Project Management

An Easy Approach to Managing Bottlenecks

Mindaugas Gluchovskis ·

2019 - Present Marketing specialist Innovative content marketeer with MSc in International Communication, Mindaugas brings fresh ideas and inspiration about project management and beyond.

managing bottlenecks

In operations and project management, the term “bottleneck” could be considered the quiet champion of efforts to enhance efficiency. Bottlenecks are not just roadblocks; they’re opportunities for transformation. Too bad bottlenecks tend to be recognized only once they’ve already led to issues and delays.

Much like the neck of a bottle, where the opening is at its narrowest point, bottlenecks symbolize those critical junctures within your workflow where tasks or processes are constrained. While they often go unnoticed or unappreciated, managing bottlenecks can lead to remarkable improvements in efficiency and output.

Today, we’ll uncover how these challenges can be transformed into triumphs within our processes. Join me on a journey to master operational excellence.

What is a bottleneck in business?

A bottleneck refers to an obstruction that hinders or restricts the flow of workflow processes, thereby constraining production capacity within a business.

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.

kanban board

It’s that specific point where things slow down or get stuck. It’s kind of like a traffic jam during rush hour.

According to experts, 58.33% of bottlenecks result from inefficiencies in the bottleneck step, while 41.67% are attributed to the increased input in the bottlenecked step.

Let’s see what this looks like in a practical example.

A manufacturing plant where a particular machine has a lower processing capacity compared to the machines before and after it in the production line. As a result, this machine becomes overwhelmed with work, causing a backlog of items waiting to be processed, slowing down the entire production process, and potentially delaying the delivery of finished products to customers.

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Source of bottlenecks

The nature of a business bottleneck is determined by its root cause, which can typically be categorized into three primary sources:

  • Production Line Issues: Production line issues encompass disruptions in the manufacturing process, such as equipment failures or inefficiencies, that hinder the timely and cost-effective production of goods. Process bottlenecks are a common reason why projects run over time or budget.
  • Supply Chain Challenges: Supply chain challenges involve obstacles in the procurement, production, and distribution of products, often triggered by external factors like natural disasters or geopolitical events, leading to delays, increased costs, and potential customer dissatisfaction.
  • Human Factors: Human factors encompass the impact of human behavior, skills, and decisions on various aspects of business operations, influencing productivity, safety, and overall organizational effectiveness.

Why managing bottlenecks is essential for your business?

In Operations Management, the theory of constraints, as introduced by Eliyahu M. Goldratt in “The Goal,” teaches us that improving process flow means finding and improving the bottleneck, which is the critical factor limiting a system’s output.

What makes bottlenecks interesting is that they’re not just problems; they’re unique challenges that tell us where things need to improve. Think of it as a flashing sign saying:

Hey, focus here!

It shows us where we need more resources, where we can work smarter, and where we can make things run more smoothly.

Proactively identifying and rectifying bottlenecks will avoid potential operational and financial pitfalls where issues don’t spiral out of control. This, in turn, frees up your time and resources, allowing you to concentrate on business growth and process enhancements. 

Reducing costly errors through proactive bottleneck management will enhance your bottom line. 

Some other benefits of identifying bottlenecks include

  • Enhanced productivity, efficiency, and overall throughput.
  • Enhanced comprehension of the workflow.
  • Identified potential obstacles that may impede a company’s expansion.
  • Boost of time dedicated to productive tasks.
  • Stronger relationships with stakeholders.
  • Diminishing workplace stress levels.
  • Cut down on unnecessary accrued expenses.

Types of bottlenecks

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 a process bottleneck cause in 6 steps

To tackle any significant issue effectively, it’s crucial to break it down into measurable actions. Here, we introduce a straightforward six-step process to help you achieve that.

  • Process Map: Create a visual representation of the workflow with a process map. Use visual bottleneck analysis tools like Gantt charts and Kanban boards to help you detect where work requests pile up. 
  • Data Collection: Collect data on workload and cycle times for analysis to examine how resources are distributed.
bottleneck meaning
  • Observation: Watch the process closely for any signs of slowdowns. Use specific metrics to measure how well the process is performing. Task cards on a Kanban board can be handy in this step to help you identify potential task clutters.
  • Root Cause Analysis: Dig deep to find the underlying reasons for bottlenecks. Read the chapter “Methodologies that help deal with Bottleneck Scenarios” for insights into successfully leveraging effective strategies to complete this step.
  • Solution Prioritization: Prioritize and put into action effective solutions. Remember that not all issues are equally important; some may significantly impact your workflow more than others.
  • Continuous Monitoring: Keep a constant eye on the process and make improvements as necessary for ongoing optimization.

Identifying a process bottleneck

Bottlenecks are a universal challenge across industries, and to shed light on how to address them effectively, let’s take a closer look at how the content creation process appears on a Kanban board, highlighting strategies for managing these bottlenecks.

Case: You’ve noticed delays in content publishing while some team members exhibit signs of stress and overwork. 

These telltale signs indicate bottlenecks within your content creation process, highlighting areas that require attention and optimization.

Kanban Board: Content Creation Process on Teamhood
Kanban Board: Content Creation Process

As a result, tasks start to pile up in the “Review and edit” stage. This is where the bottleneck may occur because it’s taking longer to review and edit posts than it is to complete the other tasks. The Kanban board helps visually identify this backlog, which signals a potential bottleneck in the content creation process.

If any tasks are in queues much longer than they get completed, it’s an obvious bottleneck. Any delays in task completion can be a potential bottleneck. As you dive into the mapping process, consider utilizing specialized tools like Teamhood, with their robust support for Kanban boards, process documentation, and value stream mapping.

To mitigate potential bottlenecks caused by task delays, Teamhood offers efficient time-tracking capabilities in your workflow. You can either launch a real-time tracker or conveniently log time entries. This invaluable data serves as a benchmark to measure your team’s performance and pinpoint areas for improvement, ensuring a more efficient and productive workflow.

Each of the following methodologies offers a structured approach to identify and address bottlenecks in various scenarios.

Methodologies that help to deal with Bottleneck Scenarios

Value Stream Mapping is a visual tool in process improvement that maps the flow of materials and information within an organization. Mapping uncovers inefficiencies, delays, and waste, making bottlenecks evident and providing a blueprint for process optimization.

In contrast, the 5 Whys technique, a simple yet effective problem-solving approach, repeatedly asks “Why?” to delve deep into the root causes of bottlenecks. 

The Fishbone Diagram, also known as the Ishikawa or Cause-and-Effect Diagram, categorizes potential causes into branches, facilitating systematic problem analysis to pinpoint areas for improvement. 

Flowcharts, on the other hand, visually represent processes, revealing bottlenecks as delays or congestion points in process sequences and aiding in planning optimized workflows.

A quick overview of each is in the following table:

MethodologyOverviewApplication
Value Stream MappingVisual analysis of material and information flow in a processIdentify inefficiencies, delays, and waste in processes to redesign and optimize them.
5 WhysRepeatedly asking “Why?” to uncover root causesDelve deep into the causes of bottlenecks, revealing underlying issues for targeted solutions.
Fishbone DiagramCategorizes potential causes into branchesSystematically identify and categorize factors contributing to bottlenecks for focused action.
FlowchartsVisual representation of process steps and decision pointsAnalyze process sequences to identify bottlenecks and plan improvements for smoother flow.

Next steps in dealing with bottlenecks

One thing is sure: neglecting a bottleneck will inevitably result in higher costs than promptly addressing it. 

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. 

Here is what you should do to manage bottlenecks successfully:

  • Add more people: This strategy involves increasing the number of individuals or resources dedicated to a particular task or process. Adding more people or resources can be a quick fix, but it may not always be the most efficient or sustainable solution.
  • Process Work in Batches: Processing work in batches involves grouping similar tasks or items and working on them collectively rather than individually. However, make sure to strive for balance. While batch processing can enhance efficiency, it may lead to increased inventory or longer lead times if not managed carefully.
  • Manage Work in Progress (WIP) Limits: Managing WIP limits involves setting a maximum threshold for the number of tasks or items simultaneously in progress within a process or system. This strategy is closely associated with lean and agile methodologies. 
wip limits

For instance, in Kanban systems, WIP limits help maintain a smooth and steady flow of work items through various stages of production or development.

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. 

Managing Bottlenecks With Kanban

In line with the Lean management principle of continuous improvement, it’s crucial to view bottleneck analysis as ongoing. As mentioned earlier, kanban tools can come in particularly handy when finding the bottlenecks. 

Numerous providers offer Kanban boards in the market, but Teamhood stands out by providing extra features that enable you to establish Kanban WIP limits for both swimlanes and statuses.

To delve deeper into how Kanban can enhance your workflow, explore our growing collection of resources dedicated to Kanban: Kanban resources.

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Frequently asked questions

  • What are the 4 principles of bottleneck management?

    Identifying the bottleneck: Pinpoint the stage or resource in your process that limits overall output.

    Exploiting the bottleneck: Maximize the utilization of the bottleneck resource to increase production.

    Subordinating all other processes: Align non-bottleneck processes with the pace of the bottleneck to prevent overproduction.

    Elevating the bottleneck: Invest in improving the bottleneck’s capacity to enhance overall system performance.

  • How do you identify bottlenecks in production processes?

    To identify bottlenecks in production, analyze where work accumulates or where process delays occur. Bottlenecks are typically found in stages with the slowest cycle times or highest workloads.

  • What are the strategies for managing bottlenecks in service processes?

    In service processes, managing bottlenecks involves prioritizing tasks, allocating resources efficiently, and ensuring that customer demands align with the capacity of service providers to prevent delays and maintain service quality.

  • How can you effectively manage bottlenecks in manufacturing processes?

    In manufacturing, addressing bottlenecks requires optimizing production lines, enhancing resource utilization, and ensuring that no single process stage significantly lags behind others, improving overall production efficiency.

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