Improving efficiency in manufacturing and other work processes is an essential step in improving the bottom line for companies and for them to be able to serve their customers in a consistent manner. However, there are numerous different aspects of work that have the potential to cause slowdowns and disruptions of work, bottlenecks are among the most serious.
What is a Bottleneck Analysis?
A bottleneck is any area along the production line where the number of tasks to be completed becomes too much for the maximum workload capacity. This problem often results in delaying subsequent steps in the workflow. Bottlenecks can stem from a whole work stage, not enough employees, a department, and even computer issues.
Identifying the cause of a bottleneck requires the company to perform a bottleneck analysis. Similar to a risk analysis, a bottleneck analysis is used to identify a problem, however, in this case that problem is a slowdown in the workflow rather than a hazard that poses a risk to employee safety. Once the cause of the bottleneck is identified, the company can work towards potential solutions to be able to push product through the production line at a more consistent rate again.
Benefits of a Bottleneck Analysis
In addition to eliminating the bottleneck at its source and achieving a steadier workflow, a facility can enjoy the following additional advantages:
- Waste elimination - Bottlenecks are often caused by unnecessary or inefficient processes, which results in a variety of types of waste. Being aware of the waste is the first step in having it eliminated.
- Increased knowledge - The more a company knows about a specific process, the easier it is to make smart decisions. This can provide advantages not only when it comes to eliminating bottlenecks, but when making process improvement decisions in general.
Performing a Bottleneck Analysis
Performing a bottleneck analysis involves a detailed operation beginning with the company gathering as much information as they can about the manufacturing flow of a particular product or process.
When performing a bottleneck analysis, it is not only important look at the specific step where the bottleneck is occurring, but rather the entire manufacturing process. This will provide essential information about the steps leading up to the bottleneck, the bottleneck itself, and what takes place directly after the bottleneck.
Taking a look at the workflow as a whole is incredibly important because if a bottleneck early in the production process is eliminated, that action may result in a new one forming further down the line. A properly performed analysis will not only help to find solutions to the existing bottleneck, but it will also help to prevent new ones from forming.
Lean Manufacturing Tools
Some bottlenecks can be identified and resolved quickly and without any need for an extensive analysis. In most cases, the tools used for this process are going to be either a written chart or a computer program. Computer programs geared towards process flow management allow a company to enter in information gathered from each step of a process so that it provides a visual display of what is happening along the workflow.
Bottlenecks can easily be detected if the business utilizes the Kanban method. By implementing this technique, visualizing the workflow on a Kanban board or within a software program allows for employees to see where tasks are piling up within a production process or within a supply chain. For that reason, Kanban is an excellent tool for continuous improvement endeavors regarding consistent and efficient workflow.
Other bottleneck analysis tools available to use include the DMAIC method and the Theory of Constraints method. These are only some of the tools that can be used in an analysis but finding the right one is important for maximizing positive results. For a simple situation, using a template can be an effective choice. However, when there are multiple products or different flows, a more advanced set of tools should be used.
Completing the bottleneck analysis is just the first step in a longer process of continuous improvement regarding the efficiency of production. Taking the information gathered from the analysis and using it to make process changes is the next task that must be completed.
Companies that take the time to analyze this type of information and use it to avoid bottleneck in facility operations will benefit from a more efficient process long into the future. With that being said, rather than just identifying what appears to be the surface cause of a bottleneck, it is better to take the time to really dig into the data to discover the root cause. This will not only get rid of the bottlenecks now but set the processes up to prevent them from occurring again in the future.
Dealing with Bottlenecks: Potential Solutions
In addition to identifying exactly where a bottleneck forms, a bottleneck analysis also aims to identify potential solutions. Every company and every situation is going to have its own way of solving this type of problem, but the following are some common options that should be considered whenever looking for ways to eliminate bottlenecks in the workflow.
- Add additional capacity - If a bottleneck is being caused at a specific step in the production process, consider adding additional capacity. For example, bottlenecks can occur during painting tasks because it may take a longer time than other steps. Adding a second painting station will effectively double capacity and should eliminate the bottleneck problem.
- Eliminate wasteful steps - Some products may have extra features included that customers don't want or need. If these types of steps are causing a bottleneck, it is a good idea to eliminate them all together to keep work moving along smoothly. Eliminating waste is an important part of fixing bottlenecks and improving efficiency.
- Add staff - One of the most common causes of a bottleneck is insufficient staffing to complete a task. Hiring additional employees to work in a specific area is an excellent solution.
- Reduce production - While this is typically not a good long-term solution, it is better to reduce production rates than to have huge amounts of inventory building up along the production line.
- Adjust the flow - It is often possible to adjust the workflow to keep things moving along. When a bottleneck forms, see if the step where it is occurring can be skipped and then completed later. This is only a good solution for situations where a temporary bottleneck forms for some reason such as a broken machine or absent employees.
Training Teams to Watch for Bottlenecks
Far too many companies wait until a serious bottleneck occurs before taking action. It is important to act quickly when this occurs to avoid slowdowns in processes, but it is even better to avoid bottlenecks entirely. The best way to do as such is to have employees watching out for
early signs of a problem.
This training will typically involve department managers informing front line employees about warning signs to watch out for. Some common recognizable issues include the following:
- Trouble keeping up - If one particular department or step in a workflow process is constantly falling behind and other areas don't have this issue, it is an early sign of a bottleneck problem.
- Shuffling staffing - If a floor manager needs to take staffing from one area of the facility and move it to another to help keep up, this can be another sign of a problem. Shuffling staffing can be an effective temporary solution before a more long-term fix can be identified.
- Short staff - When employees from a specific area call in sick or take a vacation day, does it cause an unreasonable burden to other team members? If so, the staffing or workflow should be evaluated for improvement opportunities.
- Other - In general, listening to the concerns of employees can be one of the best ways to discover potential issues. Employees are typically the first to notice that there are problems and can be an excellent 'alarm' to watch out for future problems.
Anytime issues like these are found, it is a good time to perform a full bottleneck analysis on the process in question. Since the problem isn't a serious issue yet, the company will have some extra time to be able to perform a full analysis without interrupting workflow.