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What Are Bottlenecks? A Guide to Fixing Business Processes

Bottlenecks are the reason why your projects are costly and slow. Learn how to find and resolve process bottlenecks to establish a smooth, predictable flow.

When was the last time your team delivered a product on time? That is without a delay or any overtime effort from certain members.

Process bottlenecks are among the reasons why projects get delayed, budgets burst from the added cost of delays, and the whole process becomes unpredictable.

Instead of fighting the symptoms, all that a manager needs is a simple bottleneck analysis and a set of prevention measures to save the day.

In this article, you will learn how to use Kanban and Lean to identify and analyze process bottlenecks to establish a predictable flow and put you in control.

What Is a Bottleneck in Business? 

In the simplest definition, a process bottleneck is a work stage that gets more work requests than it can process at its maximum throughput capacity. That causes an interruption to the flow of work and delays across the production process.

bottleneck sample

In other words, even if this work stage operates at its maximum capacity, it still can’t process all of the work items quick enough to push them to the next stages without causing a delay.

The workflow bottleneck can be a computer, a person, a department, or a whole work stage. Typical examples of bottlenecks in knowledge work are software testing and quality review processes.

Unfortunately, a bottleneck is often acknowledged only after it has caused a blockage in the workflow.

There are simple yet effective analysis tools in Lean Management and Kanban that can help you both prevent work congestion and spot an existing bottleneck.

Short-term vs. Long-term Bottlenecks: How They Differ? 

Knowing the types of bottlenecks that can occur in your process helps detect and handle them on time. Based on different factors, process bottlenecks can be categorized into several groups. However, the two main types are short-term and long-term bottlenecks. Let's see how they differ from one another. 

  • Short-term bottlenecks are usually unexpected and caused by temporary factors and unforeseen events. They do not occur on a regular basis, and their impact can vary and bring changes of different kinds within the process. Typical examples are an employee who is out of the office or servers going down for a day.  
  • Long-term bottlenecks are recurring issues that have a more significant impact on the process. They are seen in persistent delivery delays, unpredicted expenses, unhappy customers, and low process efficiency over time. For example, take a broken machinery part that will take a month to fix or an overloaded team because of a staff shortage. 

The Importance of Identifying a Process Bottleneck 

Identifying a bottleneck in a process can undoubtedly have positive outcomes for an organization. Bottlenecks are issues and resolving them is key to a stable flow of work. Spotting them on time prevents operational processes from failing and leaves room for overall business growth.   

Some of the main benefits that a business can experience by finding and fixing bottlenecks are:  

  • Improve and optimize productivity, efficiency, and throughput  
  • Gain a better understanding of the work process by visualizing each step  
  • Ability to find potential bottlenecks that can block a business's growth  
  • Increase productivity time   
  • Have better relationships with stakeholders and satisfied end-users  
  • Lower levels of stress in a work environment  
  • Reduce extra accumulated costs 

How to Identify a Process Bottleneck in 3 Steps? 

If you see that your workflow is unpredictable and operates in bursts, you have a bottleneck somewhere instead of a smooth flow. The real issue lies in pinpointing it and setting an appropriate countermeasure. 

bottleneck example

In Lean Management, to detect a bottleneck, you can use several Kanban bottleneck analysis tools. To discuss them in more detail, let’s break down the process of identifying a bottleneck into 3 major steps. 

Step 1: Visualize All Process Steps and Work Items

Keeping track of your work in the form of task cards on a Kanban board makes it very easy to see where work items pile up, which is a strong sign of a problem, most likely a bottleneck.

Step 2: Map Queues and Activities 

When we separate queues and activities and map them on the Kanban board, we can see how much time our work sits waiting in a queue prior to a certain activity. If this queue grows significantly faster than the activity stage processes work, you have found your bottleneck.

Step 3. Measure Cycle Time per Stage

Measuring cycle time at every stage lets you build a cycle time heat map diagram. Just a glance at this diagram reveals the stages where cards spend the most time. If these workflow stages are queues, too, those are probably your bottlenecks.

Which Techniques Help to Identify Bottlenecks? 

Several techniques can help identify bottlenecks in a process analysis. Here are some commonly used techniques: 

  • Value Stream Mapping: Lean management tool used to visualize the steps and activities going through the work process. Value Stream Mapping helps to analyze and identify process bottlenecks, waste, and areas for improvement while improving all the steps of the delivery process. 
  • 5 Whys: A problem-solving tool used to reveal the root cause of a problem. 5 Whys implies answering as many “Why” questions as needed to arrive at the real cause. 
  • Fishbone Diagram: The fishbone diagram illustrates multiple factors responsible for a problem, failure, or event. The problem is shown where the fish’s head is, the cause is represented along the fish's backbone. 
  • Flowcharts: Visual diagrams used to represent a process or a workflow. To illustrate the entire algorithmic process, flowcharts use various shapes and boxes describing elements of the process, such as comments, inputs/ outputs, etc. Its primary goal is to break down and analyze a given problem, propose potential solutions, and record all required steps.

How to Deal with a Bottleneck?

At times, you can easily resolve the bottleneck by allocating more resources or people to that work stage or process. That could mean hiring one more QA tester for the sake of a more streamlined production flow.

However, what if the bottleneck requires a particularly scarce resource or hard-to-find expertise? In some cases, the cost of the solution to the bottleneck can be too high.

Leaving a bottleneck untreated will always cost you more than resolving it.

What should you do next then? Here are several things you should do to contain the bottleneck: 

  • Never leave it idle. Because of the ripple effect on the rest of the flow, the bottleneck process should always be loaded at full capacity.
  • Reduce the strain on the bottleneck. Make sure that work arrives at it in its very best form. If your review process is a bottleneck, ensure that the quality is built in from the start. The work to be reviewed has to be flawless. Each error that the reviewer finds is going to cost you more time and money.
  • Manage WIP limits. If the work in progress limits are quite liberal in the bottleneck and there is a lot of context switching, consider lowering the WIP limit. If it doesn’t have a WIP limit, consider setting one.
  • Process work in batches. Some of the operations would take less time if you organized similar work items in batches. However, be cautious. The larger the batch size is, the higher the risk. The rule of thumb is that a smaller batch is always better, but in the real world, we sometimes have to make compromises.
  • Add more people and resources. If you can, increase the capacity of the bottleneck to speed up the whole process. However, keep your eyes wide open. As soon as the system's resources are re-distributed, another bottleneck is bound to appear elsewhere in the system.

Continuous Bottleneck Analysis With Kanban

The key to a healthy and productive Flow is the absolute minimum interruption to the process. The work has to stream through it freely, powered by the Pull power.

Following the Lean management concept of continuous improvement, bottleneck analysis should also be an ongoing process.

After all, in the modern, ever-changing markets, every time the relative balance in the production system is disturbed, you will need to review the workflow to see if any new congestions occurred and what needs to be done to reduce their effect.

Get your work under control with Kanban workflows and Lean bottleneck analysis tools to reach an unprecedented level of flow predictability.

Process Bottleneck Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

What Are Examples of Bottlenecks in a Process? 

A few examples of process bottlenecks include: 

  • A shortage of resources or skilled staff can cause delays and increased processing times. 
  • Waiting on a third party to complete a particular step in the process. 
  • Frequent equipment breakdowns can lead to slowing down the production process.  
  • Lack of proper communication can cause missing important information, resulting in errors and rework.   

What Are the Types of Bottlenecks? 

Some of the most common types of bottlenecks that can occur in a work process include: 

  • Time-based bottleneck (short and long-term)
  • Resource bottleneck (physical and human)
  • Capacity bottleneck (when there is limited capacity to handle a workload)
  • Technology bottleneck (outdated or inefficient software)
  • Regulatory bottleneck (regulations or policies slowing down the progress of the process) 

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In Summary

If your team is permanently stressed, delivery dates are consistently missed, and work items never truly flow, you might want to perform a bottleneck analysis. Luckily, in combination with Kanban tools, Lean management empowers you to discover and resolve bottlenecks quickly.

  • Map your process and workflow visually to spot congestions.
  • Measure flow metrics on the system level to get a better overview.
  • Adjust resources distribution to resolve simple bottlenecks.
  • Keep the workflow stable and predictable by continuous bottleneck analysis.
Iva Krasteva

Iva Krasteva

Content Creator Expert | Agile Practitioner | Kanban Certified

With a background in Intellectual Property, SEO, content writing, and training in Lean, Agile, and Kanban, Iva is an enthusiastic Agile practitioner who embraces collaboration and flexibility every step of the way. Driven by constant learning and knowledge and fascinated by people's creativity.

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