Unblocking Bottlenecks

Fixing Unbalanced Processes

Imagine that you're a graphic designer for a marketing firm. You've just completed the designs for a major advertising campaign, and you're excited to launch them to the world.

You need the development team to turn your designs into campaign emails, landing page and other marketing collateral, but it's struggling with a backlog of other tasks.

Your project judders to a halt and the campaign falls behind schedule. You've encountered a bottleneck!

Get your bottlenecks flowing freely!

In this article, we look at how to identify common bottlenecks, and we explore strategies for preventing and overcoming them.

What Is a Bottleneck?

Bottlenecks are setbacks or obstacles that slow or delay a process. In the same way that the neck of a physical bottle will limit how quickly 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 rely upon one another to keep the work flowing.

There are two main types of bottlenecks:

  1. Short-term bottlenecks. These are caused by temporary problems. For example, a key team member becomes ill or goes on vacation. No one else is qualified to run their projects, which causes a backlog of work until they return.
  2. Long-term bottlenecks. These are the blockages that occur regularly. For example, a company's month-end reporting process is delayed every month, because a specific person has to complete a series of time-consuming tasks first.

Both types of bottleneck 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 to Identify Bottlenecks

Identifying bottlenecks in manufacturing is usually pretty easy. For example, you can clearly see when products pile up on an assembly line. In business processes, however, they can be harder to spot.

Tip:

Eliminating bottlenecks is a key part of "lean" processes. For more information, read our article, Lean Manufacturing, and our Book Insight, /community/BookInsights/TheLeanTurnaround.phpThe Lean Turnaround.

Signs that you may have a bottleneck include:

  • Long wait times. For example, your work is delayed because you're waiting for a product, a report or more information. Or, materials spend time waiting between the steps of a business or manufacturing process.
  • Backlogged work. There's too much work piled up at one end of a process, and not enough at the other end.
  • High stress levels. Being unable to get on with your part of a process, or knowing that you may be holding up others, can be frustrating and cause anxiety.

Knowing that you've got a bottleneck, however, doesn't necessarily mean that you'll know where it is. You may not be aware of what goes on at each stage of a process, or you might be the bottleneck yourself!

So start by looking for routines and situations that regularly cause you or a co-worker stress. These can indicate a bottleneck.

Two tools are particularly useful for identifying bottlenecks:

1. Flow Charts

Flow charts present each step within a process in an easy-to-follow diagram. Mapping out a process like this makes it much easier to locate where things are getting complicated and a bottleneck is forming.

For the graphic design example we mentioned, above, the steps that you'd include in a flow chart might be:

  • Step 1 – Design team receives brief for advert from the marketing department.
  • Step 2 – Design team develops advertising material.
  • Step 3 – Design team passes material to development team.
  • Step 4 – Development team does coding to prepare advert for publication online.
  • Step 5 – Development team hands final version of advert to the marketing team.
  • Step 6 – Marketing team publishes advert.

In this simplified scenario, the delay occurred in Step 4, because the development team didn't have the capacity to complete its tasks.

2. The 5 Whys Technique

The 5 Whys technique is a more in-depth problem-solving tool. You start by describing the problem that you want to address. Then, working backward, you ask yourself why this problem is occurring. Keep asking "Why?" at each step, until you reach the root cause.

Let's consider our design example again.

Problem: the marketing campaign was delayed.

Why? The development team didn't complete the coding on time.

Why? The developers already had a full workload.

Why? There was an increase in the number of projects they had to deal with.

Why? It's a common occurrence at this time of year.

Why? There is no planning or prioritization for seasonal variations.

The final answer identifies the root cause, and provides a starting point for resolving the issue: in this case, better seasonal planning is needed.

How to Unblock Bottlenecks

There are two basic options for unblocking bottlenecks:

1. Increase the Efficiency of the Bottleneck Step

How you increase efficiency in your particular situation will depend on the nature of the process and the available resources, but here are some ideas:

Firstly, ensure that whatever you feed into the bottleneck is defect-free. This avoids wasting time on material that will be discarded, or on having to repeat the step.

Assign your most skilled team members to the bottleneck. They'll likely be the most productive, too.

Or find ways to add capacity in the bottleneck. As the saying goes, many hands make light work! (Hiring extra developers for the season might be the best option in our scenario, if budgets allow.)

Finally, automate the step, where possible, to increase the speed of work.

For more information on how to increase the efficiency of processes, see our articles on Kaizen and the Theory of Constraints.

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2. Decrease Input Into the Bottleneck Step

Decreasing input is an appropriate response if one part of a process has the potential to produce more output than you ultimately need.

In our example, the designers might be creating more adverts than they actually need, but they pass them all on to the development team, just in case. Clearly, this would put unnecessary strain on the developers.

An alternative way to decrease input may be to reallocate tasks to where there is more capacity.

For example, the designers or marketing team could cross train to complete some of the work that the developers would usually do. This would decrease input into the developers' workflow, and avoid the bottleneck at this stage.

Tip 1:

To explore process balancing and resolving bottlenecks in more detail, read our Book Insights, /community/BookInsights/TheGoal.phpThe Goal, a classic business text by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox, and /community/BookInsights/HowtoSucceedWithContinuousImprovement.phpHow to Succeed With Continuous Improvement, by Joakim Ahlström.

Tip 2:

When you conduct your investigation into why a bottleneck is occurring, it could come as an unpleasant surprise to find that you are the cause!

To avoid that likelihood, look at the way that you work and ensure that you are avoiding micromanagement, delegating effectively and demonstrating personal accountability.

Key Points

Bottlenecks can cause major problems for individuals and organizations, so identifying and fixing them is critical.

Typical signs include backlogged work, long waiting times and stress relating to a task or process.

To identify the cause, use a Flow Chart or the 5 Whys technique. Then unblock your bottlenecks by increasing efficiency or decreasing input.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (2)
  • Over a month ago fxgg090 wrote
    And that is if the bottle is open, many organizations are never open to suggestions, there is zero, none input, or if there is the bottle remains closed at the top of the organization.

    Or some organizations where the leader knows when to close the bottle and when to open it, to his or her own convenience, stopping many processes or important feedback.

    If the bottle is open yes, the flow of information or inputs can really be very fast, or the amount is so big it can´t enter the neck of the bottle, or the bottle is so big, people think the amount of input is so small, but that depends on the perception and size of both the input and the bottle.

    I really liked this topic...

    Francisco González
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Hmmmm.... you see....that is exactly why we need Mind Tools. I have some serious 'bottle-necking' going on right under my nose on my own desk.... Asking "why why and why" (as per the article) will really help me sort it out. It may also mean eating ANOTHER dung beetle or two...
    But thanks...good reminder of what needs to happen. (Also reminded me of the book "The Goal").
    Regards
    Yolandé