When the things we rely on most heavily, such as machines, systems, or processes, work most effectively, our businesses and organizations are more likely to flourish. Still, there will be times that something gets in the way, causing these aspects of our work to slow down or even stop.
Most often, this stoppage is the result of a bottleneck. A bottleneck happens when something (like a system or machine) has more demand than its capacity allows, meaning it cannot take on any additional work. Production, manufacturing, or even communication processes can all be negatively impacted by a bottleneck. We also see this happen when managers or supervisors position themselves as the approval point for more processes than they can handle, slowing every process down the line.
Unfortunately, bottlenecks often go unnoticed until the blockage in workflow causes harm to the output. While they can be difficult to identify before the slowdown, there are steps you can take to identify and address them before they cause too much damage to customer or output expectations.
How to Identify a Bottleneck
- Create a flowchart. This chart should include every step, no matter how small or large, it takes to complete the process you are assessing.
- Assess average time for each process step. Collect the data necessary to calculate the average time each step of the process currently takes. Here, you’re assessing the current state of each stage in the process.
- Represent the data visually. Pie and bar charts are both excellent tools for data visualization. These visuals will help determine what aspect of the process is causing the bottleneck.
Assume we have an ordering process that includes the following steps:
- Order placement
- Ticket creation
- Order filling
After speaking with your team, you come up with the average time for each of the steps and represent these times in a bar chart as follows:
How to Address a Bottleneck
- Identify the target time range (or value) for each step in the process. If the target range or value is significantly lower than the current range or value, you know you’ve found your bottleneck.
- Determine the bottleneck’s root cause. Consider using Lean strategies such as the 5 Whys to identify what might be causing the slow down at this step. (be sure to see our next post on 5 whys!)
- Assess ways to address the bottleneck. This might include putting together a team to test a variety of solutions.
- Measure progress. Continue to reassess the average time for each process step to ensure continuous improvement over time.
From our example, it’s easy to see that the order filling time is the potential source of our bottleneck. Here, we will set a target time range of 12-17 minutes, with an ideal target of 15 minutes. Every minute beyond the target range causes a slowdown, resulting in delays for the customer. After some analysis, we might determine that the slow down was caused by a disorganized filing system, which causes the folks in the warehouse to search out items that aren’t in their assigned locations. A team of employees from across all five steps agrees that an automated filing system for all packages is the right solution. Over the next few weeks, the team continues to assess the average time for each step and notices a decrease in order filling by fifty percent, the target time for this process step.
Moran, John W. Process Bottleneck Analysis, Public Health Foundation, Mar. 2017, www.phf.org/resourcestools/Pages/Process_Bottleneck_Analysis.aspx.
“5 Insightful Bottleneck Analysis Examples.” MOSIMTEC, 21 June 2019, mosimtec.com/5-insightful-bottleneck-analysis-examples/.