Bottleneck Meaning – Understand the Causes and Solve Them

bottleneck meaning

Most project managers have experienced having to deal with a bottleneck and know the bottleneck meaning. Process bottlenecks are a common reason why projects run over time or over budget. They are often a sign that you need to improve communication, project plans, or operational efficiency. Sadly, bottlenecks are often acknowledged after they have caused problems and delays. 

However, it is possible to identify and neutralize bottlenecks before they become a problem. This article sets out to define what a bottleneck is, why they are important to detect and deal with, and offers some tips on how to do that. 

Looking for more project management tips? Check out the project management resources.

Bottleneck meaning

A bottleneck is any stage within a project that stalls and holds up subsequent tasks and dependencies. In project management, these have the effect of reducing the pace and capacity of the project or workflow.

Another way of thinking about the bottleneck meaning is as a work stage that gets more work requests than it can process at its maximum throughput capacity. The natural result of this is an interruption to the flow of work and delays across the production process.

A bottleneck can be a person, a department or team, a task, or a whole work stage. In the context of software development, testing and quality review are examples of typical bottlenecks. 

The potential negative impact of a bottleneck

Most project managers will be very familiar with the negative impacts of a bottleneck, but it is worth listing them here:

  • They can increase your workload backlog
  • They can decrease your efficiency
  • They can reduce team morale
  • They can lead to dissatisfied clients and lost revenue

How to identify and detect a bottleneck

There are two types of bottlenecks to watch out for:

  1. Systems-based bottlenecks. These are caused by old or obsolete systems, software, apps, and infrastructure. 
  2. Performer-based bottlenecks. These are caused by the limited performance of individuals or teams within a project. A common example of this is a bottleneck caused by too many demands on a team or team member, which impedes their performance. 

Systems-based bottlenecks will often show up when you carefully review your project logs. Performer-based bottlenecks are often a sign that your team is stretched too thin. 

Identifying the bottleneck meaning actually begins with mapping your processes and analyzing your progress and performance. From there, it’s useful to use visual bottleneck analysis tools like Gantt charts and Kanban boards to help your detect where work requests pile up. 

Once you’ve done this, you can drill deeper to identify the possible causes of the bottlenecks you find.  

A project manager can use a Kanban board to help identify bottlenecks in the following ways:

  • Visualize. Tracking work on task cards on a Kanban board makes it easier to see where work items pile up, which usually indicates the existence of a bottleneck. Here’s how that looks in Teamhood.
hr kanban board example
  • Map Queues and Activities. Separating queues and activities and mapping them on a Kanban board shows how much time work sits waiting in a queue prior to a given activity. If the queue grows faster than the activity processes, that is a sign of a bottleneck. 
  • Measure Cycle Time per Stage. Measuring your cycle time at every stage lets you build a cycle time heat map diagram. This diagram will show you the stages where tasks/cards spend the most time. If these workflow stages are queues, too, those are probably your bottlenecks. 
bottleneck meaning

How to deal with and neutralize a bottleneck

Once you have identified your bottleneck, you next need to diagnose the cause of that bottleneck. It is helpful to do this interactively with your team members. Getting input from the people working on the project will help you understand the real reasons for the bottlenecks and whether they are systems-based or performer-based bottlenecks. 

After identifying the bottlenecks and their causes, you can develop solutions. Here are some of the most common bottleneck causes and associated solutions: 

  • WIP limits. If your work-in-progress limits are quite liberal in the bottleneck and there is a lot of context switching, consider lowering the WIP limit. If you don’t have a WIP limit, consider setting one.
wip limits
  • Process work in batches. Some operations will take less time if you organize similar work items in batches. However, it’s usually best to keep those batches small. 
  • Add people and resources. Bottlenecks can often be neutralized by adding more people or resources to deal with them. Just bear in mind that once you have dealt with a particular bottleneck you will need to redistribute your resources quickly, otherwise, you risk creating another bottleneck. 

Once you have developed an appropriate solution, implement that into your project workflow. Keep an eye on any knock-on roadblocks or redundancies created when you implement these changes. You should also monitor and evaluate your project flow. Conduct a follow-on bottleneck analysis to gather more data to improve your project planning and team effectiveness. 

For more on how using Kanban can help improve your workflow, check out our expanding library of Kanban content: Kanban resources.

Alternatively, why not try a no-obligation free version of Teamhood to see how Kanban can help improve your project management workflows. Set up in minutes, with no credit card details needed and no strings attached – 

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2020 - Present Marketing specialist at Teamhood.
2014 - 2020 Marketing manager for Eylean.

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