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Main Dictionary B

Bottleneck

A bottleneck is a situation that occurs when one step in a process causes a significant delay or a complete stop in performance, causing a failure to achieve the planned result. A bottleneck usually refers to a disruption in a production line, being an important issue for studying and forecasting when organizing business processes and manufacturing cycles.

Bottlenecks might occur in different spheres, but mainly they are associated with machinery and complex systems of producing goods. Such systems involve several stages, with one of them turning out to be less efficient than expected, thus causing delays, backlogs, and creating an occasion in question – a bottleneck.

Bottlenecks are often the cause of increasing production costs, high pressure on employees and uncomfortable working conditions, hurdles in timely provision of orders to customers, and other unpleasant outcomes. So, it’s crucial for business owners and production managers to study the principles of preventing and managing bottlenecks, with a main objective being to reduce their occurrence as much as possible.

The name for such a phenomenon was given by analogy with an actual bottleneck – the narrowest segment of a bottle in which the amount of liquid flowing out is the smallest, and where a possibility for a process to be blocked or severely slowed down is the highest.

Bottleneck essentials

To understand what a bottleneck is, it’s important to distinguish two main kinds of this phenomenon, depending on its duration:

  • Irregular short-term bottlenecks, which are usually triggered by unsystematic machine failures, employees’ sick leaves or vacations, or other events aren’t directly connected with the inner organizational problems of processes;
  • Regular long-term bottlenecks, which are directly tied to flaws in organizational management, being that incorrect evaluation of possible capacities, or setting unrealistic plans, or important details being missed while planning.

Bottlenecks of each type are more likely to happen when launching a new product and organizing a fully new production process from a scratch, as such situations require many decisions to be made on a basis of theory and assumptions, without much practical evidence being available. Due to these facts, it might be useful to consider experience of other companies in a corresponding business area, study similar cases, and also make plans with reasonable reserves in both capacity and a planned amount of working load.

Long-term bottlenecks might become a serious issue and cause noticeable losses to a company, so it’s highly important for production management to monitor all processes for spotting bottlenecks, and have strategies of eliminating such problems.

An occurrence of a bottleneck is closely related with an inaccurate prediction or assessing of capacity of a given element of a production system. Bottlenecks typically take place when one stage takes too much time or resources, more than it was expected during the stage of planning and organizing the process. So, because of its capacity being less than the capacity of the previous stages, a huge amount of product isn’t processed in a timely manner, and a smaller amount of product is passed to the following stages. The whole process is disrupted as a result, and the final result is significantly less than it was planned.

In other cases, a bottleneck might be caused by the lack of balance between supply and production, when too much or too little material is prepared for a bottlenecking stage. It might result in waste of working hours if the material is not enough for production, or in material being spoiled or damaged over time in the opposite case, and the material also has to be stored, thus wasting additional space and more resources. Such a problem might be solved by changing supplier, modifying supply chains, and by some other methods.

Avoiding Bottlenecks

To manage a production cycle effectively, it’s essential to determine an optimum capacity of each element in said cycle. Such a capacity must be fixed in a protocol, as well as other important figures and stages, which is important to keep things in order.

The maximum capacity is considered to be a highly informative figure in planning, but it’s generally agreed that it shouldn’t be taken as a goal. The maximum capacity doesn’t take into account such vital things as employees’ breaks, maintenance issues and other important details that affect the result. So, when making plans and organizing the flow of production, it’s important to set a realistic capacity, which is alternatively called practical capacity. Such a measurement accounts necessary productions issues and sets an achievable level of production, also providing limits which aren’t recommended to be breached to avoid bottlenecks. 

Other useful methods of preventing bottlenecks include providing employees with more autonomy, granting them with a possibility to make important decisions in case a bottleneck is likely to happen. Regular employee training, including the overview of bottlenecking production stages, might also result in more effective managing of problematic situations.

In case a bottleneck has already occurred, there are still ways to manage it to minimize the negative effects of delay and a backlog. In general, there are two main ways of addressing the difference between a planned capacity and an actual capacity of a system. One of such ways is to reduce the planned amount of production, while tackling the current problems with customers as a separate issue. 

Another way of dealing with an existing bottleneck is to reorganize the production cycle, which might be realized by using different methods. The first step of eliminating the problem is tracking the reason of said problem, and then it’s possible to select the best solution.

The most common methods of dealing with a bottleneck are the following:

  • Hiring more personnel for the stage that is bottlenecking the process. It might solve the problem if its main reason is the lack of the workforce, but if the bottleneck is irregular and is triggered by dramatic and unpredicted changes in demand, it might be a challenge for management to provide employees hired as a reserve for bottlenecks with a stable occupation.
  • Optimizing the work of a machine which causes bottlenecks by prolonging its daily periods of work, reducing downtime and changeover, or switching it to round-the-clock mode with the shortest possible breaks. Such a practice might reduce the time delay, but is also might cause rapid wear of equipment.
  • Avoiding all activities, not connected directly with priority objectives. All tasks performed by a machine which causes bottlenecks are divided into those only said machine can perform, and other tasks, which are then delegated to other units.

Other possible solutions might include having reserves of supply to keep the machine running at every available free period, and some others, but mostly all of them have some disadvantages, so each situation must be carefully analyzed to choose the best option.

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