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How to Manage Business Bottlenecks: 4 Strategies

Bottlenecks can strain your team and hinder business performance. Check out our strategies to learn how you can manage and prevent bottlenecks.

No matter what type of business you run, different workflows are at play. Even an at-home piano teacher has a process, and when there's a process, a bottleneck is possible.

Bottlenecks can hinder business performance, so you must know how to spot, manage, and prevent them.

How to identify bottlenecks

While you may know why bottlenecks are bad for your business, knowing how to identify and resolve them isn’t always clear. The first step is to learn how to find them.

There are a few simple ideas that can help you find bottlenecks in almost any process.

The best trick is to map your process. You can break down how your business operates into a list of steps—these are your pipeline stages. You should sequence those steps to see if one part of the process has to wait on another element. For instance, if you make desks, you must cut the wood before assembling or packaging the products. If cutting the wood takes too long, it creates a bottleneck for subsequent tasks.

As a part of the mapping process, you can find tools that help with process documentation, value stream mapping, and more. Take advantage of all of them.

Once you have the outline of your workflow, you want to identify any potential bottlenecks. Some are performer-based, meaning that a single person or device could cause a blockage. Others are system-based, so the process itself will force a bottleneck.

When you can identify and classify potential bottlenecks, the last step is to compare them to performance indicators. Do you have delayed shipping times? Are you meeting all of your production goals? Do your employees seem stressed and overworked? Those are all clear signs of bottlenecks.

Strategies for managing bottlenecks

Once you know how to identify a bottleneck, fixing them as soon as possible is important.

Unfortunately, you can’t always resolve a bottleneck right away. Instead, you need general strategies that help you address problems, stay fluid in your processes, and form an ongoing business approach to deal with the unexpected.

You can find product strategy framework tools to help with bottleneck management. Take a look at the following strategies to learn how to fix a bottleneck,

1. Avoid leaving projects in idle

Idle time is a killer in every industry. Sometimes people are inactive. Sometimes tools are idle. Sometimes entire workstations or locations need to be more active. The point is, when you have something idle, it’s not producing, which can lead to bottlenecks.

Say you're a manufacturer, and your primary processing bottleneck occurs because you order packaging from a supplier before you can ship your products. You’re often waiting on the packaging.

Letting some of your manufacturing processes idle while you wait on the packaging makes sense. Otherwise, you’ll have various products you can’t ship.

Here’s the tricky part. If you idle too much, you might be able to catch up on packaging, but then there aren't enough items to keep up with order fulfillment.

As such, you don’t typically want to address a bottleneck process by slowing down productivity. You could reduce the number of orders you accept, but leaving part of your process idle to wait for another process may hurt your profits. Instead, you want to eliminate the bottleneck and catch up to the rest of the system.

Using this packaging example, you can source additional packaging suppliers so that together, they can keep up with your needs and allow you to focus on efficiency.

2. Increase your workforce

Your workforce is there to get work done, whether that involves fixing broken equipment, finding rapid solutions to sudden problems, making products, or carrying out services. If you have a large enough workforce, you can overcome your most common bottlenecks on a regular basis.

Now, most businesses have limited capital available to hire more people. Consider taking a strategic approach to expanding your workforce. Identify your bottlenecks, and figure out what personnel could best resolve them. Hire those positions first. Sometimes, a single extra person on the production schedule can make a difference.

3. Reduce strain on the bottleneck

We’re being generic so that this can apply across industries, but you have to identify the bottleneck if you’re going to resolve it. Once you know where the blockage occurs, you want to reduce the strain on it.

Let’s say that you provide in-home plumbing services. You find that your bottleneck occurs when you have too many orders for your plumbing team to get to in a day. How do you reduce strain on the bottleneck?

You can hire more plumbers. You can take fewer orders. Or, you can expand the expected time of service. Say customers can schedule a service online, and you have openings every 15 minutes. If you have a bottleneck, change those intervals to every 20 minutes. Doing so will lower the strain on your specific problem.

4. Keep an eye on WIPs

For those unfamiliar, WIP stands for “work in progress.” This is a way of defining and tracking the tasks involved in a business process (it’s most commonly used in manufacturing). If you closely monitor each WIP, you can see how your workflows function and when and where problems seem to occur.

You’re breaking your overall business model into individual processes that make workflows run smoothly. Then, you're watching each segment for issues, production inefficiency, or anything else that might contribute to bottlenecks. Once you see a problem, you can craft a solution that's unique to the situation.

Ways to prevent bottlenecks

Sometimes, the best option for eliminating bottlenecks is to prevent them in the first place. The challenge is that most prevention measures will depend on the specifics of your business and how you run it.

An automated workflow can help, but it isn’t always viable. With all of that said, there are a few general ideas that are successful across industries.

Keep in mind that learning how to manage bottlenecks in operations management might be more common, but it follows the same threads as any other industry or position.

Increase capacity

This is one of the most obvious solutions, but it’s obvious because it’s effective. If you increase your production line capacity, you can eliminate bottlenecks. Usually, bottlenecks occur because volume exceeds expectations or some part of the production system underperforms.

If the system's maximum capacity is larger and more robust, you can accommodate those unexpected issues more fluidly and prevent small problems from turning into significant bottlenecks.

Decrease volume

On the other side of the coin, decreasing volume produces the exact same effect as increasing capacity. If you know you’ll be short-staffed for some time, take fewer orders for that period. It’s another direct, easy-to-understand approach. This is often the easiest and best solution if you can lower your order volume without jeopardizing the business.

Not only will this help you avoid bottlenecks, but it can also increase customer satisfaction (because you can meet demand), and it can even create a little scarcity that might justify price increases.

Naturally, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but when decreasing volume is a viable option for a business, it has many benefits.

Streamline scheduling

Of course, you don’t always have the freedom to take fewer orders or spend money on more infrastructure for the production process. When you’re looking for more cost-efficient solutions, scheduling is an opportunity to fight bottlenecks.

It’s worth saying that personnel shortages or problems don't always create bottleneck operation issues, but if you have the right people on the job at the right times, they can often prevent or resolve bottlenecks.

You can review your scheduling with your existing systems or invest in scheduling software that might help you optimize schedules more precisely.

Minimize downtime

As a phrase, “minimize downtime” isn’t super helpful. In fact, it’s generic, but the challenge here is that downtime issues vary by business.

By understanding that, you can think about your most common sources of downtime and attack them directly. Do you have communications issues from internet outages? Do you have rolling blackouts or brownouts that impact production? Do you have a piece of equipment that frequently goes down for repairs?

You know your business and the most common problems you face. Tackle them head-on, and don’t wait to do it. Downtime is what ultimately exacerbates bottleneck issues.

Manage bottlenecks for better business outcomes

You don’t have to endure business-harming bottlenecks. There are many solutions available that can help you prevent bottlenecks and manage them effectively. However, you must learn to identify and recognize workflow blockages to ensure they don't become more significant issues.

With Mailchimp's marketing automation, you can reduce strain on your team and automate workflows for increased efficiency. This way, your employees can do more with less time.

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