What is a Process Bottleneck?
A process bottleneck is any stage that cannot meet the desired outcome or proceed to the next stage even when working at maximum capacity. A process bottleneck stops progressing to the subsequent steps in the process by reducing the pace of the project, causing interruption of workflow or delays.
It is not easy to define a bottleneck, as it can occur at any stage of the process where despite working at maximum capacity, the process is unable to move to the next step. Although some reasons for the hold-up could be quickly resolved, bottlenecks are usually identified after the blockage has done its share of significant damage.
Understanding Process Bottlenecks
Let’s start with a bottleneck example.
The communication gap has caused a bottleneck in the recruitment process. Say an HR executive is finalizing candidates for recruitment to the finance team. If the finance department is not approving candidates or giving their confirmation, the entire process comes to a standstill.
Or, if the HR executive approves leave travel allowance for employees, the documents should be routed via the departmental heads. This back and forth of documentation and approvals can inadvertently cause bottlenecks in the process.
Bottlenecks can be because of many reasons – communication failure, approval delays, inventory and transportation bottlenecks, resource allocation failure, and technology constraints. All these are related to operations management bottlenecks. If the senior management delays in giving approvals or the materials are not allocated to the production team on time, a vast process clog is bound to happen.
One solution for this could be automating your process using automation software to streamline communication, bring all teams in the loop and encourage information sharing.
There are two types of bottlenecks:
As the name suggests, you can quickly rectify these short-term bottlenecks as they are temporary problems with the process. For example, an employee’s sudden leave of absence or a delay in shipping raw materials by a day. These are not regular occurrences and could be caused by unforeseen circumstances.
On the other hand, long-term bottlenecks are consistently recurring issues with the process that can cause a significant impact on the entire process in terms of monetary losses, delivery delays, and a drop in client satisfaction.
Though troublesome, short-term bottlenecks do not need remedies, as they are isolated incidents. Long-term bottlenecks can severely impact efficiency and productivity, so they need to be thoroughly investigated and their root cause identified.
Common Causes of Bottlenecks
There could be many causes for bottlenecks, some temporary and some permanent. But the most common reasons for bottleneck analysis are:
- Capacity overload
- Limited staffing
- Manual data processing
- Obsolete process workflows
- Redundancies causing delays
- No clarity on the required outcomes and process steps
- Teams and members work beyond their understanding and capability.
How Bottlenecks Block Your Business Growth?
Every business has a process workflow in place, and when these workflows aren’t progressing the way they are designed, it causes bottlenecks. And these bottlenecks can block your business’s growth.
- The cost of resources increases
- There will be a slump in profits
- Work backlogs and redundancy
- Productivity and efficiency will get adversely impacted
- You might be missing deadlines consistently
- High-stress levels of your team members
- Sap in employee enthusiasm
- You might end up with dissatisfied clients
- Loss of productive time
- Machinery and equipment might be left idle
- Longer wait times
How to identify bottlenecks in a process?
A process flow is only as strong as it is at its most vulnerable point. Bottleneck identification in a workflow is the first step in ensuring a streamlined process flow. Spotting bottlenecks in your process might take time. However, it is time well-spent.
Here are a few tips for identifying bottlenecks in your process.
Look at the numbers.
Numbers tell the truth, even if it’s only half the truth. The first place you should scrutinize is your spreadsheets. Look for patterns or trends in delays. Is the delay leading up to the equipment, a person, or a process flow? Internal data is a vast information resource that can point you in the right direction.
Look where activities start piling up.
When the work starts getting piled up at any workflow stage, it indicates a bottleneck problem that needs to be immediately tackled. Map and review all the activities and identify where the process flow starts clogging.
Measure wait time
Long wait times and delayed deadlines are sure signs of a bottleneck in your process. The wait could be for inventory, equipment, information, or personnel.
Go to the workers
Numbers tell half the story, you can get the complete picture from the people at the ground level. Talking with the workers involved directly in the process is another way of knowing the truth. Where does communication breakdown happen? Are you stressed out? Do you have access to the tools and information required to do your job?
What are the Tools used to Detect Bottlenecks?
1. Process Flowcharts
Process flowcharts present each step in the process using an easy-to-understand visual medium. By mapping out the process, you will determine exactly where a bottleneck persists.
For example, procurement management is a critical step in any organization. However, if your purchase request process is riddled with delays and approval wait times, many other interdependent departments will also get affected. Procurement management automation is one simple yet effective solution available to businesses.
2. Critical Path Method
A Critical Path Method or CPM is a quick way to identify bottlenecks. CPM helps you determine the priority tasks and identify an effective and easiest way to complete the project. To pick the critical path in a process, select the dependent job that takes the most time to accomplish. This ‘time frame’ is the minimum time your process might take. You can use this ‘time frame’ to work out how to schedule the procedure.
Using this method and the PERT or Performance Evaluation Review Technique usually brings rewards.
3. Rethinking resource distribution
According to Microsoft, ‘Resource leveling is the act of taking a project with people assigned to a bunch of tasks and making it so that they don’t have to work overtime.’
Resource redistribution is the task of reassigning tasks to resources. In a project with multiple jobs, multiple resources are allocated to those tasks. Sometimes, the overallocation of resources takes place. When people are assigned more tasks than they can perform within the time, the work tends to spill over, or people must work overtime to complete the job.
So, a resource allocation strategy can help spot bottlenecks quickly.
4. The 5 Why Method
The 5 Why Method is an effective problem-solving tool that can be used to identify the steps or events that lead to bottlenecks in processes. By asking ‘why’ at every stage of the process, you’ll be able to reach the ‘root cause’ of the problem and find solutions.
5.Ishikawa or Fishbone Diagram
A Fishbone diagram is a method of identifying the root cause of a problem. With the major problem written on the fish’s headspace and the causes of the problem listed as a branch on the fishbones, Ishikawa’s analysis gives you a clear idea of where your bottlenecks converge.
How to Resolve Bottlenecks in 4 Steps?
Once you have identified a bottleneck that requires immediate and extensive intervention, there is no excuse not to change the process as soon as possible. However, not every bottleneck you encounter during the process will turn out to be a disaster in the making. Some could just require simple tweaks or rearrangement, while others could need complete overhauling of the process.
Allowing a bottleneck time and again without unblocking it could end up costing you more money than resolving it.
There are 4 basic steps to resolve process bottlenecks quickly and effectively.
1. Build around the bottleneck Step
The first step in unblocking bottlenecks from the process is increasing the process step’s efficiency. Make sure the stage is error-free and defect-free. By building quality around the step, you can avoid wasting resources, time, or materials that could be discarded.
You can also assign the most skilled and experienced team members for the bottleneck step. If the budget permits, you can also add more workers to handle the bottleneck.
More importantly, automate the entire process flow using a workflow automation solution.
If you find that your press releases are taking way too long to get the necessary approvals from departmental heads, the best thing to do is get a sales and marketing automation system in place. With automation software, you can get press release approvals on time from managers or team leaders, loop the marketing and product design team, get the content reviewed by the content creation team by collaborating seamlessly with every unit.
2. Reduce strain on bottleneck step
Stop the resource leak into the bottleneck step. This step is critical to building quality at every stage of the process.
For example, your marketing team might be coming up with several advertising ideas, and they pass these ideas to the content creation team – it doesn’t hurt to have options. But too many choices can create a lot of backlogs for the content team, who will ultimately give ‘less-than-desired’ quality work and miss a few deadlines.