Unblock Your Potential: 7 Steps to Breaking Your Bottlenecks


What is a bottleneck, and who cares?

Anyone who has managed an operational area, whether in manufacturing, services or regulatory/government operations, knows the headache of bottlenecks, those troublesome spots in the process where production gets held up for any number of reasons. They are as inevitable as the turning of seasons, and unfortunately we get too accustomed to them, but they still need to be broken. Bottlenecks generate enormous costs from unnecessary overtime to staff frustration and conflict, to unhappy customers, to lost productivity. In order to break bottlenecks, managers need to create an environment of continual process improvement.

What is continual process improvement, and why does it matter?

Process improvement is a means of devising and incorporating both significant process breakthroughs, and small incremental improvements. The approach used here is adapted from the “Plan-Do-Study-Act” (PDSA) Cycle developed by W. Edwards Deming, and the Toyota Production System (TPS, a type of lean manufacturing). See Appendix A below for helpful links.

If not implemented thoughtfully, process improvement can be surprisingly threatening for staff. Not only does it necessarily entail change – which will always generate resistance – it may be interpreted as a criticism of staff effort and achievement, or as a preliminary step to headcount reductions – which it should not be. To be effective, process improvement should be consciously and safely explored with your team, and developed as a mindset. It should be handled as objectively and dispassionately as possible, without assigning blame and with the explicit overall goals of reducing waste and enhancing team, departmental, and organizational productivity. Of course, individual performance management may enter the picture at some point, but it should not be the focus or the starting point.

Perhaps most importantly, your staff needs to be involved at all stages. You may nominate a small working team to conduct the improvement tests, but all of your affected employees (and other key stakeholders, including other departments, external suppliers and management) should be kept informed and consulted with as needed. When managers directly impose an improvement – or indeed, any key change – without appropriate consultation and participation, they often do not succeed.

Process improvement should become a perpetual state of mind for you and your staff, who need to be encouraged and rewarded for identifying improvement opportunities. The adoption of a process improvement mindset generates countless benefits, from increased productivity to more collaborative and creative working relationships. Process improvement frees staff from wasted effort – a noted cause of employee dissatisfaction – to participate in more meaningful work. It can become a powerful means to engage and develop employees.

If process improvement is not already part of your organizational DNA, you need to consider how best to approach its adoption. I would recommend studying and providing staff training in the PDSA cycle, lean management (or kaizen, the Japanese term for continuous improvement), 6 Sigma (an approach to eliminating defects), and the theory of constraints. See Appendix A, below for helpful links.

How do I carry out a process improvement?

Good luck on your improvement journey!


Appendix A: Helpful Links

Deming’s PDSA’s Cycle: https://deming.org/management-system/pdsacycle

Toyota Production System:http://www.toyota-global.com/company/vision_philosophy/toyota_production_system/

Lean Process Improvement: https://www.epa.gov/lean/lean-and-six-sigma-process-improvement-methods

Kaizen/Continuous Improvement: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newSTR_97.htm

Theory of Constraints:http://www.leanproduction.com/theory-of-constraints.html

Appendix B: Process Mapping