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 assets, 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!
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 occur when input comes in faster than output can be created, and it 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:
- Short-term bottlenecks. These are caused by temporary problems. For example, a key team member becomes ill or goes on holiday. No one else is qualified to run their projects, which causes a backlog of work until they return.
- Long-term bottlenecks. These are the blockages that occur regularly. For example, a business 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 business processes can be trickier to spot.
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 used 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 the 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 prioritisation 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. In our example above, you might supply the wrong format or unbranded assets.
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.
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.
To explore process balancing and resolving bottlenecks in more detail, I recommend you read the book, The Goal.