When Processes Become Problematic: 3 Ways to Correct Bottlenecks

Picture this: The Demand Planner is ready to prepare forecasts for the coming months but has to wait for input from salesmen and so cannot begin. The Production Planner is ready to plan production but has to wait for the Demand Planner to upload the forecasts. The Materials Planner also has to wait for the production plan to be approved before confirming orders with suppliers.

Processes where input have to be received from preceding steps are extremely prone to bottlenecks. Bottlenecks can cost the company time, money and valuable customers. Customers will switch to faster competitors if they do not get their products on time. If tasks sit for days in a person's inbox waiting for attention or engineers are constantly waiting to receive product specifications, improvement efforts and projects will suffer.

Different process steps require input from preceding steps to be able to move forward. Process dependencies are often created by design and enable the business to put in the necessary controls that ensure that things are done the right way and in the right sequence. If these dependencies are not properly managed however, they can introduce delays, reduce throughput and affect customers negatively.

How can bottlenecks be prevented or addressed when they occur?

1. Well-Documented Business Procedures

One of the easiest ways to prevent bottlenecks is by having a procedure that others can read and follow to complete a task. This helps in delegating. Delegating repetitive tasks can free up time for an employee to work on more value-adding activities and prevent delays in process flow. Well-documented business procedures can also help prevent an employee from being overworked and becoming a bottleneck in the process.

Following procedures also reduces errors and prevents employees from spending valuable company hours making corrections or asking questions.

2. Each Key Process Participant Should Have a Backup

One common practice where I work is having backups. Depending on the sensitivity, we have at least 2 people that can perform a particular task. This way, there is always someone available to take the place of the Responsible in their absence. This reduces delays and prevents work from being interrupted if one person is temporarily unavailable. This however involves active resource management, training and ensuring that the backup is kept informed.

Another way we implement backups is using what we call the "First-pick" functionality. The same task can be sent via BPMS to multiple people to work on. Any of them can execute the task depending on who is available. The task is then removed from the task list of others immediately someone completes it.

3. Parallel Processes

Parallel Processes are another means of correcting bottlenecks. A parallel process is one that runs simultaneously as another with both processes having the same originating and concluding points. The main idea is that if two steps in a process can be done in parallel, they should not be done sequentially, to save time.

In summary, correcting bottlenecks involves asking these key questions:

1. Can some tasks in the process be moved upstream?

2. Can the affected task be split into 2 to create parallel processes and make the process faster?

3. Bottlenecks typically occur when some employees are overworked and others are not. Do more resources need to be added to speed up the process?

4. Can the bottleneck be resolved by better workload balancing?

Bottlenecks can be corrected at one point only to reappear in another. They must be monitored continuously so that they can be addressed as soon as they become noticeable. Unnecessary checks and reviews are often the main causes of bottlenecks. The challenge lies in working around these checks, some of which may be due to regulatory requirements. To make the process flow faster, consider building checks and reviews into ongoing steps. 

Time consuming and predictable activities that occur frequently are also breeding grounds for bottlenecks. Assess the processes in your business and identify the spots causing the most problems. Any process that receives input from another process constitutes a potential for bottleneck. If a process cannot continue because you are waiting for the output of another, you have a bottleneck. If you cannot execute an action because you are waiting for an approval, you have a bottleneck. Focus on the value stream to ensure that process improvement efforts have a direct and lasting positive impact on the business.

Picture Attribution: "Young Guy Showing Sipper Bottle And His Team Standing On His Back" by imagerymajestic/Freedigitalphotos.net