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What is a bottleneck, and how do you avoid it?

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

March 20, 2020

A bottleneck is any situation where work is delayed. Everyone has faced one in the workplace at some point — either as the cause or on the receiving end. They can be a one-off occurrence due to unforeseen circumstances — like someone being sick — or they can happen regularly due to poor planning or a lack of resources.

Popular ways to get things moving again include working overtime, hiring additional help, and moving the delivery date back. The problem is, all of these solutions end up draining yours and/or the client’s budget, energy, and patience.

Rather than looking for a quick fix, stop it before it happens. This means a hefty dose of forward-planning, excellent communication, and the right tools for the job. No one’s psychic, but with proper planning, you can come pretty close.

What is a bottleneck, and what’s the cause?

Bottlenecks happen when the team or individual can’t process their work on time, causing a delay. This could be because a team member needs to take unplanned time off, a technical issue arises, a communication breakdown happens — or the manager simply overestimated how much their team could do on maximum capacity.

While it’s tricky to predict employee sickness and broken computers, there are things you can do to help your team keep moving regardless.

How to spot a bottleneck

If you’re using a spreadsheet as your schedule tool, then you should be able to identify bottlenecks wherever the hours of work to do in a day surpasses the number of working hours in the day — either for an individual or the team as a whole.

If you’re using project management software, you can use Gantt charts as a visual way to organize schedules and quickly spot problems. You can also get notifications right in the app, your email, or on your phone when work is completed or delayed.

If you’re working with Lean, you can track your work via Kanban task cards on your project management tool. You’ll be able to see very quickly where jobs are stacking up — the number-one sign there’s a bottleneck brewing.

Remember, not every short delay is indicative of a bottleneck. Measure how long work sits in a queue, and take note of the number of items waiting. If tasks begin piling up faster than they’re processed, then you almost certainly have an issue.

How to stop a bottleneck before it happens

The obvious and easiest way to deal with a bottleneck is to throw money and resources at it. And sometimes that’s necessary — but it doesn’t have to be if you think ahead. Here are two of the most popular techniques for managing schedules and resources like an expert:

1. Work out your critical path

The Critical Path Method (CPM) helps you identify the most important tasks and then work out the quickest way to complete a project. It’s commonly paired with the Process Evaluation Review Technique (aka the PERT chart).

To work out your critical path, you identify the longest stretch of dependent tasks. This gives you a kind of ‘bare minimum’ timeframe, which you can then use to schedule your project.

2. Distribute your resources

Resource leveling, as Microsoft puts it, 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.”

Essentially, it’s a process of shuffling tasks around so team members can work on tasks consecutively instead of simultaneously, helping you avoid bottlenecks.

How to contain a bottleneck once it’s happened

Not every bottleneck needs to be a disaster. Here’s how to turn ‘uh oh’ into ‘oh phew.’

1. Act quickly

Bottlenecks have a domino effect on the rest of the workflow. They also introduce an element of chaos: as schedules change, deadlines can get ignored, and emotions can start to rise. The key to containing the fallout here is to act quickly. If a bottleneck has already begun, address it immediately, rather than letting it spiral further.

2. Don’t compromise quality

It may be tempting to skip stages — like quality control — when work is piling up. But that’s a bad idea. Following a methodology like Lean means quality is built-in as part of the process because the product is reviewed at the end of every cycle.

3. Keep WIP limits low

Limit the amount of work that can be held in Work in Progress (WIP). Don’t allow jobs to be pushed through faster than the team is pulling them. Not only does this keep the WIP queue manageable, but it’s also less daunting and stress-inducing for the person working on that particular project.

4. Increase resources

If you do have people available to help out (or budget to spare), then consider moving more people onto the job to get it done quickly and more efficiently. If you rarely have team members free, but often need an extra pair of hands, have a list of trusted freelancers or contractors on speed-dial as a backup. It’s also a good idea to have a little budget set aside in case of emergency — plus a spare computer kitted out with relevant software for the same reason.

5. Prepare for all eventualities

The best way to solve a bottleneck is to plan for one before it happens. Invest in a project management tool with Kanban workflows, targeted notifications, and task tracking tools and charts that help you stay on top of things.

That way, you’ll never be caught on the back-foot — and your project will keep running smoothly, whatever curveballs come your way.



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