On the Constraints of Bottlenecks

In its simplest form, a bottleneck limits flow. In its original meaning, this is referred to how the neck of a bottle, regardless of the size of the rest of the container, limited how fast it could be poured. This same principle occurs in business, when one stage of production is slow, your entire process is limited to that pace.

Bottlenecks Come in Many Forms

Depending on your business, there are going to be a certain number of bottlenecks that might arise. Within these, there is usually still a lot of room for variation. Take an ice cream shop, for example. A bottleneck might arise in something as simple as the number of employees available to serve customers. Or maybe there are enough employees, but there is only one ice cream scoop shared between them, meaning that as soon as more than one person wants ice cream at the same time, production isn’t going to be able to move at its desired pace. Maybe the bottleneck is as simple and silly as not having a large enough freezer at the front of the shop, meaning that requests for certain flavors require a trip to the back.

Focus Your Attention

Bottlenecks deserve your attention, a lot of it. Don’t worry if you think you’re spending too much of your time on fixing conditions that are bottlenecking your production because, well, they’re bottlenecking your production! This also applies to processes such as maintenance and repair. If there is a problem in a bottleneck, have your maintenance team focus on resolving that situation as soon as possible, even at the expense of other projects. Better-flowing stages in your production cycle will recover quicker, and therefore are a lower priority for repairs.

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A few things to know…

When determining how much customer demand you can meet, use your bottlebeck as a measurement, because your operation cannot move faster than its slowest piece. Because of this, you should look for solutions for bottlenecks early and often. Sometimes, this can be as simple (but potentially expensive) as setting up a second machine, hiring one or more new employees, or training workers to be able to work more than one station, or switching them to a different station (your bottleneck) altogether.

In order to fairly evaluate where bottlenecking is occurring in your process, it is important to evaluate throughput under normal working conditions and with a surplus of materials. If you don’t have enough of a component, even the most streamlined system is going to falter.

Also, as a general rule, keep in mind that with the fixing or removing of one bottleneck, your are, by nature, creating a new one. As soon as one bottleneck is eliminated, the next slowest process becomes the new bottleneck. Obviously this game of cat and mouse never ends, so you only need to follow it so far as you are able to meet customer demand, and/or your goals for expansion. As long as your production is not constrained to a point of ineffectiveness, you’re in the clear.