Process bottlenecks are among the reasons why projects get delayed, budgets skyrocket due to the added cost of delays, and the entire process becomes unpredictable. Instead of fighting the symptoms, all you need is a simple bottleneck analysis and a set of preventative measures to save the day.
Bottlenecks are setbacks or obstacles that slow down or delay a process. In the same way that the physical bottleneck will limit how fast water can pass through it, process bottlenecks can restrict the flow of information, materials, products, and employee hours.
Bottlenecks are commonly associated with manufacturing and logistics, but they can occur in any process where networks of people and tasks depend on each other to keep work flowing.
In other words, even if this work stage is operating at full capacity, it still cannot process all the work items fast enough to move them to the next stages without causing a delay.
The workflow bottleneck can be a computer, a person, a department, or an entire work stage. Typical examples of bottlenecks in knowledge work are software testing and quality review processes. Unfortunately, a bottleneck is often recognized only after it has caused a blockage in the workflow.
There are two main types of bottlenecks:
- Short-term bottlenecks. These are caused by temporary problems. For example, a key team member gets sick or goes on vacation. No one else is qualified to run their projects, causing a backlog of work until they return.
- Long-term bottlenecks. These are crashes that occur regularly. For example, a company's reporting process at the end of each month is delayed because a specific person has to complete a series of time-consuming tasks first.
Both types of bottlenecks can lead to lost revenue, dissatisfied customers, poor quality products or services, and stress for team members, so identifying and fixing them is vital.
How can you identify bottlenecks?
Identifying bottlenecks in manufacturing is usually quite easy. For example, you can see when products are piling up on an assembly line. In business processes, however, it can be more difficult to detect.
There are certain signs to look out for to identify bottlenecks, including:
- Long waiting times. For example, your work is delayed because you are waiting for a report or more information. Or, materials are kept waiting between steps in a business or manufacturing process.
- Late time. There is too much backlog at one end of a process and not enough at the other end.
- High levels of stress. Not being able to continue with your part of a process, or knowing that it is holding others back. It can be frustrating and cause anxiety.
However, knowing that you have a bottleneck does not necessarily mean knowing where it is. You may not understand what is happening at each stage of the process or you may be the bottleneck yourself.
Therefore, start looking for routines and situations that cause you or your collaborators stress regularly. These situations may indicate a bottleneck.
Two tools are particularly helpful in identifying bottlenecks: flow charts and the 5 Whys technique.
Flowcharts are graphical representations of an algorithm or process. Drawing a flow diagram of the processes will help you identify where the base or origin of the bottleneck is located.
2. The 5 whys technique.
This is a deeper troubleshooting tool. Start by describing the problem you want to address. Then, working backward, ask yourself why a problem is occurring, and so on, keep asking the same questions until you get to the root cause of the problem.
How can you eliminate bottlenecks?
Sometimes, you can easily solve the bottleneck by assigning more resources or people to that stage or work process. That might mean hiring one more QA tester for the sake of a more streamlined production flow.
However, what if the bottleneck requires a particularly scarce resource or hard-to-find expertise? In some cases, the cost of the bottleneck solution may be too high.
Below, we have listed the basic actions you can take to unblock bottlenecks.
Increase the efficiency of the bottleneck passage.
An increase in efficiency in your particular situation will depend on the nature of the process and the resources available. But here are some ideas for you.
First of all, make sure that everything you put into the bottleneck is defect-free. In this way, you will avoid wasting time on material that will be discarded or having to repeat the step.
Assign your most skilled team members to the elimination of bottlenecks because their experience may make it easier for them to spot them and find a solution to get rid of them more quickly.
Look for ways to add capacity to the bottleneck so that the affected process can be improved. For example, if there are many tasks to distribute to a small number of employees and they do not finish them on time, it may be convenient to train more team members to complete the process or eliminate less relevant tasks.
Finally, it seeks to automate the process by implementing a technological tool for process automation.
Reduce the input in the bottleneck passage.
Reducing the input at the bottleneck passage is an appropriate response if a part of the process has the potential to produce more output than it ultimately needs.
Never let it inactive.
Due to the ripple effect on the rest of the flow, the bottleneck process should always be loaded to full capacity.
Reduce stress on the bottleneck.
Make sure work arrives in its best shape. If your review process is a bottleneck, check that quality is built in from the start. The work to be reviewed must be impeccable. Each error the reviewer finds will cost you more time and money.
Manage work limits.
If the WIP limits are fairly liberal at the bottleneck and there are a lot of context switches, consider lowering that limit. If you don't have a work limit, consider setting one.
Add more people and resources.
If you can, increase the capacity of the bottleneck to speed up the whole process. However, keep your eyes wide open. As soon as system resources are redistributed, another bottleneck is likely to appear elsewhere in the system.
In short, the key to a healthy and productive flow is the absolute minimum interruption of the process, that is, detecting bottlenecks in time and eliminating them without causing major consequences.
After all, in modern, ever-changing markets, whenever the relative balance in business processes is upset, you'll need to review your workflow to see if new bottlenecks have occurred and what needs to be done to reduce their effect.