There are two main types of bottlenecks:
System-based bottlenecks are caused by slow, malfunctioning or obsolete systems, for example:
- Slow printers
- Manual archiving systems
- Old versions of software
- Underperforming production machinery
- Application errors
The key element here is that these bottlenecks aren’t caused by human factors; instead, the equipment or software needed is not working as it should or is inefficient.
Performer-based bottlenecks are caused by the limited performance of individuals or teams within a project. Often, it’s not the fault of the employees themselves; rather, a lack of clarity on processes, limited training or resources or inadequate contingency planning.
Signs that your bottleneck may be performer-based include:
- Tasks taking longer than expected
- Gaps or delays between each project stage
- High levels of employee stress
- Low team morale
Bottlenecks can also be split into groups depending on whether they take place over the short or long term. Short-term bottlenecks may be caused by a staff member calling in sick, or supplier delays - temporary circumstances that ultimately have little effect on the overall efficiency of a project. The ones to watch out for are long-term bottlenecks: more frequent delays that are caused by fundamental inadequacies in the way the project is constructed and run.
How do bottlenecks affect project success?
Bottlenecks, regardless of their type, can hugely affect the success of a project. It’s vital, as a project manager, to be aware of the signs that there may be a bottleneck somewhere in your process:
Inefficiency can be your organization’s number one enemy, and often lies at the heart of many more problems than just bottlenecks.
Bottlenecks interrupt the flow of work and make tasks take longer than they should, leading to a lack of cohesiveness and an overall inefficient process.
Project bottlenecks mean that the business’ end product may not be to your desired standard or timeline. This fact will not be lost on your customers and clients. Think of it as a chain reaction; a bottleneck in one task or process has a knock-on effect on the next step, and the next, all the way up to the final result. They don’t just make life hard for your team, they can affect your customers - and ultimately, your reputation.
Loss of revenue
Dissatisfied customers mean a reduction in revenue; once-loyal customers see a drop in efficiency, new potential customers see a drop in reputation and think twice before engaging with your business.
Bottlenecks not only affect your customer-generated revenue, but they also can cause huge losses in business expenses, particularly where faulty or outdated equipment is concerned. You can see how bottlenecks are a dangerous problem for your business if you’re already on a tight budget.
Reduced team morale
Understandably, team morale can be affected by a project bottleneck, especially if it’s performer-based. Employees can struggle with feelings of inadequacy, increased work stress, and a decline in workplace communication - all due to the mounting pressure that a bottleneck can cause.
What are the main causes of bottlenecks?
Now that we’ve learned what bottlenecks are in project management and how they can affect your business, let’s take a look at what can cause them to appear.
Poor technology integration
This is the leading cause of system-based bottlenecks; the technology that a business is using is either outdated or is not properly managed.
For example, a company’s customer service department might still be using traditional PBX rather than the hosted PBX providers favored by more modern standards. The delay in updating their technology to match those of their competitors may cause a bottleneck as demand begins to exceed the system’s limited capacity.
This is when too much responsibility or too heavy a workload is placed on one single person. Not only can this cause massive stress to the person involved, it’s also dangerous to have too much resting on one single point - if that person goes on leave or calls in sick, the whole process immediately bottlenecks.
If a project manager doesn’t have insight into every part of the project’s processes, this is called "low visibility". It’s often caused by a lack of proper communication between employees and management, or across different departments that should be coordinating smoothly.
Quick fix: Need to get everyone on the same page? Consider implementing a cloud based phone system to ensure that your team members can stay in touch, wherever they are in the world.
How to mitigate bottlenecks
Now that you know the types and causes, how do you fix them? There are a few steps you can take to identify and resolve bottlenecks that may appear during your project.
Step 1: Identify bottlenecks through process mapping
Process mapping tools are your best friend when trying to establish whether or not you have bottlenecks, and where they might be occurring. In order to know what’s going wrong, you have to know each step inside out.
There are several methods of process mapping that might come in handy:
- Gantt charts
- Fishbone (Ishikawa) diagrams
- The 5 Whys process
- Workflow analysis
- Root cause analysis
- Kanban boards
Business process development is a vital part of day-to-day operations anyway, but especially so when it comes to identifying and mitigating bottlenecks. If you can get a visual on exactly what your project should look like, it will be easier to spot areas of concern before they get out of hand.
Step 2: Implement solutions
Once you know where your bottlenecks are occurring, you can plan out and implement solutions.
Of course, the solutions you decide upon ultimately depend on the type of bottleneck you have and where it occurs in your process. However, there are some golden rules here:
- Remove backlogs: If one staff member or team is over capacity, redistribute the work or consider outsourcing
- Schedule meetings: Use these to discuss delays with external suppliers
- Update: Check all software and systems, and update any that are slow or obsolete
- Check for duplicate work: Outline who should be doing what and stick to it, as processes being repeated can cause frustration within your team
- Clearly visualize your goals for the project: If you know where you’re going, you can work out the best way to get there
- Avoid micromanaging: If there’s micromanaging at any step of the process, this can cause bottlenecks as it causes delays in feedback and workflow
Above all, don’t be afraid to simplify your processes. More than a few projects have been lost to the dangers of over-complication; make sure yours is not one of them.
Step 3: Evaluate progress
So, we’re at the home stretch. You’ve got your bottleneck situation under control, so now it’s time to evaluate your progress to check that what you’ve implemented is working the way it should.
Data analysis informs business strategy, and this instance is no exception. Now is the time to collate data, both qualitative and quantitative, so you can see where you’ve managed to improve things and what areas still need work.
You can do this in various ways:
- Surveys for employees or clients
- Graphs, charts and diagrams visualizing progress
- Evaluative meetings to gather real-time feedback
- Statistical analysis
For the future
This doesn’t need to be - and shouldn’t be - the end of the line. It’s important to make sure you have measures in place to prevent future bottlenecks, whether that’s regular check-ins with your staff or scheduled analytical progress reports. Find what works best for your project, and stick with it.
Setbacks don’t have to compromise your project - as long as you act quickly and comprehensively, you’ll be able to bounce back from a bottleneck and restore efficiency to your process workflow.