Problem Solving Tools – Tree, Swim Lane and Systems Diagrams


One of the best ways of analyzing a problem is by using a diagram and visually mapping it out. Diagrams allow you to move from the broad ideas to the finer details of a problem, see how organizational parts interact with each other and how complex systems operate.

Three problem solving diagrams you can use are the Tree Diagram, Swim Lane Diagram and Systems Diagram. Each diagram has its own strengths, depending on the problem or issue you want to study.

Tree Diagrams

Tree diagrams are usually associated with math and calculating probabilities or chart a series of events. However, they can be useful in the workplace in analyzing options, solving problems and brainstorming ideas.

What is a tree diagram?

A tree diagram is a visual depiction of relationships that start from a central “trunk” – the problem you want to solve. Each possible solution is a “branch;” additional steps or decisions are “second layer branches.” The tree diagram breaks down a problem into finer and finer levels of detail, simplifying complex issues and making it easier to get an overview of your options.

Here is a sample tree diagram:

sample tree diagram
Sample Tree Diagram; Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tree diagrams can help you:

  • Find the root cause of a problem
  • Outline the steps needed to solve a problem or implement a plan
  • Identify the true scope of a project
  • Explain steps or details to others
  • Brainstorm possible outcomes

Find out more information about tree diagrams.

Swim Lane Diagrams

Swim lane diagrams are helpful for streamlining operations and flatten organizational structure. If your organization has multiple departments or teams that work together on projects, you may find some inefficiency, gaps or duplication of efforts. The swim lane diagram can help identify these problem areas and find where you can improve.

How does a swim lane diagram work?

First, answer these questions:

  • What is the process you want to analyze?
  • Who is involved in the process?
  • What is the end result?

Next, create the diagram. Here is a sample swim lane diagram:

swim lane diagram of a sales transaction
Swim Lane Diagram; Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Now, analyze the diagram for areas of improvement. Ask yourself:

  • Are any steps missing?
  • Is there any duplication?
  • Are there steps that add no value?

Find out more about swim lane diagrams.

Systems Diagrams

Systems diagrams allow you to map out how complex systems work. They help you think through the way in which factors within a system interact and feed back upon themselves.

Systems Diagrams can answer:

  • Are any facotrs related and how does their change affect each other?
  • How do the factors may feed back on each other?
  • Do any external factors impact the system?
  • How do gaps and delays affect the system?
  • What are the complexities of the system?

Here is a sample systems diagram:

sample systems diagram
Sample Systems Diagram; Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Find out more information about systems diagrams.


  • Think of a problem your work unit is experiencing. Which of these diagrams would help you find the best solution?


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