Manufacturing a product, whether that’s a pick-up truck or a bar of soap, is a current of processes that happen one after the other. Ideally, the current flows like electricity.
But what happens when one step stops the current? Or when multiple currents converge into one, slowing all subsequent processes to a crawl? It’s a bottleneck, and it eats at profit like crazy.
Like all Process Improvement, getting brutal with bottlenecks requires identifying them first. That’s tough, and here are two reasons why:
- Few businesses take the time to visualize the flow of their processes.
- The bottleneck is probably invisible, in that it’s been “baked-in” over time to how your business works.
The obvious example is the “jam factory”. Three conveyor belts with jars ready to be boxed converge toward one poor packaging employee—and they can’t keep up. Hire another employee: fixed.
That’s the easy and obvious one, so those bottlenecks tend to be cleared up quickly. But, want to know about the bottlenecks that don’t get cleared up? Check that stack of papers on the corner of your desk.
No matter how much we delegate, the boss or manager is still going to be integrated into many processes. Often, it’s just to approve the purchase/hire/work order/etc. That’s fine, until waiting for approvals becomes a problem.
It’s common for the costliest bottleneck to happen in the corner office, where a boss with a lot on their plate doesn’t approve or review in a timely way. What’s worse is that people often won’t speak up because—well, you know…
Manufacturing is about assembling or manipulating raw materials into a saleable product. You need a smooth inward flow, and that’s harder than it sounds.
You have suppliers who must provide on time. You need freight logistics, whether that’s Canada Post or train cars, to get materials to you. And you’ll have to stop work if supplies run out, warehouse if materials overflow, and there are deadly wastes associated with both.
To pinpoint resource bottlenecks, map each step and shipment and see how long the journey is from supplier to finished product. Even 5% of raw materials tucked into a warehouse corner somewhere will devour your bottom line.
And that brings me to Kanban, the best weapon we have against bottlenecks.
If the bottleneck is baked-in, then it has become invisible. That means tolerating its profit-sucking existence is your daily routine.
If that hits home, you need to change how you see your routines. Enter Kanban: the elegantly simple tool for that.
The Japanese word loosely translates to “card you can see.” Kanban is about visualizing process flows in simple ways to identify the bottlenecks.
- Lay out your Kanban on a good sized white board. Identify one vertical column for each step in your process. Horizontal rows (“swimlanes”) will be for workflows moving through the process.
- Buy a stack of pretty Post-it notes and stick on one for each new workflow that needs to move through the processes.
- Watch for steps where the Post-its accumulate. That’s your bottleneck.
Be consistent. What may feel childish to start will quickly disclose inefficiencies that you either didn’t think existed or had learned to ignore.
Put the board in the center of the office where everyone sees it. And if the “Boss’s Review” column is the one always loaded with Post-its, be prepared to make the changes that you need.
When unaddressed, bottlenecks have another cost: employee morale. Chances are, if there’s a bottleneck somewhere down the line, there’s a frustrated person or team trying to squeeze through. The sooner you address your bottlenecks, the sooner you’ll restore a healthy sense of flow within your business.
“In most organizations, the bottleneck is at the top of the bottle.”
– Peter Drucker