function unaccounted for. Insight into individual steps begins to lack, and room for inconsistencies are created. When something goes wrong (or something goes right) it can be hard to identify how it happened. How do you fix or strengthen one part of your process without clear documentation and understanding of each process and its expectations?

These are common issues for all trades, the solar industry included. In solar, like so many other industries, process improvement methodologies can help mitigate the risks associated with undocumented processes. A key tool used across all of these methodologies is process mapping, and more specifically, process mapping with swimlane diagrams.

What is Process Mapping?

A process map being drawn on a whiteboard.

A process map being drawn on a whiteboard.

Process mapping is the creation of a visual representation of the important processes within your business. The philosophy behind it is: you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and you can’t measure what you can’t map. Through the use of process maps you can begin to locate the efficiencies (and inefficiencies) of your business and clearly map your expectations of each process in the first place. The process mapping tool creates an intuitive and revealing visualization of your business by highlighting its processes and eliminating room for error and reoccurrence of issues caused by word-of-mouth fixes. Having a good understanding of what processes lay where, and maybe even more importantly are to be handled by whom, you can identify these issues with ease.

The most simple form of a business process map is a flow chart. When you make the decision to start process mapping, you will be creating an easy to understand visual and descriptive image of the flow of work within your business. You will identify and map each part of the business’ processes, who is involved, what they do, and how they do it. Once you can visualize the system as a sum of many various parts that make up a whole, you can make continual and lasting improvements, increase functionality, service, and even the overall quality of your business one step at a time. This type of true workflow understanding is an important part of your business development and it can help manage the decisions, actions, and tasks performed in various stages that push your business from A to B. It can also help streamline workflow, identify hold ups during each part of the process, and outline dependencies.

What are Swimlane Diagrams?

An simple example of a swimlane diagram for a solar process.

While there are many different types of process maps and organizational charts that you can use to shape your workflow, Swimlane diagrams are a very effective way to add additional functionality to your charts. Swimlane diagrams offer a pictorial outline of how your processes cross functions, and clearly show you who is involved in each of your business processes steps (as well as who isn’t, but maybe should be). Vertical or horizontal columns are added to your diagram to represent a certain role, team, or department. They clearly illustrate what roles are responsible for tasks, allowing you to eliminate wasteful inefficiencies. As a task is passed from one lane to another, it is represented on the diagram. As with traditional process maps, each decision can be broken down into two possible outcomes and placed in the columns appropriately. Visualized this way, a swimlane diagram adds valuable information to highlight duplicative or missing steps so that you can take action.

This format brings clarity to the ambiguous connections of each of your business’ processes and how each step moves from one role of division on to the next. At Sustainabilist, we’ve often heard the feedback that swimlane diagrams allow our clients to discover what other business units are doing in their day-to-day for the first time.

The Benefits of Using Swimlane Diagrams

Once you map your solar installation process in a swimlane diagram, expectations of your processes become clear and your business will begin to function more efficiently. There are myriad benefits to using these mapping techniques and incorporating swimlanes.

1. pinpoint accountability

Your business will function more efficiently as you become better able to distribute work evenly and to the right people, highlighting the skills of each team member and putting them in a position to truly add value to their respective role. It becomes visually obvious what is expected from whom, allowing you to ensure that problems and paperwork won’t pile up on the wrong desk or on a manager’s desk as they would in a typical top-down hierarchy.

2. IdentifY Valuable and wasteful steps

As with all process maps, by utilizing a visual depiction of your processes, you can locate the exact point of where you might have gone wrong.

  • Which team needs more direction or training?

  • Which teams should work together on this issue - X, Y, or Z?

  • Where can we improve?

  • What processes are really benefiting this company?

Asking these questions puts you in a better position to locate which processes add value and which do not. The processes that notably add value to your business can benefit from your full attention and should be given utmost importance while the ones that are no longer viewed as adding value can eventually be removed from the system altogether. In other parts of your diagram, you may discover concepts that add too much risk, such as safety issues or a recurring customer complaint. These issues should be handled immediately and worked out of your processes to ensure risk reduction.

3. Prioritize, streamline, and save money

Swimlane diagrams can help you make decisions on eliminating costs. If something in the system isn’t working quite right and fixing that issue is more cost-effective than fixing another, you can simply choose which is more important for you to deal with financially and prioritize that issue. For example, by incorporating and collecting standardized feedback to the manufacturers and encouraging them to make to positive changes on their side, can put you in a better position to have more successful installs and a decrease in the number of overall lifetime fixes. As an added benefit to the manufacturer, this can help minimize their warranty costs. (For more related examples on manufacturing improvements, check out our blog “Top 5 Ways Manufacturing Science Can Improve Solar Installations”)

4. Incorporate new changes easily

When changes inevitably happen throughout the company, such a new position, or you want to instill new safety training protocols, swimlane diagrams can model those changes and easily figure out best how to rework them into the overall system. By visualizing how roles and teams are interrelated and interdependent, swimlane diagrams communicate what is expected by whom better than almost any other tool.

Where to Start Process Improvement

If you are interested in making these types of improvements within your business, Swimlane diagrams are a great place to start. Accurately documenting and mapping your processes is an invaluable step in finding waste and risk so that you can begin process improvement. To discover more tools to improve your processes, improving quality and reducing costs and risks, we’d love to help. Contact us to schedule an assessment.

Picture of the author of this article. She is smiling at the camera in a green shirt.

Dianna Matyola
Contributing Writer

Dianna Matyola is an environmental scientist and a freelance writer in the greater Sacramento area with a demonstrated history of working on environmental remediation and compliance projects, as well as business consulting. She holds a B.S. in Environmental Science from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.