Running an office is a gauntlet of processes that happen every minute of every day. Making coffee. Approving budgets. Putting callers on hold. There are some processes you think about, but most happen on autopilot. They flow and overlap throughout the day like a current.
But what happens when one process stops the current like a rock in the stream? 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 some 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 typical example of process bottlenecks is the “jam factory” allegory. Three conveyor belts with jars ready to be boxed converge toward one poor packaging employee—and they can’t keep up. There’s an obvious solution to this bottleneck. Hire another employee; fixed.
That’s the easiest kind of bottleneck to smooth out. Naturally, those bottlenecks tend to be cleared up quickly. Want to find out about the ones 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. Worse is that people often won’t speak up because—well, you know.
Ironically, bottlenecks often happen when the boss is trying to be lean by saving money. Are these thoughts familiar:
“I don’t need to train anyone for that, I can do it!“
Or, “I need to cut middle management—send it to my desk.”
Having a lean workforce saves money until bottlenecks happen. And that’s usually because, by reducing that “middle-management” layer, things pile up on the bosses desk and money is wasted. Meanwhile, employees wait in the wings and twiddle their thumbs.
Delegating is powerful, and can be an integral part of Process Improvement even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. It’s about reducing bottlenecks (and increasing morale) via empowerment.
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 part of your daily routine.
If that hits home, you need to change how you see your routines. Kanban is 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 in order to identify the bottlenecks.
- Lay out your Kanban on a good sized whiteboard. 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. While it may seem childish in the beginning, Kanban will quickly uncover 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 throughout your business.
“In most organizations, the bottleneck is at the top of the bottle.”
– Peter Drucker