Tips on Managing Bottlenecks

 By Tom McBride

Partners for Creative Solutions, Inc.

If your organization has difficulty producing goods or services in time to satisfy the needs of your customers, bottlenecks may be a major culprit.


Most production of goods and services utilizes processes that consist of a series of operations.  Naturally, the slowest operation will limit the output of the entire process.  The impact on an organization depends on whether the slowest resource is a bottleneck or simply a constraint.  Let’s look further into these important terms.


A constraint is an operation that restricts the output of a process.  It may be physical (equipment, person, lack of material or information) or managerial (policy or procedure).  Every process has a constraint.


A bottleneck is a constraint that causes the output of a process to fall short of its goal.  For example, a constraint may limit production to 5 widgets per day, but if sales average 7 per day you have a bottleneck. 


Two of the operational guidelines offered by Eliyahu Goldratt, author of “The Goal” (1984), are key to understanding how to maximize total system performance.  First, time lost at a bottleneck is time lost for the entire system.  Regardless of how well the rest of the system performs, a bottleneck will restrict the output of the “whole”.  Second, time saved at a non-bottleneck will not increase the system’s output.  Although improving a non-bottleneck may reduce cost, the benefit to the entire organization will probably be substantially lower than if efforts are directed at the bottleneck. 


While we barely begin to address this vast subject in this article, the following tips should prove helpful in increasing output at bottlenecks.


·        Improving work methods at the bottleneck usually result in improvements in both output and efficiency.  For information on useful techniques, see my articles “A Powerful Process to Eliminating Waste – Parts I and II” at

·        Improve yield at the bottleneck.  Errors produced by a bottleneck further reduce its output.

·        Ensure high quality work is received at the bottleneck.  Errors created upstream negatively impact output at the bottleneck.

·        Put a safety buffer in front of a bottleneck to avoid running out of work. 

·        Reduce changeover time.  Time lost switching between projects reduces production time. 

·        Rigorously maintain bottleneck equipment.  Breakdowns can be devastating.

·        Add shifts, overtime or workers.  Although this may seem expensive, the overall impact to the organization will probably be positive.

·        Cross-train workers so that a bottleneck is never idle due to an absence.

·        Staff bottlenecks with the best resources. 

·        Measure key performance variables at a bottleneck.


Using one or more of these techniques should increase production at the bottleneck, thereby improving output and economics for the organization as a whole.